Latvian Lessons- Jennie Bender


Europe! So cool! Lots of potatoes! Lots of fast people! I got my butt kicked! It’s all true, but yeah, you’ve heard a lot of this. So here is my spin.

Every day, we have a different amount of control over our lives. You have a certain amount of restraints that hold you accountable, such as perhaps your lease, bills, loved one, family, rules of others, work obligation, health, or even social norms that aren’t spelled out. Some of you have more restraints than others. Some don’t realize which ones are more important, and over stress about the wrong ones. How often do you ask yourself, “Am I taking advantage of every aspect in my life that is in my control?” Are you where you want to be in life, right now, or is it at least somewhere that will bring you to where you want to be five years from now? I think of these things when I travel, because it takes me out of my routine, where it is easy to forget to re-evaluate.

One of my scary realizations of growing up, is seeing how much control I actually have over my own future. As a professional athlete, I am constantly realizing there is more I should “dial in”, or have more control over, when taking steps towards my big skiing goals. Every time I shake it up, and see what pieces fall, I learn and become a faster athlete.

I decided to go to the Latvia and Estonia Scandinavian cup races in February. There are always pros and cons to agonize about, there are financial risks, and schedule conflicts, and big chances to take if the races don’t go well. However, I remind myself not to focus on failure. Just as you can’t worry about who is starting behind you in a race. Although it has been preached to me since I can remember, this year has taught me a lot on worrying about what I can control, and not about what I can’t.

Once we arrived at the trail side cabins in Latvia, jet lag was my only enemy.  My body wanted to sleep from the hours of 3am and 12pm, which made morning skis quite sluggish. I felt like it took almost the whole time (two weeks) to adjust. Our races for the ladies in Latvia were a 5k individual start classic, and a mass start 10k skate. Due to my focus on the sprints only two days later, I decided to skip the skate race.

 Lesson #1: Must seek out much hillier terrain, and ski it continuously at a hard pace. The 5k course was probably the hardest, most technical course I have skied this year, and the sad thing is, that it wasn’t even that bad in the grand scheme of race courses. There was little rest, and hills that others were power striding up, I was patting myself on the back for not herringboning. We joked afterwards that the results could have been predicted off of body type. Caitlin Patterson and Sophie Caldwell had stellar races, and Rebecca Rorabaugh, Anika Miller and myself were all fairly close to each other. With our strength as power athletes, we were more excited for the upcoming sprints. This summer, it’s time for me to head for the hills, literally.

Lesson #2: Stressing about health negatively affects health. Go figure. When we arrived, many people were all sorts of sick. Other than promoting isolation, it definitely causes a reason to feel panic if you’re healthy. Sometimes you can’t control the foreign army of germs that are ready to attack at any moment, but you can calmly prepare for the battle. Tools include washing hands, hand sanitizer, vitamins, hydrate, Emergen-C, sleep, and all that jazz. Laughter is also a very good anti-sickness method. It helps to de-stress the body. Therefore, our girls vs boys team music video contest was strictly medicinal, helping our spirits, health, and encouraging some fun team bonding.

I had been to the Joulumae recreation center in Estonia a few years ago, and at the time it was all for the initial experience. This time around, my goals were to podium. The first race was a fast classic sprint course, that wasn’t necessarily flat, but due to the morning ice luge, I contemplated double poling. The second race was a shorter 1k skate sprint.

Lesson #3: Like Al Pacino said, it’s a game of inches. Every millisecond counts. On the night of the classic sprint, we received freezing drizzle, which was followed by 32 degree temps and fresh snow the next day. I was happy qualifying 4th in the classic sprint, but once the heats started, the stress of Zeros vs Klister sat in the air as athletes and coaches scurried around testing. Considering how difficult the waxing conditions were, my skis were fast and kicked great. However, my choice of ski wasn’t the best, and I ended up falling out of semi contention on the gradual downhill during my quarter final heat. The first words out of my mouth were, “I can’t believe that just happened, I can’t believe I just LET that happen!” Mistakes fuel the desire to be better, so I am ready for another go.

I qualified 11th for the skate sprint, behind Sophie who skied to 9th. We ended up in the same semi-final, and although I made some aggravating tactical errors, leaving me at the back of one short but effective accordion effect, Sophie skied smart and got herself on the second step of the podium.

We were the only full team standing around giggling and snapping pictures at the awards ceremony, proud of our representation, which struck me funny. Was it because this was a big deal for us? Are we considered freshman on the scene of elite racing? Then I realized the answer was yes to both, and that the excitement and joy we brought to the scene was unmatched. I think that it is what has made the Americans special over the past few years. The pure delight of un-experienced success in an atmosphere positively affects others, and builds off itself. It can affect you in a fiery sort of way, by making you want to do better, or it can release tension and make the un-achieved suddenly in reach.

Lesson #4: Learn to let success, whether it belongs to you or not, affect you positively. I am working more on this, because I now recognize it. There is always more potential that can be dug out of a situation. When a situation is negative, if possible, try to stay at least neutral and open minded, so when positive comes back around, you learned something. Wait, wait…I think I just learned what being patient means…

The week before I left for the Scando races in February, I gave a few high school clinics, lessons, received some generous donations, and won money at the Tour de Twin cities, which helped validate my decision to hop on a plane. I also have amazing support from amazing people, and programs like NNF who make choices like a trip to race in Europe even possible. Thank you to everyone who has helped a skier towards their dream!

Till next time,

Jennie Bender


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