Inaugural Trail to Gold Fellowship selection process reveals depth of talent among women coaches working in US skiing today.
In the foreword to Trail to Gold: The Journey of 53 Women Skiers, the authors of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Olympic Book Group write that “This book tells [U.S. Cross-Country Olympic Women’s] stories as committed international competitors through five decades of history. In our own words, we reveal how the sport has developed, grown, and changed. We hope you enjoy our journey.”
The summation of that journey in Trail to Gold is that the journey of women in US Skiing, through stories and active involvement of the fifty-three Olympic women the book weaves together, continues on. Thanks to the contributions of the athletes featured, there are more women from more backgrounds shaping the sport of cross-country skiing in the United States than ever before, with continually distinct approaches to a sport whose unique demand is that every approach to it must be unique.
The story of women in US skiing is full of empowerment; of brandishing the methods used to confront the challenges in skiing to confront the challenges of life outside it, and of purely jubilant moments – the gold. But that story is also one where the institutional confines and challenges that confront women in other parts of societal life haven’t ceased to exist within our sport. All too often in stories about our nordic skiing’s development, the women shine through, but do so singularly against the broader background.
One particular space where that has been apparent is at the highest-level of competitive coaching in US Skiing. The US Ski Team, domestic clubs, and collegiate teams have all historically been coached by a disproportionately male staff. In that regard, while skiing takes place in wild spaces and quiet corners, it still is well within the bounds of the challenge that traditional gender ideologies fuel towards underrepresentation of women coaches.
For the authors of Trail to Gold, this marked an important inflection point in their own journeys in skiing, and for women writ large. For many of the fifty-three Olympians, coaching had been an extension of their Olympic pursuit as athletes. For many of those that pursued it, they had seen their own journey fan out. Their athletes pursued the same dreams they had pursued. Some went on to coach themselves. There was a logic to it. A multiplying effect that saw more women in the sport leading to more success for those women in it – on the World Cup and at the Olympics too.
When the members of the US Olympic Women’s Book Project looked to continue the journey on from the publication of Trail to Gold, they looked to this ever-dynamic role of “coach.” They could match the unique personalities, energies, and thoughtfulness of women in that profession in the United States with the opportunity to boost US skiing on its highest level, and kickstart the movement to correct a historic gender inequity at the upper echelons of the coaching profession.
Quickly, a partnership with the National Nordic Foundation, the US Women Ski Coaches Association, and the US Ski Team was formed. The organizations worked together and developed a fellowship sponsoring five two-race weekend World Cup internships with the US ski team for talented women coaches from across US skiing, with funding provided via the proceeds of Trail to Gold. After an extensive search process, the inaugural Trail to Gold Fellows were recently announced.
The application pool reiterated the exceptionally talented women coaches at work across the US skiing development system today. From coaches with a talent for matching technical prowess and plain old goofiness alongside their U12 athletes, all the way through those with a fine eye for the little edges that give pro skiers an edge, they are builders, drivers, and boosters – and all of them dream chasers.
The number of these talented women coaches outpaced the financial constraints of the Trail to Gold Fellowship in its first year. That fact has reinforced the resolve and need to continue the project beyond this upcoming season, and thanks to a new partnership with Lumi Experiences, there is already effort towards sending deserving coaches to the World Cup next year.
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There is also a recognition that correcting inequity within institutions that move slower than the individuals that constitute them requires persistence and commitment. To understand that point, however, it is best to listen to the women already at work charting a vison for a more inclusive and equitable sport as they practice in it. From across the country, at ski clubs of all sizes and makeups, women coaches are giving a nod to where they have come from in the sport and taking steps forward with us all in tow. Here, we feature a few of those extraordinary coaches continuing the trail to gold, with their thoughts on where that trail is going:
Lenka Sterling, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, Vail, Colorado
Biography: Originally from the Czech Republic, Lenka is in her second stint with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, where she coaches full time. Her background in the Czech Republic, where most coaches have an Exercise Physiology degree, initially made her shy-away from the coaching profession. When an offer came to coach in the United States, however, she found her experience as an athlete combined with a desire to share new experiences alongside her athletes, and that became a winning formula. “Coaching fulfilled me as a person…I felt loved and appreciated and I knew I could make a difference for these kids” says Lenka.
On the Trail to Gold: “Normalizing females in coaching and wax technician positions is very important when it comes to skiing at a higher level. I’ve heard over the years how women cannot handle things… ‘techs ski [a lot] of kilometers and women just couldn’t handle that’ and things like that. Yes, I’m maybe not purely as strong, but I gave lift to two children and that was pretty hard work!”
Who inspired her: “Jana Weinberger came on while I was at University of Colorado. I learned how having a female coach really changes the group dynamic in a good way. She invested in us, and I will never forget the hug she gave me at the finish line when I finally got on a podium, after having a horrendous previous season.”
Ruth Oppliger, Northern Michigan University Ski Team, Marquette, Michigan
Biography: Ruth has been a constant presence around the ski community in the Upper Peninsula since she began with the Copper Country Ski Tigers as a youth athlete. After a collegiate career at Michigan Tech in her hometown of Houghton, she moved over to the ski program at Northern Michigan University (NMU), where she has also kept a foot in junior coaching with the Great Lakes Division at Junior Nationals. Working with the athletes at all levels in the place where she skied through those levels has brought an insightfulness to Ruth’s coaching at NMU that matches well with her own motivations to pursue the role: “I love helping athletes reach their full potential, being a part of a wonderful ski community and the general chaos that is ski coaching,” says Ruth.
On the Trail to Gold: “I think US Skiing could work towards developing ski culture in more areas in the US. Growing up and living in Michigan, I’m always surprised by the lack of skiing culture across most of the state – as it receives upwards of 300in of snow in the northern region…with the right people and funding in place it would be possible to grow the sport, [and] a sort can’t grow without a base of young people participating in it.”
Who inspired her: “Mike Young, my high school coach, inspired and shaped the way I coach. He helped me grow as a coach and put me in leadership positions. He and the rest of the Great Lakes Division staff never made me feel like I couldn’t or shouldn’t do anything based on my gender.”
Maddie Phaneuf, New York Ski Education Foundation, Lake Placid, New York
Biography: Maddie has worked across disciplines ever since she got on skis with the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) near her hometown of Old Forge, New York. That included Biathlon, where she progressed to be a member of the US national team from 2014-2021. After retiring from competitive skiing last year, she quickly made the transition to coaching: “I wasn’t sure I would even like coaching and was pretty nervous to get involved. But after a year as a coach now, I really do love it. It’s been important to me to share my knowledge with the next generation of athletes and try to leave this sport better than I found it. As an athlete who has been through it all, I feel like I now how to work with athletes in a positive and uplifting space” says Maddie.
On the Trail to Gold: “I think what my [fellow women coaches] showed when this opportunity arose is that we’re here to stay. We want to be a part of teaching and growing the next generation of elite ski racers. It’s important for athletes to see women in these roles.”
Who inspired her: “Unfortunately, I never had a female coach, but one of my absolute favorites was Armin Auchentaller. He was the first coach that I felt truly saw and respected me as an athlete. One of his best skills is being able to explain a ski technique in a variety of ways, in order to get each athlete to understand. Not every athlete learns the exact same way. He was overall a wonderful, positive, and supportive coach to be around and encouraged me to stay in the sport when I retired [from biathlon]. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I would have tried [coaching]!”
Callie Young, Dartmouth College Ski Team/Craftsbury Green Racing Project, Hanover, New Hampshire
Biography: Originally from Jay, Vermont, Callie progressed as a skier through North Country High School and the Craftsbury club program to Dartmouth College, where she graduated this past spring. She immediately hopped into coaching with her former clubs, coaching at Craftsbury over the summer and working with Green Racing Project athletes – something that prepared her well to spot the nuances that often spell the difference at the elite level of skiing. With that experience, she has returned to her alma mater, Dartmouth College, as the Assistant Coach this season: “coaching felt like the perfect next step in my life!” says Callie.
On the Trail to Gold: “I would like to see US skiing continue the drive towards being a more inclusive and equitable community. [A big part] of that includes having US Ski and Snowboard itself being open with invitations and applications for opportunities – like the Trail to Gold Fellowship.”
Who inspired her: “The coach trio of Anna Schulz, Jake Barton, and Audrey Mangen [at Craftsbury Outdoor Center] have been some of the most influential people in my ski career and my decision to get into coaching. All three taught me to love skiing and competing, but to never take yourself too seriously, and to always prioritize what makes you happy.”
Julia Hayes, Bridger Ski Foundation, Bozeman, Montana
Biography: Julia has been involved with skiing across the West since coming up with Summit Nordic Ski Club in her hometown of Frisco, Colorado. Now coaching with Bridger Ski Foundation in Bozeman, Montana, she has an expansive view on the role of coach that very includes a nod to those that have lifted and pushed her during her time in the ski community: “I have always had a passion for teaching, helping and watching others succeed in the endeavors they choose: says Julia.
On the Trail to Gold: “The Women’s Ski Coaches Association” is doing a wonderful job at creating unique opportunities and implementing [steps towards equity and inclusion in skiing] in a way that is not just for show. Women have genuine experiences that provide valuable knowledge that can put that at or above the level of their male counterparts. What I particularly would like to see is more male buy in at local and regional levels.”
Who inspired her: “My largest push into coaching was the passing of my coach, mentor, and friend Hannah Taylor. I wanted to continue her legacy of power, grit, and grace through the sport we both loved. She taught me how to be a tenacious and strong-willed athlete that never gives up.”