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An Excerpt from "MOMENTUM: Chasing the Olympic Dream"

Weeding Out the Weenies

by Pete Vordenberg

(excerpted from his memoir "MOMENTUM: Chasing the Olympic Dream")

Our summer in Trout Lake ended three days before fall term was to start at Northern Michigan University. NMU is located on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the U.P., or "da you-pee" as it is commonly pronounced up there. NMU was a long two-day's drive from Trout Lake---if you only stopped for gas. It was our sophomore year and so we knew what awaited us.

In the first week of school, Coach Sten Fjeldheim conducted what came to be called "Weeding Out the Weenies Week."

Though it would become routine, training at 6:30 a.m. was a shock for all during Weeding Out the Weenies Week. On the mornings we didn't lift weights we ran, and afternoon practice began every day at 2 p.m. We did not ease into it. Summers were for preparing for the fall, and fall was for preparing for the season. You came to school ready. Weeding Out the Weenies Week was just one long, steep step in the whole process, a process that could make the ill-prepared feel like the end goal was not an Olympic medal but an early death.

After the first week the team size was reduced considerably.

Sten Fjeldheim was not interested in killing us. He had genuine, fire-hardened, cold-pressed, undefeatable passion. He was in his place, a self-carved niche, a home and an empire of skiing in the Upper Peninsula, where he could focus every volt of his vibrating, electric being on developing cross-country ski racers.

Back in the weight room he made the rounds. "That's it, that's it. Come on Nelson! My grandma can lift more then that!"

After a week of training it became obvious that Sten's grandma was an extraordinary woman. She could out-run, out-lift, and out-ski every one of us, but when praise was due, Sten was not withholding.

"There you go," Sten continued, "Jesus, Sarah, how many of those things can you do? Nelson! Hey, Brad! Are you watching her? Yeah, Brad! Come on Amy! Good! Now we're talking, huh? What did I tell you? Now we're talking! Awwwooowwww!" Sten was no less red, the veins were no less distended, but now with the clang of weights and the sound of primal grunts, with the team training, Sten shone--a man in his own perfect place.

After weights we ran across campus to the dorms where we frantically changed, showered, ran to the cafeteria, wolfed breakfast, and then marched to class. It being the first week of school everyone had more to doand we skiers still had to get to afternoon practice on time.

For most, Marquette Mountain is the local downhill ski area. For us it was the local uphill area. Two o'clock on a U.P. fall day often found us driving there to do uphill ski bounding or ski walking intervals. After about two hours of this Sten is satisfied and ready to go home.

Coach Sten cared, and if you didn't, it was an unforgivable insult, a waste of more than just time and effort. Caring is what it took, what it takes--a whole lot of caring. Sten said you had to want it, and he was right.

 

****

More excerpts from other chapters...

 

from "Remember Kuusamo!"

 

It was the spring of 1991. Cory Custer and I embarked on the last racing series of the season across northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway called the Polar Cup. Every race in the three-week trip took place above the Arctic Circle.

This was the end of our first year out of high school, our first year as genuine ski racers. Cory had spent the fall and winter living in Norway, and I in Sweden. As a junior racing in Sweden I found some success. I won a few races and placed well in many. I fancied myself fast and on the rise. The trip to the Polar Cup wasn't that far, but it opened our eyes to the real world of elite ski racing.

We had arranged a ride on the Polar Cup bus from race site to race site, starting in Helsinki, Finland. At the airport in Helsinki a Russian man held a cardboard sign with our names misspelled on it. We hopped on the bus and sped through the endless snow and pine forest of Finland. The bus, though full of skiers, was silent except for me and Cory rattling on about our latest adventure.

Though juniors, we registered as senior racers for the Polar Cup so we could race the big boys-the very best in the world.

The first race was held in Kuusamo, Finland. It was an individual start, classic-style race. Cory Custer and I held early (rookie) seeded start positions. We warmed up on a portion of the course and could not believe the hills. There was no skiing them at an easy pace. Just to get up them we had to ski hard or walk.

The starter took his hand off my shoulder and I took off on a fifty-minute epic. Every hill was brutal. I poled hard to maintain my momentum up the bottom of a hill, and then skied a few hard strides before the steep pitch forced me into a fast run and finally to a grueling herringbone out of the tracks. Eventually, the length of the hill forced me into a quick shuffle or scamper. As I scurried up the outside of the track, the world's best poured past me skiing up the tracks with big, powerful gliding strides.

Though I was well out of his way, many-time Olympic medalist Vladimir Smirnov whacked me in the leg with his pole as he powered past. Cory reported receiving a similar blow when the huge Kazak passed him. We couldn't decide if it was meant as punishment-the Alpha wolf scolding the pups-or as encouragement. In any case it stung.

Double-poling along the flats, I was passed by skiers whose poles whipped with a deep whoop as they swung forward and then kicked up a spray of snow with each push.

But it was really the steep uphills where they buried me. They had springs in their legs. Taking springing strides, they caught and passed me and disappeared over the hill, leaving me gawking and scurrying along.

I lived many little lives in that race and thought many thoughts-too many thoughts. I marveled at the skiers flying past me. I knew I was too weak to ski as they did, but I raced as hard as I could. In the end I was beat by almost eight minutes in just fifteen kilometers.

On the train home from northern Norway, after the whole of the Polar Cup was over, I spent a long time staring out the window at the snow-covered landscape. Among the juniors I had some good races, but after Kuusamo I knew they meant little. Racing the seniors had a tremendous impact on me, but I was not disheartened.

My young age enabled me to look at the distance I had to travel with excitement. As the snowbound villages clacked past the train's window I began to plot and steel myself for the voyage. In ten years, I thought, I can win.

I determined that explosive strength was the area where I could make the biggest gains. Specifically, I had to be able to bound up those hills on legs like coiled steel. I needed to develop explosive power in my lower body and huge strength in my upper-body.

Being beat that badly in Kuusamo became an inspiration.

I flipped ahead months in my training log and wrote reminders to myself about the experience.

"Remember Kuusamo."

"Build explosive power!"

"Strength!"

"Eight minutes in Kuusamo!"

And I set out a plan I devised myself on a train from northern Norway to middle Sweden.

Like a mountain climber at base camp, I had seen the peak and now understood what lay before me. There was no mystery in what had to be done. As in mountain climbing, where the mountain looks huge and unconquerable until the task is broken down into the details of climbing it, my plan relied on the details of training.

I thought there were many reasons that American skiers at the time weren't as good as their competitors from abroad. But the solution could be distilled down to one thing: training.

 

****

 

more from "Remember Kuusamo!"

 

Four years later, I dropped out of college-giving up the best situation I ever had. I had a full-ride scholarship that allowed me to focus on school and skiing, free of worry. And I was leaving Sten-the best coach I'd ever had. The reason was good. To get better I had to race against better skiers, and there were no better skiers in the world than could be found in Scandinavia. But there was more to it than that. It isn't just about being in the right place, it is about having the right state of mind, and the right support system.

I returned to Sweden, this time as a member of the U.S. Ski Team. The idea was that I would train and race in Scandinavia and all over Europe with the best in the world. While the idea was sound, it turned out to be the worst year of my career. This time there was no birch-bark weaving, no Swedish lessons, no GI Joe to keep me in line, and nothing to keep my mind occupied. There was no balance. I was a ski racer, and little else. I did nothing but ski race, thought about nothing but ski racing, and I ended up having exactly one good ski race all year. I was not chosen to race in the 1995 World Championships, and I was kicked off the U.S. Ski Team.

If there was anything redeeming in that year, it was living with Carl Swenson.

Like Bill Koch, Carl Swenson is extremely good at doing what Carl Swenson needs to do. And like Sten Fjeldheim, who has created for himself the perfect life in Marquette, Carl has created for himself his own ideal life on the road. Carl races year-round. He is a professional mountain bike racer in the summer and U.S. Ski Team racer in the winter. He has no off-season because he loves to race too much, because he loves to train too much. And so he races all year-round and doesn't let anything prevent him from doing it.

 

Carl is home. He has run full speed from the Swedish disco about three miles away. It is about 2:30 a.m. I'm in bed. I know he has run home at full speed because I have been out with him before, and even though he may have been soaked with sweat, fuzzy with alcohol, and suffering from ringing ears, he sets off for home at a dead run. It would take me half a mile to catch up, and when I did we wouldn't say a word-couldn't for lack of breath-and we'd get home some twenty minutes later. Come morning, we were up for training, and we felt surprisingly good.

Running home from the disco is the best way to go. You don't have to wait or pay for a taxi, you stay warm, and you burn off your buzz before bed. When you get home you're thirsty enough to gulp the glasses of water you need after a night out drinking.

"Come on Vorde," he said on his way to the disco one evening, "this is good stuff. There is a time for this, and this is that time."

It's true, too. Every top athlete, from every country in the ski world, has this trait in common: They are athletes first and always-24-hour athletes-but that doesn't mean they live in a cellar. It means their actions are in line with their goals, and their goals dictate their actions; and to go out at night, drink some beers, and maybe flail around on the dance floor is fine and universally practiced by ski racers. But only when it doesn't interfere with the grand picture. Balancing this is something Carl is extremely good at. It's not something many of the other athletes on the team were good at, and it slowed them down, while Carl only got faster.

Carl is utterly self-assured. A fancy outfit is a clean tee-shirt, khakis and running shoes.

"I am fashion exempt," he says.

Tell him he can't do something, he smiles and says very quietly, "Well, works for me," and then does it.

Carl has endless motivation. Normally, that is what I would say his secret is-what the secret is. But I think it is Carl's determination to do what he believes will work for him that is his real secret.

Success demands faith in what you are doing; and faith, does not hold up well under reason. You just have to know. There is no way Carl could have known, other than by faith in himself and his plan, that he was on the right track.

Scientific-based training theory does not allow for successfully racing all year round. The experience of coaches the world over does not admit the possibility of racing successfully all year round. So there were many in the skiing community eager to challenge Carl's faith in his ability to race successfully all year round. There certainly is wisdom in listening to others, but there is equal wisdom in tuning them out. Carl could nod his head and smile at any advice, turn around and keep doing what he had faith would work for him.

I wish I had followed Carl's lead while living with him in Sweden. It might have made all the difference. Carl got faster, while I lost momentum. My faith in what I was doing and how I wanted to do it grew weak. I started to see myself not as the first-tier skier I grew up believing myself to be, but as the second-tier skier I was becoming. I got slower, felt flatter, became depressed, burned out. Carl pushed on.

 

****

 

from "A Clear Electric Moment"

 

It took two more dislocations before I realized my shoulder had to be repaired surgically. The operation changed my direction a bit, but didn't slow me down. Four days post-op and I was training again, on a stationary bike with one arm in a sling. After three weeks I could hike with the arm still in the sling.

My old LERT teammate, Nathan Schultz, called me up eight weeks post surgery. "I hear you'll be back in business soon," he said.

For six weeks I had been training steadily at about fourteen hours a week, doing more and more as my shoulder would allow.

"I'm back in business," I told him.

"Well then, I'll see you on Monday."

Up until that Monday, the entries in my training log looked more like the entries in the diary of a weekend racer, a ski enthusiast training for the local winter showdown, not someone training for the Olympics. Easy run, forty-five minutes. Hike three hours. Fairly easy run, feel okay.

Nathan lived about two miles down the hill from my parents' house in Boulder, where I was staying while my shoulder recovered. That Monday morning he ran up to my house, ran with me for two hours, then ran home. I could tell right away that this kid was working and that I had not been. Later that afternoon he showed up on his roller-skis. We roller-skied for an hour and a half on the city streets of Boulder. He didn't give a damn about the traffic, the cops, or what people thought of a couple of skiers roller-skiing around town. We were moving out, me behind him. As we zipped down hills and hung tight corners to avoid traffic, I held onto my boots with my toenails, and on the uphills I hung onto Nathan by willpower alone. Nathan was on a mission. He hadn't always been a good skier but, like Cory, he had always been a workhouse of a trainer and, as it had for Cory, the work had paid off. We had been friends since high school, but this was a new Nathan. Always strong, and abnormally bumpy with muscles from rock climbing, he had reached a new level on skis. In college he had proven himself to be among the best collegiate skiers in the country, but until that Monday I had no idea he had any real interest in pursuing the sport beyond that.

At a stoplight in downtown Boulder we stood, two skiers on wheeled skis, poles in hand, alongside the rest of the traffic.

"Nathan, what the hell is going on?"

"I'm going to the Olympics, man." The light turned green, and we set off in a blast of honking amid the rush of traffic.

Every Tuesday morning we met for intervals on the Mesa Trail above Boulder. The protocol was five intervals in which we bounded, using ski poles, up a steep gravel grade for four minutes each time. Once on top, at the fire lookout, we turned around, jogged down, and did it again. For fifteen seconds the interval was fine. Each step was an explosive bound, and we pushed hard off our poles. After a minute, Nathan and I were breathing hard, and already had to work to maintain our speed and the explosiveness of our bounding. After two minutes we were in outright pain. And still there were two more minutes to endure. The thing was, even though it hurt, even though I anxiously wished to reach the fire lookout as quickly as possible, even though I dreaded the next interval, I simply loved it. I loved the sensation of effort and pain and my ability to thrive in the face of it. I loved working with Nathan because he wouldn't let me get a step on him, and I loved sharing the intense, emotional effort. Each interval was a little test of commitment and a battle of willpower. At any point either of us could have relinquished the lead, cut back on the pace just a little, but if we had, the love would have fallen right out of it.

The previous winter in Sweden I had cut myself too much slack, second-guessing everything I did, and giving myself a foot when I shouldn't have given an inch. Though I didn't admit it to myself at the time, every time I let go I was letting go of the essence of my dream--the work. As I let the work slip I was losing not only any chance I had at realizing the dream, but also the reason I was chasing it.

At the fire lookout Nathan and I would stand, hunkered over with hands our on our knees or leaning on our poles, but only for a few seconds, then one of us would pick up and start down the hill again.

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