What do you do if you’re an Olympic biathlon hopeful racing at an internationally hailed event in central Austria and your pole snaps mid-competition? You are oceans away from your native Brazil and, though a successful athlete, you don’t have an extra $400 sitting around to spend on new poles. In Leandro Lutz’s case, you make a quick call to a tiny ski shop in Rice Lake, Wis.

“I told Leandro I’d see what I could do,” said Bjørn Hanson, co-owner of Out There Nordic Sports, who was on the other end of the call. “We are friends with the owner of One Way ski company in Finland, so I sent them a message, and 10 to 15 minutes later I got a text back saying they’d take care of it.”

Lutz headed down to breakfast the next morning in the lobby of his hotel, unsure of his prospects going into the day’s competition. Called over to the front desk, he found two sets of new poles neatly tucked into a ski bag.

For Bjørn and his wife, Kristin, this amounted to a day’s work.

When the Hansons opened Out There in 2010, they didn’t have ambitions of sponsoring elite athletes. Rather, the two Rice Lake natives and devoted Nordic skiers simply felt the northern Wisconsin community deserved a local ski shop. Already operating a paint and decorating business, they had retail space to spare for an additional business. They figured, why not do it ourselves?

Athlete sponsorship began with Olympic biathlete Victoria Padial of Spain. A number of foreign skiers who visited the area for the American Birkebeiner in 2011 were impressed by the no-frills shop that was more akin to ones seen in Europe. The Hansons had people talking. Padial, 27, heard that talk and reached out to the couple, hoping they would be interested in a partnership.

They weren’t equipped to provide financial support, but the Hansons knew their ties to the ski industry and involvement in the Worldloppet Skiers Association might prove to be an asset. They agreed to assist Padial with marketing to help her get greater support in her country, as well as attention from equipment sponsors.

“It just caught on after that,” said Bjørn Hanson. “The big thing was helping these athletes coming from nontraditional Nordic countries increase visibility. Some of the athletes we helped gain sponsorships for, too, since focusing on training is hard when you have to be your own business person as well.”

An offer of support

The Out There team now has 20 World Cup and Olympic biathletes, Nordic skiers, and ski jumpers representing, among others, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Russia, Latvia, Scotland and the United States. The Hansons assist them with self-promotion, connect them with vendors, supply them with gear, and assist with accommodations at races across the world.

While most of the athletes connected with the Hansons via word of mouth, Lakeville native Ben Saxton met them by happenstance. After winning two state Nordic championships for Lakeville North in 2011 and 2012, he decided to take a postgraduate year living and training in northern Wisconsin in 2013 before shipping off to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Tossing pizzas in his free time at Rivers Eatery in Cable, Wis., he was introduced to the Hansons as patrons. Soon the young Olympic hopeful (and current U.S. ski team member) who competed in the 2015 World Championship classic sprint became a proud member of the Out There team.

“They offer so many different types of support, but the biggest thing they help me with is staying plugged into the Nordic community by helping me give back to the sport and keeping people back home aware of what I’m doing,” said Saxton, 23, who now trains in Vermont. “This summer they helped me put on a fundraiser clinic for children in Wirth Park, and I would have never had that opportunity without their reach. It’s a good way to keep in touch and help spread the joy of skiing.”

Out There teammate Katrina Howe, a Vermont-based biathlete recently turned coach, said the Hansons played a big role in making her competitive ambitions viable.

“When I first talked to Bjørn, he told me he couldn’t give me money, that they were just a tiny shop, but that he could help me capitalize on my strengths outside of skiing to support myself,” said Howe, 31. “I’m into crocheting and had been making hats for several years, so he helped me with promotion to sell the hats and market far beyond where I could have otherwise to help support myself while I was competing.”

Nothing like it

Traditionally, athletic sponsorships involve a financial transaction with the promise that athletes will compete with a brand’s logo ablaze across their uniforms. Athletes may get competitive bonuses or other perks, but the relationships with brands is often fleeting and tenuous. Out There has other ideas.

“I wish I could say there was some blueprint for what we are trying to achieve, but it has just evolved on its own,” Bjørn Hanson said. “We try to align ourselves with athletes who we can build a long-term relationship with. It’s not transactional — it’s a totally different approach than anything that has been done previously.”

“There’s nothing like it that I’ve ever seen, and that’s what makes it so cool,” Saxton said. “It’s this vast group of athletes, not connected by the same uniform or geography, but rather our goals as athletes. Bjørn and Kristin don’t care about the brand on your shirt, they care about sharing the philosophy of being out there in the community bringing the sport forward.”

Indeed, it’s not sales or notoriety for their shop. Rather, the Hansons are on a simple mission to grow their sport.

“They are just lovers of the sport,” Howe said. “For them it’s about being active and encouraging people to do something they love.”

Saxton said the best part of the team is the opportunity to inspire young skiers to follow in his tracks, much like previous generations did for him.

“The ways being a part of the Out There team has broadened my horizons are more numerous that I ever would have expected from a little shop in Rice Lake, Wisconsin,” Saxton said. “They are committed to helping everybody grow and become the best versions of themselves they can be. All they ask is that you are putting yourself out there.”

 

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.