This past winter, the inaugural Trail to Gold Fellowship saw five talented women coaches from across the US get their first chance to experience the World Cup from behind a coaches’ bib. A partnership between NNF, The US Ski Team, The Women’s Ski Coaches Association (WSCA), and Women’s Olympic Book Project, the group behind the book Trail to Gold: the Journey of 53 Women Skiers, the Fellowship was founded with the idea that US Skiing supporting its talented women coaches would ripple throughout the entirety of US Skiing. When two members of the Women’s Olympic Book Project, Leslie Hall, and Nancy Fiddler, followed-up with Fellows and the US Team they completed their Fellowship with, they found that the Trail to Gold Fellows had become an integral part of the week-to-week buzz, drive, and thrum of the US Ski Team on the World Cup. Below are the thoughts that Hall and Fiddler gathered from Fellows, US Coaches, and US athletes on the Trail to Gold, which will continue on for its second year with NNF’s support next season (details forthcoming this summer)!
Help Support the Trail to Gold! :
Trail to Gold Fellowship Follow-up
by Leslie Hall and Nancy Fiddler
The 2022-23 World Cup season has ended and with it the first season of the Trail to Gold Fellowship. With the Fellowship, women coaches and technicians were offered the opportunity to intern with the US Team during two week stints. Five coaches were chosen to take advantage of this program after an application process that was undertaken by 32 enthusiastic women from across the U.S. It was heartening for the selection committee to see such depth of experience from coaches at all levels of the sport. Way to go to these aspiring women ski professionals!
With two extra on-course support bibs available exclusively to women coaches or technicians, the ideal scenario would spread out the internships over the season. Naomi Kiekintveld from Alaska Pacific University and Anchorage South High School in Alaska took the lead, heading to Ruka, Finland and Lillehammer, Norway for early season World Cups. Annika Martell, from Williams College, followed for the Beitostolen, Norway and Davos, Switzerland events. Liz Stephen, from the Park City junior program, jumped in for the Tour de Ski. Caitlin Gregg, from Team Birkie, went to Livigno, Italy and Les Rousses, France, and finally, Lizzie Larkins, from Montana State University, was at Drammen, Norway, Falun, Sweden, and Lahti, Finland to finish off the season. Additionally, Sam Benzing, from the College of St. Scholastica, attended the final World Cups as a coach supported by a separate Tara VanDerveer Grant from the Women’s Sport Foundation.
Feedback from the interns was unanimously positive! Several of them used the phrase “well-oiled machine” to describe the U.S. Team’s World Cup program. They all strongly recommend that women coaches take advantage of this opportunity. All felt welcome and included by the World Cup staff and athletes.
To give the interns a full experience on the World Cup, they spent time in the wax truck as well as on course support and athlete support on training days. Creating fast race skis is just one part of the work that ski techs and coaches do while serving U.S. Ski Team athletes. Naomi Kiekintveld noted, “I learned a lot, a lot about good team culture, and good work relationships” as well as some great wax room tips and techniques. Liz Stephen, too, was impressed by the organization and communication: “ I am constantly working on being a more organized leader, and being a part of all the team meetings, tech meetings and staff meetings was a lesson in how important planning and communication of those plans is. The US Team is incredibly good at talking through schedules, being open to suggestions, being adaptable to changes on the fly and communicating these changes so as to make sure no one is confused or left out. This all plays a role in the inclusion factor of the Team.”
Liz commented on another great point: “Another thing that I was really impressed with was how the both the staff and techs took the time after most races, especially races where something didn’t go exactly as they wanted it to, and debriefed in a non-confrontational way, what may have contributed to the plan going awry. The ability to talk about a mistake in an open and honest way without placing blame on an individual is hard to do, and I was constantly impressed by the Team’s ability to do this. Being able to talk about mistakes or shortcomings is the key to improvement, but without the proper methods it can make people feel blamed or be intimidated to have the meeting at all. These are both things that I want to implement and improve on with our team and staff in Park City.”
Annika Martell felt she learned the most on the wax technician side of things and commented, “ I brought back some new waxing techniques (glideouts), technician hacks (paint brush to clean off your workstation), and added to my experience arsenal of wax problem solving (don’t be afraid to try something crazy!).”
Caitlin Gregg said, “A highlight of my experience was how incorporated I was in every part of supporting the Team. From driving vans to testing wax, giving splits, waxing skis, attending Team Captains Meetings, I was a part of the entire process and learned something new every day.”
Lizzie Larkins noted the following takeaways:
– ”Clear communication goes a long way when you are at the highest level with the endless logistics, different agendas, and various people in and out.”
– ”Klister rolling is extremely satisfying and efficient.”
– ”Trust the test and acknowledge there will be human error, so trust your team as well!”
– ”The US needs a female classic kick test fleet.”
– ”The World Cup is overflowing with motivated, dedicated humans who are fully engulfed in the nordic world.”
From the athletes’ perspective, it was empowering to see women coaches in the wax truck and on the course. They also said that they enjoyed interacting with the coaches.
Jessie Diggins shared the following impression of the new fellowship: “Having the Trail to Gold Fellows this winter was an incredible experience, and from my perspective, I gained so much from having these women from different teams and different parts of the US come over to help coach us and wax for us! All the fellows were able to help wax skis, coach the athletes and help with the team process on pre-race and race days, help us work through strategy and ski picking, and training on the days in between. For example, Annika Martell helped me do glide-outs and test my race skis in Beitostolen, and her help was huge for me when I was having trouble picking skis in the extreme cold! I’m extremely grateful for their time, energy and the positivity they brought to our team on the road.”
There were a few suggestions on ways to improve the fellowship experience. Several of the interns weren’t sure what to expect and didn’t have a clear picture of how things would work on the World Cup. The wax truck/tech interaction can be intimidating for those new to the World Cup. U.S. Cross Country Program Director Chris Grover hopes to have a pre-season meeting with all the incoming interns next season to talk about some basic expectations and routines. A couple interns expressed that they went in feeling nervous and intimidated, but once they got into the swing of things, they overcame their worries.