Hometown hero at Tahoe XC: An interview with Casey Jowers
Special to the Sierra Sun
Tahoe Cross Country (Tahoe XC) has seen many bright spots amid an otherwise debilitating, year-long pandemic. For the second consecutive year, they have been ranked Top 10 Best Nordic Centers in North America by USA Today. They are celebrating an output of extraordinary athletes including World Cup skier JC Schoonmaker, who started at Tahoe XC as a Strider Glider, served as their Junior Development Team Coach, and is now a member of the US Ski Team. They’ve seen an increase in Nordic skiing’s popularity as a means of social distancing, staying healthy, and getting closer to nature; and they have experienced gracious community support and donations to their nonprofit Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association. Of all these highlights, perhaps one of the brightest joys are the humans who donate their time to Tahoe XC. One such generous human is Casey Jowers.
Jowers is an emergency room physician at Tahoe Forest Hospital, who in a time when his job has never been more demanding, offered to take on the role of Junior Development (Devo) Team Coach. With two young daughters distance learning at home and a wife who is also a doctor, they are a busy family. And yet, three times a week, Jowers wraps up a strenuous day at the hospital and heads to Tahoe XC to coach 10 athletes in his spare time. To top it off, he generously donated his coaching paychecks back to Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association in support of the continuation of their youth programs.
To get into the mindsight of someone who can only be regarded as a community hero, Tahoe XC Board Member Renee Koijane recently interviewed Casey Jowers:
RK: When did you begin Nordic skiing?
CJ: I grew up exclusively participating in team sports through college. My first pair of skate skis were a beat-up, poorly fitting set that I traded a couple of pieces of climbing gear for. That first winter in 1996, I tried Nordic skiing just outside Laramie, WY, and I was hooked big time. Thankfully, one of the skis finally broke and I ponied up for new gear that actually fit.
RK: As an MD at Tahoe Forest Hospital, tell us how work has changed during Covid.
CJ: The pandemic has been awful. I have found my emergency medicine practice more stressful than I could have ever imagined. The reality of trying to alleviate people’s suffering and seeing patients unable to have the support from their loved ones has been very sad. Hope has returned for me as the vaccine has freed up a tremendous amount of my personal stress. Finally, my anxiety is decreasing about bringing this awful virus into my own home. It feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel to move our community beyond this pandemic.
RK: Given what must be an already busy schedule, what made you decide to coach at Tahoe XC?
CJ: JC Schoonmaker was coaching the Devo Team during the summer. His inspiration from growing up at Tahoe XC and his success in Nordic skiing through this same program has been brilliant to watch. My oldest daughter was able to participate and thrive during the spring and summer Devo Teams with JC. The amazing physical and mental health of the team during the pandemic was heartwarming. The idea that the team might dissolve when JC needed to return to Alaska for school and training was profoundly sad. I could not imagine my daughter and her teammates losing the momentum JC had given the team. It was clear that Devo had to continue, so I offered to fill in until a “real” coach could be hired. To make a long story short, here I am, still getting the privilege to work with a group of hard-charging Tahoe kids.
RK: What’s your favorite trail to take the Devo Team kids on? What are your “tricks of the trade” to keep the kids engaged? CJ: I like to consider a combination of conditions and trails. The best times so far have been early season grooms sending the downhill on Gold and Extra Gold at Tahoe XC. The jumps and compressions through the forest have brought the loudest whoops, yodels, and biggest smiles! We’ve also had great storm ski laps on Chickadee Ridge and fantastic backcountry skate crust cruising at Mt. Rose. Watching the Devos imaginations and excitement to explore what is possible on Nordic gear has been beautiful.
The best ways to keep these kids engaged is to grab a shovel, carry it out to the trails and build jumps. Or put the poles down and grab a soccer ball for some “Nordic Ultimate Soccer.” Come up with a virtual race day. Take them just outside their comfort zone in a safe environment to laugh, smile, and cheer on their teammates as we roll around in the winter wonderland!
RK: How has Nordic skiing complemented downhill skiing for your family?
CJ: I married into an Austrian Alpine skiing family, the Standteiners. Incredible athletes. Really successful in Alpine racing. I think you have to consider that every Nordic skier should also Alpine ski. In both sports, you really need to know how to carry your speed through turns and pick your lines well on the descents. Nordic gear is really sporty: a free heel, skinny fast skis, and no metal edges or sidecut on the descent makes for an exciting time. Attacking the downhills and skating around turns is pure freedom! Being comfortable and relaxed at speed is a great skill to bring from the Alpine skiing venue. The core strength, fitness, and balance from Nordic skiing is fundamental for all of life, and especially needed for safety in the Alpine ski arena.
RK: Can you describe a typical day in your life?
CJ: Ha! There is no typical day. That’s one of the biggest challenges in my life. Day to day and week to week is never the same. The Emergency Room never closes. There are challenges with shift work: morning, afternoon, evening, and occasionally the dreaded night shifts. My amazing wife is also a physician working full-time at Tahoe Forest Hospital. We have two incredible daughters, 10 and 12 years old, who roll with the schedule like it’s no big deal. They are incredible.
I really appreciate the flexibility the Devo Team has, bouncing around the training schedule week to week. The extra time with Devo Team feels like a challenge, but every single practice brings a smile and rejuvenation to my heart. I have received more from these kids than I could have ever anticipated. Their unbridled joy when bounding boulders, storm skiing, and pushing their limits on race days is so contagious. The Devo Team kids are amazing, and I have been so fortunate to share time with them.
Everyone has schedule challenges. Mine are just a bit different than most. I would never have thought I could juggle Devo Team with my other commitments. It has become an unexpected and needed connection to the North Tahoe community that I really needed during this isolating pandemic.
RK: What’s your favorite trail or circuit when you have the chance to ski on your own?
CJ: My absolute favorite skiing is when the stars align and the backcountry skate skiing is happening. Crust cruising point to point, which sometimes happens on the Crest from Donner Summit to Olympic Valley or cruising from Castle Peak to Euer Valley. Skiing off-piste on fast light Nordic gear anywhere with my family, friends, and Devos is tops.
RK: What advice would you give any novice, young or adult, who might be interested in Nordic skiing?
CJ: Nordic skiing is one of the few sports that almost anyone can do. But it’s hard to do well. It gets so much more fun as you improve your fitness and skills. I developed some really bad habits early in my skiing that have taken a lot of work to get rid of. (Still trying!) I suggest getting professional instruction early to avoid developing bad habits. Instructors can give you early pointers for body position and balance that make those skinny little skis really fun. I always think going far, fast, and with a big smile makes a great day on Nordic skis. Remember, efficient skiing is fast skiing is fun skiing. Ski with friends. And please spend time learning to tune your skis. Nordic skiing is especially fun when your skis glide well.
Renee Koijane is a board member with Tahoe XC.
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