For a region where the ski tracks are well worn in, there’s a particularly original energy that courses through the Midwest. More skiers are moving through the glacial hills, big lakes, and plentiful forests found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan than ever before, and among those who know the region – and its Nordic culture well – this summer offered a time to expand, collaborate, and, in the old Midwestern parlance, “visit” with the neighbors again.
You can start with the simple numbers. The Minnesota Youth Ski League – the region’s biggest youth organization – has doubled its participation from 2,000 to 4,000 skiers in the past four years. There are more pro athletes calling the region home with the inception of Team Birkie, more venues hosting SuperTours and Junior Nationals, and in February, one Midwestern skier single-handily doubled the number of Olympic medals that the United States has won in its history.
That skier, of course, was Jessie Diggins. And it’s a fascinating thing to see how she has pushed Nordic skiing, always a niche feature of Minnesotan culture, into a metonymy for all the values of hard work, dedication, friendliness, and passion that Midwesterners like to hold. Simply, she represents everything that Midwesterners want represented about them, and nothing that they don’t. It’s why there’s now signs in the Loppet Adventure Center locker rooms at Theodore Wirth Park reminding you to clean up your race-day glitter, and also a central reason why there’s more skiers at Wirth Park than ever before.
For those that have been involved with skiing development in the Midwest for awhile though, the coolest thing about seeing Jessie Diggins, and other skiers from the region, succeed on the sport’s highest level is that the programs that they participated in during their own development are now more robust, include more skiers, and are at better facilities, than have ever been available before.
Take, for instance, the Regional Elite Group (REG) camp. A decade ago, the coaches and athletes that are now leading the US Ski Team’s ascendance on the World Cup convened in the old run-down Telemark Lodge in Cable – a site with a lot of potential – but with needs beyond what could be saved. In the summer of 2022, not only are there plans from the American Birkiebeiner Ski Foundation to completely overhaul those facilities into something World class (and capable of hosting a World Cup in 2023-24), but in the interim REG camp has gained more skiers, moved to the Northern Michigan University (NMU) training grounds in Marquette, Michigan, and taken on a greater degree of collaboration between pro-athletes and top notch coaches in the region.
Then there’s what REG has helped inspire. The camp model has been expanded by the region’s ski organizations to bring more opportunities for skiers to simply get together and train. Fostering a love of community and sport, while working to elevate the overall level of competition in the region. Central Cross Country Skiing (CXC) in particular has been a leader in stretching to both ends of the skiing development spectrum and bringing them together, hosting its Igor Badamshin Legacy camps bringing U12/U14 athletes to be coached by regional pro skiers.
All of this came together this summer as a kind of ebullient reunion for the Midwestern ski community, which was marked by a particular poignance. In the last great push to develop the sport in the region, Midwestern skiing leaders successfully lobbied, organized, and put the clapboards and finish line up to host the first World Cup in the United States since the Salt Lake City games in Minneapolis in 2020. Then, at the last minute, the initial overtaking of COVID over everyone’s communal and everyday life forced that events cancellation. Two years later, as the leaves turned green and the air took on the distinctive humidity of that land of lakes (both Great and small), those who have pushed towards the future of Nordic skiing in the US got together to push again, with all the joy, hard work, and passion that has brought success to the region’s skiers, and put the US on world-class footing in the sport.