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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
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
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.
"Build explosive power!"
"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
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,"
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
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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