While a child growing up in New York City in the 1980s, Caitlin Gregg was always telling people she was going to be in the Olympics.
“It’s funny, I can’t remember a single day waking up and not having that goal,” said Gregg, now 36 and an Olympian.
Things really started falling into place for the 10-year-old outdoor sports enthusiast when her family moved to a tiny village in Vermont. A high school friend convinced her to try Nordic skiing instead of downhill, and the track was groomed, as they say. She competed in cross-country running and Nordic skiing through high school and at Northern Michigan University, where she graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in environmental design.
After graduation she moved to St. Paul to care for her mother, who had moved here, and was delighted to discover a strong Nordic skiing community. She also discovered a fellow Olympic hopeful from a small town in Washington state, Brian Gregg. The two spent six years working part-time jobs, training, and traveling to races before they started dating. They married in 2011.
In addition to achieving her childhood dream of making an Olympic team in 2010, Caitlin has represented the United States at the World Championships in 2007, 2009 and 2015 (where she won a bronze medal, the first by an American woman in a distance event); she’s won an unprecedented four American Birkebeiners in Hayward, Wis.; and has seven national championships on her résumé.
We caught up with Caitlin Gregg by phone from Canmore, a town in Alberta, Canada, where she and Gregg are training, first for the 2017 World Championships, and ultimately, to both make the 2018 Olympic team.
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation:
On sharing the outdoor love
Being an athlete is a little selfish. We spend hours of training, 20 to 30 hours per week, focusing on ourselves. That’s why we started the running club at the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in our neighborhood, up near Irving and Broadway.
When we first proposed it five years ago, we thought we’d have 10 or 12 kids. We walked in and found 99 mostly African-American kids waiting to sign up. We try to teach commitment — you have to run 3 miles to get your name on the board. It’s a third of a mile around the park so you have to run nine laps. It blew us away, they were so proud of what they’d accomplished. We talked about how it’s not the biggest or fastest kids who had the most miles, it’s the kids who come every time.
This year the running club reached their goal — 200 kids ran a total of 2,000 miles between April and August — but the biggest success is that they think of themselves as athletes, they have an identity as a runner. Our goal is to help them fall in love with the lifestyle, something they can hold with them the rest of their lives. Anecdotally, the more they engaged in healthy activities and got positive reinforcement, the less they acted out negatively.
And even closer to home
Theodore Wirth is right out our back door. We do the majority of our training there. There are endless opportunities for biking, hiking, paddling, skiing, but we’d see kids on our block just riding their bikes up and down the street. Theodore Wirth is literally 50 meters away, but they didn’t even know it was there. We wanted to bring our two worlds together, to connect our neighborhood kids with the park. So we talked to their parents and showed the kids a safe way to get to the park. They got there and saw other kids, and all the fun things they could do outdoors. They were psyched!
On being a two-Olympic-athlete couple
We’re pretty lucky. It’s fun because we can do this together, but it’s harder in some ways — at the end of the day, you’ve got two tired, hungry athletes with a lot of laundry. But it’s pretty fun to have a spouse who understands the lifestyle.
On the hard truth about being a “professional” Nordic skier
I’d made world championship teams (2007 and 2009) and an Olympic team (2010), and at the end of the year I had a negative bank account, even though I stayed with other athletes while in Europe and got rides to races. I couldn’t consider skiing a professional career because I’d always had a part-time job to pay the rent — at a running store, Menards. To pay off the debt I’d accumulated, I had to take the summer off after the Olympics to work. In 2009, I lived on $9,000. Winning the American Birkebeiner in 2011 was a game-changer because there was a large prize purse — $7,500 that year.
Why buying a house was the best thing they’ve ever done
We found a house in 2011 for $25,500 in north Minneapolis right on Theodore Wirth Parkway. We applied for some first-time owner programs where, if we stayed in the house for seven years, $15,000 was taken off the price. So we purchased the house for $10,500. It was a great decision. We have no mortgage [paid for the house with race winnings], so we’re essentially living for free. This is the first time in ten years we’ll be able to focus on training and racing, with enough sponsorships and crowdfunding [teamGregg.com] that we won’t have to work another job.
On how to live like an Olympian
We’ve been smart and frugal. I don’t want to say ‘sacrifice’ because I don’t want to sound negative — this is a choice we’ve made. I mean, we don’t go on vacations because we get to ‘work’ in these amazing locations. My wedding dress cost $40. For the last six years, we were driving a car that was donated to us. We just got sponsored by Timber Ford, in Hayward, Wisconsin, so we got a new car. It’s got heated seats and a fancy navigation system. We actually just drove it from Minneapolis to Canada. It’s funny, with our old car, we used to gauge our speed by how much the doors shook. This trip, we were like, ‘Wow I’m going faster than I realized!’
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.