By John Flowers
MIDDLEBURY — Twelfth-graders Amelia Ingersoll and Ursula Volz are now expertly slaloming around the final gates in their respective academic careers at Middlebury Union High School.
But the pair of student-athletes recently took a week off to travel thousands of miles to become volunteer teachers of a sport they both love: Nordic skiing.
And their students were Native American children living at the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
Ingersoll and Volz returned on April 16 from a very eventful stay in the small Inuit village of Selawik in Northwest Alaska, where they taught Nordic skiing to underprivileged students who would otherwise not be able to take up a sport that seems so naturally suited to the frigid setting.
The two young women, both 18, are members of the highly successful MUHS Nordic ski team that won the Division II state championship this past winter; and Volz was the individual D-II state champion, winning both the classic and skate races and joining with Ingersoll and two others on a winning relay team.
In Alaska, the duo spent around nine hours each day showing their K-12 charges the joy, technique and health benefits of a self-propelled glide across the glistening white canvas of the Last Frontier.
The trip was made possible through a program called NANA Nordic, which coordinates trips for volunteers keen on teaching Nordic skiing to Inuit children and their families in urban and rural Alaska. Volunteers must apply to go on the trips. Successful applicants pay their own airfare to and from Anchorage, Alaska, and are then whisked to one of several villages where they are provided a free place to stay.
Volz had long been aware of the NANA (named after a region of Alaska) Nordic program. She lived in Anchorage from the time she was 2 years old until 2014. Volz has been skiing since she could walk, and she had heard about NANA Nordic from some of her coaches who had helped establish the program back in 2012.
Now living in Vermont, Volz thought a NANA adventure would be a neat way to reconnect with her former home state and at the same time give back to those less fortunate than herself.
“I have grown up loving Nordic skiing,” she said. “It’s been a part of my life for a very long time. I heard about this opportunity and heard about the idea of teaching other people what I love to do, and that sounded amazing to me. Getting to bring them something that I really enjoy and that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”
Ingersoll took a shine to the idea and decided to join her buddy and teammate on the voyage.
“I thought it was a really cool thing that (Ursula) was doing,” Ingersoll said. “I applied, and requested to be in the same village as her.”
They were both accepted into the program and made the long flight to Anchorage. There, they continued their trek to Selawik aboard tiny aircraft with only a handful of seats.
“It’s not on a road system,” Volz explained of Selawik, a village of around 1,000 where residents are dependent on four-wheelers, boats and snow machines to get around.
The two friends became part of a team of six Nordic skiing coaches for the local K-12 school of around 300 students. And it was at the school where they bunked for the week, in sleeping bags. They cooked their meals in the school’s home economics kitchen.
Ingersoll and Volz primarily taught children, but they also gave pointers to the kids’ families after school hours, including a few 7:30-9 p.m. sessions. They essentially had skis on their feet from 8:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except for a brief lunch break.
NANA Nordic provided the ski equipment, which is stored at the school where it will also be used by future generations of local villagers.
Volz noted the Selawik students only had access to a handful of sports at their school, due to climate conditions and limited facilities. So prior to being introduced to Nordic skiing, school sports were limited to basketball, volleyball, cross country running, wrestling and Native Youth Olympics.
“Having so few sports, it’s probably pretty exciting to learn something new,” Volz said.
Some of the students opted out of the Nordic skiing lessons. But several of those students soon rejoined the fold, to a point where more than half of the school’s population was participating.
“Word got around that it was fun,” Ingersoll said. “By the end of the week, we had a lot more than we did at the beginning, which was awesome.”
The volunteer coaches were impressed with how well the students took to the new sport. They showed great aptitude and didn’t get discouraged if they took a spill.
“They were very resilient,” Ingersoll said. “None of them would quit if they were having a hard time. They always had a positive attitude.”
Helping children has become old hat for Ingersoll. During the summer, she works as a counselor at a camp in Canada, leading canoe trips and in other activities.
“I spend the summer with kids and I really love kids,” she said. “I think it’s really important to be a leader for kids — they are the future. There’s a lot we can learn from them and a lot we can teach them.”
Both Volz and Ingersoll said they’d like to do the NANA Nordic program again some day. They will both take a gap year upon graduating from MUHS this June, though they’ll remain busy. Ingersoll will continue to work with children prior to enrolling at Bates College in Maine in 2018. Volz will spend a few weeks helping build schools in Senegal, Africa, before enrolling at Green Mountain Valley High School this fall for some intensive ski training. Volz wants to take her Nordic skiing to another level in college, and possibly beyond.
Both will carry fond memories of their Alaska experience wherever they go.
“It was exciting to see how enthusiastic they were about the sport,” Volz said.
And who knows? Perhaps some of Ingersoll’s and Volz’s students will themselves become coaches some day.
“They definitely had that excitement and passion already (for Nordic skiing), even though it was so new to them,” Ingersoll said. “It was awesome to see that. I’m really happy we could bring that to them.”
*This story was originally published in the Addison Independent.
Featured photo: Amelia Ingersoll, center, stands with some of the Inuit students that she and fellow MUHS senior Ursula Volz helped to teach nordic skiing to during a recent trip to Alaska