The NNF is proud to showcase the Team behind the Team.
History is made and the man who has been with Gus since the age of 8 is no other than U.S. Ski Team Coach of the year Jan Buron.
The NNF caught up with Jan after Gus’ historic win. The NNF salutes all coaches and thanks you for all you do.
Jan racing against a young Gus in a citizen race in Anchorage, AK (Photo courtesy of Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage)
How long have you been coaching?
I have been coaching since 1988 in Poland. I coached 6th-8th graders (juniors) in Poland from 1988-1991. I was an assistant coach with my club with Mr. Koblanski, a very famous coach in Poland, and I was the assistant for the University Game team. Then I moved to the United State and started coaching the Alaska Sports Academy (ASA) from 1993-1997. I started Alaska Winter Stars in 1997.
Why did you choose Alaska?
I fished on a commercial fishing boat in the summer months when I first came up, it was not the best season. Then my friend brought me to Kincaid Park and I saw so many cross-country ski racers over there, you know masters, so I decided to stay.
What is your background in sports and skiing?
I was in the Junior Nationals and Nationals in Poland, I was in the sports school system. Over there they have elementary and high school sport schools. Then I skied in the Army for two years.
How has your coaching changed over time?
Well I try to improve my coaching skills and I think I’m a better coach every year. With coaching you have to always learn, you have to do better. I think I have good athletes who are very motivated. I learn from my athletes too. Feedback and cooperation from athletes help you improve your program.
What makes you different from other coaches?
I think you have to love sport. I think when you love what you do it will come together. I love to ski, if I had time I would start training myself (laughs). I have good feeling of body movement, I can read the technique and body language during races or work outs. When you can push harder or when you have to back off [in races], this is my advantage because I have this feeling. Or when an athlete has to take a day off. Not everybody has to ski the same way, different body types and strength, you have to find the way to be able to help athletes. You can’t say, “this will work for everybody.”
In a post win interview on Monday, Gus mentioned that he had been working for this win for a very long time, can you speak to his plan to win at these championships and how you were able to keep him on track?
Three years ago in Switzerland at the World Championships, we had a plan. He was a senior in high school. I had to give advice, I never tried to say “don’t go to college and you can make a living on the World Cup.” It’s just hard to say. Good kids [can] develop themselves sometimes in college to be better athletes. If you didn’t become good in high school, you can develop yourself to be better. This is a good system, because in Europe, if you are not a good junior you have to go to college or go to work. There is no support for you, there is no college system to ski. Here there are so many opportunities.
After these championships in Switzerland I said we can train, I can’t guarantee nothing will go wrong. You can injure yourself, but you can be top ten next year. And this exactly happened. I can tell you that last year we already dreamed about a medal in the Championships. This was my dream and this was his dream too. I was not disappointed with 4th place and 3 seconds to gold. Last year he was three times top six, I know he could win, and I was very proud of him because he was so close.
To win you have to have this luck. You have to have luck on this day, you have to have good skis, you have to have the best day. Everything has to be the best on the day when you are racing for you to win.
[This win] will help him in the next two to three years to be one of the best seniors. I don’t have doubts he is one of the best junior in the world since last year. When you get gold, it can open more doors for him. I hope people will see that this is a guy we should pay attention to.
It is difficult to make the step [from a junior skier to a senior skier] and I hope this gold medal will help Gus to actually be one of the best seniors. I think he has this motor and skills and power in a bank to train, he loves to train. This can happen. Being one of the best seniors. We are going step by step. We have good young boys coming, and three of these guys will be seniors next year and I hope we as this country and the U.S. Ski Team will help them develop. We need two more years to help them develop as good seniors.
Gus began training with Alaska Winter Stars at 8 years old
On noticing Gus as a young skier
This ability and love to train was visible from [when Gus was] 8, 10 years old. I remember when we had an [uphill] time trial and he was 12 years old and he start kicking the butt of the masters and thought “Wow, who’s this little boy who’s going super smart, not pushing too hard first part of Gasline then pushing super hard on the last part.” He was super competitive. Too competitive. My hardest thing I have to do with Gus is “figure out how to lose.” When he’s not afraid to lose, he’ll be able to win. Because he didn’t want to lose to anybody, any day, any minute. And this was his obstacle. And teaching this skill to younger very competitive athletes is a hard thing to do.
I coached Gus from 8 years old, sometimes with Ben Arians [fellow coach], we tried not to talk too much. Make sure we didn’t mess up something (laughs) because he was already good.
What’s your most memorable moment with Gus?
One of these moments, when he raced at 15 years old in the 15km at championships and striking in the last few kilometers, this young boy and it comes to my mind how beautifully he looked. He was a little boy, not too tall freshman year, and he was one of the smallest. And how beautifully he skied with technique and he always tried to do the best and listened and learn how to do it.
And he could dream and set up goals, last year he said “I’ll win Junior Worlds.” This was his goal all year. 3 seconds off gold last year in the mass start classic. But sport is sport. He got 4th. You have to come home, train hard, and think what you can do better for next year. And in the 10km classic, look what happened.
We had a long talk before this race, I know him very well and how hard he can push to survive. We talked about just start with Level 3.5 and be patient, he is a young kid, he won’t hurt himself in the 10k classic but I said “Gus, you have to hold yourself, you have to go slow in the first 2km.” [And he kept gaining on first place ] at 700m he was up 4 seconds, and at the finish he beat him [2nd place] by over 9 seconds. This strategy is about knowing his body. We did this a hundred times in work outs. Starting at L3.5 and knowing when he can push harder. Not worrying about being 10 seconds back and he did it. You can be four times in fourth place and no one will remember you. And he really trained hard these last years. Look at Gus’ performance these past 5 years. He is very consistent.
Skiing has always been a mix of individual and team training, can you speak to Gus’ training style?
Skiing is an individual sport. It’s easier to do a distance training and have someone to talk to, or go running. But if you’re roller skiing or skiing if you listen to your body you can become a better athlete. Look at [Justyna] Kowalczyk, look at the greatest athletes in the world, they train by themselves most of the time. Because they can listen to their body. I like one time per week group intervals or time trial is okay. But you need to push and relax, not have everyone pushing you every single day. You’re doing 80% of a workout at your level. It’s good to have some camps. Next you have to listen to your body. When you’re racing you’re on your own with your body. It’s how hard you can push. Gus analyzes himself very well. Gus trains as many hours as a junior can train, and I never have to pull him from a work out because he’s too tired. In this last year I’ve started teaching him how to come up with his own training.
Jan Buron with Gus Schumacher and coach Marion Woods at U.S. Nationals 2019
Proudest moment as a coach from your whole career?
Last year at Lahti, Gus on top of the podium [in relay] was one of the proudest moments of my life because I saw my boy who I trained from 8 years old is on top of this podium. This was the moment that I feel we did something right. And big. Last year I was super proud because I know he can do it. And this year I thought “Yes! Finally he got what he deserved!” And I was part of the success of these U.S. boys over there and this year was also so special.
I am a lucky coach. I believe it. But you have to have the right people. The people who love this sport that I love. I find people who love sport as I love cross country skiing. Because you can have a lot of people, but never got to this level who were never so motivated. You have to train, but you have to dream. If you don’t have dreams, it’s hard to train.
Transcribed from oral interview.
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