Heather Norton-Bower, 42, St. Paul
2015: Wave 2, classic
Kitty Earl-Torniainen, 47, St. Paul
2015: Elite wave, skate
Margie Nelson, 35, Woodbury
2015: Elite wave, classic
Their skiing story is universal and, yet, distinctive. Three women brought together by sport. Three moms helping raise young families and juggling jobs — and fitting in workout time, too. How they reached this point in their friendship as skiing dynamos is where the story leaves the traditional path.
Heather Norton-Bower skied for Minnetonka High School and then a year at Carleton College before she "burned out," she said. Then, four years ago, she rekindled her interest in the sport and began group training.
The closest Kitty Earl-Torniainen got to skis in her young life was watching her sister go off in knickers and high socks, she said. Skiing wasn't on the radar in high school or college. Earl-Torniainen got her start through someone she dated in Madison. By 1995, she was skiing her first Birkie.
Margie Nelson started ski racing as an eighth-grader for St. Louis Park and later competed for St. Olaf College.
Today, Nelson teaches others through Endurance United while continuing to race herself. A little bit of the coach in Nelson comes through when she talks about her friendship with Norton-Bower and Earl-Torniainen. They're top skiers, immersed in the sport, but they are more about "cheering each other on," Nelson said.
"It has to be fun. You have to enjoy it. That's why we do it," she added.
"We definitely push each other. I think we're all rarely feeling intense at the same time," Norton-Bower said. "… Maybe it's not your best workout ever, but [the other two] got you out there. We help push each other in that way. We encourage each other."
That pushing and encouragement comes in group training, the place where Norton-Bower, Earl- Torniainen and Nelson came together.
Norton-Bower said after her first year of group training, a coach recommended she meet Earl-Torniainen. " 'She's super intense,' " Norton-Bower said, recalling the coach's words. " 'You guys would really bond.' " At an end-of-the-year party after a Birkie, the two got acquainted.
"It's sort of a support group slash active activity outlet, so we have as many heart-to-heart discussions as physical things," said Earl-Torniainen, who also coaches in the Minnesota Youth Ski League.
She said the primary impact of their friendship is all positive: they've worked harder, strengthened themselves personally and athletically and they "just have some perspective on all of it."
"I think it is unique to women," Earl-Torniainen said. "I think if you get out with a group of guys, they all want to beat each other. But, women, we all want to talk while we work out. Because that's what we do, and that's what works with us."
Nelson's personal skiing goals mesh with that philosophy.
"Rather than not racing because I'm not going to be as fast as I once was, I try to change my mind-set and make sure I am still out there doing it even though I might not be winning the race or skiing as fast as I hoped. I also like to step back and realize this is something I do for fun to keep myself healthy, to be a role model for my children. So, I just try to remember what I am doing this for."
Like, well, a good boot and binding, the Birkie fits into their dynamic.
Norton-Bower also is now a coach to Endurance United skiers. And, like her friends, the Birkie is circled on the calendar every year.
"I'm slightly obsessed with the Birkie," she said, recounting several early drives in December to Hayward for multihour sessions on the trail before returning to the Twin Cities in time so she and her husband could get their children to their own lessons at Hyland Lake Park Reserve. Nordic fever, indeed.
Earl-Torniainen said she, too, feels camaraderie with the other women she lines up next to at the Birkie.
"I understand the sacrifices it took to get to that spot. … I think our story is reflected over and over."