Rochester – The first student-athletes arrived at the Quarry Hill Nature Center as head coach David Herbert, 63, of Rochester was setting up the portable public address system. By the time he had the music going, volunteers had set up the registration table and a swarm of skiers milled around the grounds, a ritual repeated three times per week through the winter.
“It’s like a little Olympic Village,” according to Lori Forstie, public outreach director for the Rochester-area nature center.
Herbert turned down the music to announce where each group of athletes would congregate. The PA system, the registration table and the athlete groupings are part of a logistics system designed to handle about 170 students who participate on the Rochester Nordic Ski Team. The team has nearly 30 coaches, some eight volunteer trail-groomers, and detailed documentation on their website covering athlete safety, trail grooming, waxing and other topics. It’s all part of a nearly two-decade-old effort by a group of avid Rochester area skiers who realized that they were getting older and weren’t seeing young skiers coming into the sport.
“We realized that the sport could die with us,” Herbert said.
He turned down the PA system and made a couple of short announcements about upcoming races. He also repeated the requirements for lettering in the sport at the athlete’s respective high schools. Those requirements include, among other things, 12 hours of community service and proficiency in ski techniques such as double poling, V1, V2 and V2 alternate. Herbert didn’t have to explain those techniques because the students practice them in nearly every session.
One of the most popular events of the season is the annual ski camp, held this year at Heartwood Resort and Conference Center in the northern Wisconsin town of Trego.
“The camp is mainly designed to give kids a large volume of on-ski time. It is particularly helpful for our beginners,” said club president Michael O’Connor, 67. “They often come to the camp barely able to stand up on skis and finish the weekend with enough skill to complete a 5K time trial.”
“We hold two sessions of coaching per day,” said Henry Walker, 53, a coach and volunteer trail-groomer. The focus is on both “having fun and learning technique.”
First-year skiers Annika Eitner, 16, Elizabeth Wiederholt, 15, and Emily Mikhail, 16, all of Rochester, agreed.
“It was just so much fun. We improved so much during that,” Eitner, an exchange student from Cologne, Germany, said.
“Heartwood is a great place to make new friends,” added Wiederholt.
“We’re all new to the team,” Mikhail said. “It’s just a really great team to be on.”
The three skiers were coached by Darald Bothun, 72, a coach for 19 years. “The thing I really appreciate about the team is the way they meet each other from other schools. That sense of community.”
He pointed to each of the young women and named the high school they came from. Equally notable is that a club with 30 coaches can afford to assign one coach to as few as three beginner skiers.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the team is the lack of natural snow. The team has adapted by grooming the Eastwood Golf Club, a valuable resource in low snow years, according to the club’s website (“ ... the course can be groomed with as little as two inches of snow.”)
The problem will be mitigated with the opening of a new park, Gamehaven, on the south side of Rochester. The park will have 5 kilometers of artificial snow trails in addition to 10K on natural.
The Rochester Nordic Ski Team is part of the larger Rochester Active Ski Club, started 20 years ago to promote participation in biking and skiing for adults. The club added high school ski and mountain bike teams a few years later, said O’Connor, a transplant from Ireland. “On the adult side, many of us participate in the usual range of citizen ski races and local gravel-road bike races. We also have a large group of recreational road bike users that meet several times a week,” he said.
In addition to opening their trails to the ski club, Quarry Hill Nature Center sponsors candlelight ski events and an outreach program for new residents who haven’t experienced winter, Minnesota-style.
Those events are possible because of a large inventory of rental skis.
“On a good weekend we have 100 to 300 rentals per day,” Forstie said. Many of them are in the area because of nearby Mayo Clinic. “We get a lot of visitors from the United Arab Emirates.”
Doug Shidell is a freelance writer. He lives in the Twin Cities.