Ava Thurston: She Skis, She Runs, She Wins

Name: Ava Thurston Family: Sister, Julia Thurston (15); Mother, Heidi Hill; Father, Tom Thurston; Dog, Diesel Lives in: Waterbury Primary Sports: Nordic skiing and cross-country running

At age 17, Ava Thurston has already traveled to Europe twice to compete in international ski races. The Harwood Union High School junior is a three-time state champion for cross-country and two-time champion for Nordic skiing and competed at the Junior Worlds this year. She is also a member of the National Honor Society. Thurston’s initial exposure to an active lifestyle was chronicled in her mother, Heidi Hill’s  book “Fit Family: The Infant, Toddler and Preschool Years.

How did your family help you fall in love with running and skiing?

I know my mother wrote about those early years in her book but I don’t really remember them—although from the pictures, it looks like I was having fun. We did a lot of hiking and skiing on the weekends. My parents were both runners and I started running with them when I was eight. They’d go out for a run and I’d ask if I could join them—although at first it was just a few miles. We live near the Perry Hill trailhead and I started running there with my mom and fell in love. I just did it for fun but then I started running cross-country in seventh grade and really got into racing.

Your favorite kind of running?

I definitely like trails, not roads, and I don’t run track. Since I’m a skier I prefer hillier courses because I can make up some time. I’m pretty much a 5K specialist for high school racing but I’m really interested in trying longer distances. I did the 14-mile Moosalamoo Ultra last summer and I’ve done a half marathon. As I get older, I’d like to get into longer distances.

What is your usual pace?

I generally run a little over a six-minute mile for a 5K. My personal record is 18:16. I ran that as a sophomore in Belfast, Me., but that’s a fast course.

Is there one race that stands out?

The New Englands during my sophomore year was very exciting. It was a pretty setting on a golf course in Connecticut and a really competitive field. I probably started in 30th place but moved my way up. There was some downhill at the end and I wanted to see how much I had. I finished fifth and I really had fun.

You’ve received lots of awards. Which have meant the most?

It was really cool to get Gatorade Runner of the Year last year [2019-20] for Vermont because you get to give a grant. I gave $1,000 to NENSA (New England Nordic Ski Association). The money went to Nordic Rocks,  a program that introduces elementary school kids to cross-country skiing by bringing equipment to schools. It was also cool to be the Times Argus skier of the year last year and this year.

What’s first: running or skiing?

My parents had me on skis when I was two and I definitely prefer skiing. In fact, I see cross-country running as cross training for skiing. I train all year for skiing, not for running.

Ava racing in Finland.

What was it like to race in Europe?

Last year I had some really good races in Michigan and qualified for the U18 team and competed in Sweden in the U-18 Scandinavian Championships. I did two individual races and one relay and raced really well. I felt there wasn’t a lot of pressure because I was the youngest on the team. It was a super cool experience and a great place to visit even though there wasn’t a lot of snow. This year, Junior Worlds in Finland was a big jump for me. I raced really well thanks to my cross-country and roller ski cross-training and was one of six Americans on the U20 team. I had some really good races and my best finish was 14th. Going on those trips I needed to have a different type of independence since my coach wasn’t there.

Who are your coaches?

John Kerrigan is my cross-country coach at Harwood. He’s been there for over 40 years and he’s a super great coach who comes up with a lot of awesome workouts. Thanks to him, the girls have tied the boys now with 13 championships. My Harwood Nordic coach is Tom Strasser and my Mansfield Nordic Club coach is Adam Terko. He comes up with great training plans.

You mentioned roller skiing. Is that good for cross-training?

It is. I don’t think anyone likes it the first time around but I’ve really gotten into it. They say that it works 90% of the muscles in your body. It builds strength and it’s aerobic so it’s similar to Nordic skiing.

What are your goals?

I always want to have fun. I’m really excited about Harwood’s cross-country team. We have a goal of coming back and winning the state championship and maybe upsetting a D1 team. For Nordic skiing we were also second so we want to finish first. Individually, I hope to get a top 10 finish at the Junior Worlds which would mean I’d qualify for the U.S. Developmental Team.

Do you have time for any other activities at Harwood?

I play lacrosse. I’m also involved with Rooted Organizing Communities which is a statewide program that has taken over what used to be called the Refugee Outreach Club. I’m on a committee that has been doing different drives for recently resettled people. I used to be on the Student Leadership Team but now I’m part of the Peace Alliance. This year we are raising awareness about the Abenaki in Vermont. Abenaki Heritage Week is in May and we want to hold a community discussion over Zoom. I’m also in the National Honor Society.

What’s next?

I think it’s likely that I’ll stay in New England for college because there is a great college racing scene and I’d be close to home. I’ll be looking at schools this spring and into the fall. I’d love to ski on my college team. I used to think that I also wanted to compete in running, but skiers on the World Cup like Jessie Diggins say they train for skiing in the summer and increase the volume of training in the fall. Since I run so much in the fall that training drops off, so in college I may want to see what it’s like to train for skiing in the fall rather than race cross-country.

Why do you love running and skiing?

Over the years, sports have become a bigger part of my life but they haven’t taken it over. They give me an outlet to relax and let go of some stress. I love being out in nature and being with my friends. I really enjoy the longer distance events. I did a 100K ski at Craftsbury in March with some of the other kids from the Mansfield Nordic Club. It took eight hours and it was so much fun to be out there and have that challenge.

—Phyl Newbeck

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