From Scandinavia to the Sierra: Nordic skiing earning a place in California youth culture
In Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, cross country skiing is a way of life for every able-bodied man, woman and child.
World-class Nordic skiers emerge from these regions where cross country is a national pastime, dominating international competition. Nordic skiing is a tradition that goes beyond mere races, though who can say the Birkebeiner, with 12,000 competitors, is insignificant?
Nordic skiing has a different place in American sport.
Clearly, cross country is not in the mainstream in the United States as the number of downhill skiers in 1999 – a total of 8,170,521 skiers – was almost four times the number of its Nordic relative, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
On the graded scale of marketing dollars and television coverage for competitive sports, cross country falls far behind the likes of baseball and football. New Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez’s new salary alone is enough to sustain all of the World Cup Nordic Teams combined, and if the final question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” was to identify a famous Nordic skier, most contestants would have to settle for a cool $500,000.
Despite this, the origins of cross country dates back to the 17th century, and it is far more accessible and affordable for individuals and families than the alpine version.
While much of the country remains unaware of the wonders of cross country skiing, a few regions are working to keep the sport alive through youth programs and community support.
Known primarily as a mecca for downhill skiing, the Tahoe-Truckee area also offers some of the most expansive and diverse Nordic terrain. There are a number of youth programs that are taking advantage of the miles of snow-packed trails, working to instill the love of Nordic skiing in the area’s youth.
Tahoe-Truckee High School is represented this year by a strong and experienced Nordic team with over 35 skiers taking to the snow. This in itself is unusual, when most high schools do not even have a varsity Nordic team.
The success at the varsity level is due to the devotion of community programs that have dedicated hours of instruction, piles of equipment and even some free hot chocolate to turn kids on to this sport.
Strider Glider, an after-school program for ages five and up, is one of many area venues for teaching youth how to cross country ski.
“By putting kids in a noncompetitive atmosphere, we teach them to love the sport and make it a lifestyle, rather than something to do on vacation,” Strider Glider representative Kevin Murnane, who also operates Tahoe Cross Country with his wife Valli, explained.
Strider Glider provides support for community kids who want to learn, offering scholarship programs so anyone who is interested can participate. Heather Hardy began the program in 1992, which has since grown to accommodate kids from several area schools and incorporate successful skiers like Scott Hill into the teaching curriculum.
“Having older Nordic skiers to look up to gives the kids a goal to strive toward,” said Murnane.
The focus of the program is to generate more Nordic participation in an age group that is increasingly turning to snowboarding.
A SnowSports Industries America 1999 Sports Participation Study found that over 35 percent of kids (ages 7-17) participating in snowsports were snowboarding as opposed to a mere six percent in cross country.
“While we are not looking to turn out world-class skiers through this program, the more role models the kids have, the more they will want to try Nordic skiing,” Murnane added.
Strider Glider participates in several race events each season, offering the competitive atmosphere while stressing the importance of life-long fitness and fun.
Once kids are hooked on Nordic life, they then have a massive middle school cross country program to jump into.
Started only 10 years ago, the Sierra Mountain Middle School Nordic team consisted of five young skiers – mostly siblings of varsity members – who wanted to begin competitive skiing.
This year, coach Larry Leatherman has over 50 kids on his team, with some promising racers who are gaining invaluable experience that will propel them into junior varsity and varsity competition and perhaps Far West races as well.
Unlike the Strider Glider program, the focus of Truckee middle school’s program is chiefly one of competition.
“A successful program creates support,” Leatherman said.
The coaches – all Nordic enthusiasts – liberally distribute awards and honors to the kids, working to shift the focus from winning or losing, to having a good time and feeling confident and relaxed. The large squad travels to Mammoth and other California/Nevada events, giving the skiers the chance to meet and race against other youth teams. This component prepares the racers for high school and even collegiate-level skiing, while creating an atmosphere that supports Nordic skiing against the popularity of other sports like soccer and football.
Far West Nordic programs have also been a driving force behind the growing number of young cross country skiers in the Tahoe Basin, working alongside the high school team to promote the sport as well as producing some tough competitors.
Coach Leatherman admits it will definitely take some time to “Americanize the sport” and to generate more widespread participation. The day that local Marcus Nash stars in a Nike commercial may not be in the near future.
However, by starting with the youth, the Tahoe-Truckee community is working on bringing this country up to speed with a sport that much of the rest of the world was embracing long before Nike was an idea.
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The Truckee baseball team came up shy of a state championship last weekend, falling in Saturday’s title game to Virgin Valley.