Last weekend in Ironwood, Michigan, neon-shirt wearing, ski boot in the middle of summer donning athletes started to be seen on campus again. For the small campus of Gogebic Community College, the sudden spike in the number of rollerskis seen in its parking lots is not new, especially in the summer. Ironwood is a familiar point for Midwestern skiers, home to ABR and its early snows every year, and in recent years, a preferred spot for Central Cross-Country Skiing (CXC) to host the development camps it puts on in partnership with US Ski and Snowboard and NNF. Regional Elite Group (REG) and U16 camps have visited in recent years. This past weekend though, saw a new group. Gogebic was hosting a plethora of skiers who’d all hopped the Montreal River marking the border between Wisconsin and Michigan. They came as part of a new series of camps that the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League (WNSL – the state’s high school league) is holding in partnership with to bring the state’s athletes, coaches, and clubs together in the offseason.
The experience for the young athletes – meeting peers from other home communities that are giving just as much time to the often individual, niche pursuit of competitive cross-country skiing – was found throughout the weekend. As was the general exchange of coaching knowledge and overall camaraderie that comes from being able to hole yourself away from everything and just do skiing for a few days. That was the aim from the start, when WNSL President Ben Popp proposed that the league use money from a sponsorship from Swix to subsidize the training camp experience for any Wisconsin high school skiers that might want to participate.
How the coaches of WNSL went about creating that open experience for skiers was worth noting. The programming will be familiar to anyone who’s been at an REG or NTG or U16 camp in the United States over the past few decades. In Ironwood, skiers huddled around iPads to study their technique, had the opportunity for low-stakes offseason competition, and even got a presentation charting out post-high school skiing opportunities from Chippewa Valley Nordic Program Director Ted Theyerl – billed as a Ted Talk, of course. It was what writer Gavin Kentch, writing on last month’s Alaska REG camp, might call a “canonical” summer training camp for youth skiers in the United States. The only difference being that this wasn’t directly put on by US Ski and Snowboard, but instead taken up, chapter and verse, by one of the youth sport development organizations found across the country.
The WNSL, populated with coaches who have long been part of Nordic sport development in the Midwest, took up the summer camp idea put forth by REG camps, along with the techniques and training methods, and opened it up to more skiers in their neck of the woods. How US Skiing got to a place where sport development camps permeated an independent organization serving a whole range of skiers is one of extraordinary success that is now two decades in.
The basic idea for the summer training camp has long been at the heart of the national US cross country program. In the early days of the US Ski Team, coach Marty Hall looked for American skiers to learn all they could about European training methods by scheduling camps on the Dachstein glacier in Austria the middle of June during the 60s and 70s. In fact, for the first half-century that the US had a dedicated cross-country national team, the marker of being on the team was largely down to getting invited to the team’s training camps in the offseason.
It wasn’t until 1999 that then USSS Sport Development Director Miles Minson had the notion that the essential motivating factor behind the training camp – skiers benefit from bonding, learning, and pushing each other – would hold if you expanded its offerings further down the US Skiing development system. By sending US Ski Team coaches and resources across the country to work with up-and-coming skiers, it would simply bolster the next generation of US Ski Team members. That idea fleshed out became the Regional Elite Group (REG) camps.
Since that start, the basic idea of merging USSS and NNF resources with regional talent in a training camp proved to offer benefits that go beyond the hours that skiers put in over the course of a week. Practically, simply sending US Ski Team coaches to work with each region’s best skiers wasn’t going to work. For REG camps, USSS needed the local knowledge of coaches who knew where and how to train in their local environments, and so REG camps quickly became an impromptu coach’s practicum where cross-region collaboration could be planted and grow. Then, overtime, a common training and testing language began to emerge that provided developing skiers a set of benchmarks to chart their growth and progress in the sport. Go to an REG camp today, for example, and you’ll probably do a Canadian Strength Test – at some unknown time imported to the US from the North – and your result will probably follow you as you go through club programming into collegiate programming and beyond in Nordic skiing. Rollerski agility courses, 3 k running time trials, and uphill running time trials all became parts of the REG program and are familiar to developing US skiers across the country today.
Many of these tests were developed as the REG camp folded into a national system that saw them used as part-competitions to send the best young skiers in the country to a new National Elite Group (NEG) camp. This linked up the US Ski Team and its new development system in real time. From each REG camp, top athletes in testing and based off results from the previous winter would be invited to not only train together for a week but do so with current US Ski Team members. That programming is ongoing today, and is a big part of what the NNF funds through its pillar projects (to support us, click here).
As US skiing made a push for a more cohesive national development system, these camps turned out to be an ideal medium to work through the cues, drills, and technical emphasis that would make sure a skier growing up in Alaska and a skier growing up in Maine could speak a common language when it came to Nordic skiing. US skiers, in other words, looked to bring US skiing together.
The results of the investment in a more focused development system that the REG and NEG camp system were a marker of started to show results slowly and surely over the course of its first decade in place. US juniors started to climb up results sheets at Junior Worlds, and at the Senior level, athletes like Kikkan Randall started to earn podium results and World Cup wins. Those progress of US skiing could be accounted for that way, in results and on paper, but what was actually driving it was better captured in the halls of ski resorts, ski schools, or community college campuses each summer. When the top athletes in the sport would come back home, visit an REG camp with top juniors, and simply show that what those young skiers do wasn’t in a different world than what US skiers needed to do to work their way up in the sport at the highest level. US Skiing had turned away from gazing at Europe and trying to follow what the Norwegians were doing to a tee, and instead had started to trust its own development system.
That system was one that USSS soon looked to make more robust. In the second decade of REG, the program began to extend even farther down the development system. Camps specifically for the top U16 (or J2) skiers in a region extended the reach of USSS’s program one age group further down than the usual U18/U20 skiers found at REG. Then the regional bodies in US skiing took USSS idea and ran with it to fit their own development structure. In New England, NENSA now runs a Regional Development Group (RDG) camp which expands the number of skiers doing REG-like camps to match the number of skiers that are at REG-camp like levels in the region. In the Midwest, CXC expanded its camps to include a U14 Dream Camp, and a U12-U14 Igor Camp, in honor of the enthusiasm for youth skiing from the late Igor Badamshin. In each case, the structure is cut from the mold that USSS started cutting with its REG camps two decades ago.
In Ironwood, last weekend, that mold got brought one step even further by the skiers and coaches of Wisconsin. Strength training in weird places, the awkward but exciting feeling of rollerskiing within a big group, the early morning runs and evening presentations, and the overall energy of a community simply coming together were all present. As was the persistent efforts of a national ski community to say, over decades, that the more we are together in the summer, the more we’ll be together when the snow starts to fall, the races start, and US skiing goes out to show itself on the world’s largest stages. “Fast skiers are made in summer,” the old cliché goes, and in the US, that comes with a clearly thought-out look, feel, and method – the REG training camp, and all that it has inspired.