Former USST NC & SJ Physiologist
Nga mihi nui (greeting to all).
It was difficult to arrive at a title for this story project. And then, after a prompt from Jeff’s note on a Christmas and New Year’s story, there it was – and here it is, “Tidings, and comforts of Nordic joy”.
My first introduction to the Nordic combined team came in May of 2000. Jan Erik Aalbu, then Head NC Coach, introduced me to a distinguished, speculative group of young men in USSA’s ‘concrete bunker’. The team had been assembled for a collective venture to improve jumping performance through a bespoke, comprehensive strength / power development approach. At the request of Dr. Andy Walshe, I was asked to lead the support, and assist the team over the next 24 months to win a medal. It was a tall task – not the medal but me – admittingly, I am a bit quirky, and the only ski jump I had ever been close to was Harris Hill in Brattleboro Vermont, where I grew up! I knew little about ski jumping or Nordic combined yet despite all that, Jan Erik welcomed me as a member of the program, and armed with a can-do attitude and knowledge, I went to work.
It’s worth mentioning at this time I was introduced to Tom Steiz, who affectionately referred to the team I had commenced working with as a ‘blob of talent’ because they had not done anything, yet a medal in Salt Lake was a goal, as were World Cup podium performances. Alongside Tom, was then X-County coach Bard Elden, who had been coaching that ‘blob’ for several years and knew these young men, I reckon better than anyone at the time. As need would have it, I wound up assisting Bard and Tom in the physiological analysis, too. And working alongside the coaches, and Dr. Sue Robson at the time, we helped monitor the training and physiological progression and loading of the team.
Later that year, and after seeing the innovative approach we were using, Kari Yliantilla, then Head Special Jumping coach, alongside Matt Terwilliger his assistant coach, came enquiring. And, to our Sport Science department’s good fortune, we began to provide support to the special jumping team, too. I was now pretty much fully immersed in this very Nordic world. I quickly found myself a student of both sports, the athletes, and the coaches – getting a real world PhD education in applied planning, preparation, program design, performance people, and team culture in an elite winter sport environment. Moreover, I found myself traveling the world with the teams, summer and winter, as one of the staff – valued, accepted, and appreciated for the support. I still have a handwritten thank you card from Billy Demong after the Sognefjelle Glacier camp. That was Billy, and the team. Thankful, considered and welcoming. A framed picture, too from Steamboat Today of Johnny on Todd’s shoulders after winning Gold in Val Di Fiemme in 2003, hangs proudly in our NZ home. Along with the 01’ opening FIS Nordic World Cup – a daily reminder to our young son, that anything is possible if we work hard, never give up on our dreams, and that all journeys to excellence, start somewhere.
It was a simple philosophy we had at the time. Understand the sport and research, then match the force profile with the strength characteristics to create as specific and applied program we could to improve performance. And we did. I must hand it to the teams at the time, they were a bit like guinea pigs as we evolved our approach and methodology in strength and power profiling. At the time we were implementing innovative work, like measuring how much force in newton seconds (Ns) could be produced in an impulse range of 280 to 320ms at different loads, or the levels of isometric force each could produce. We also lugged a portable jump mat to just about every competition to monitor the team’s power and fatigue over the World Cup season.
Here are a few notable moments that some may remember….and that I simply enjoy still to this day are:
- The time on Sognefjelle Glacier I inadvertently poked Jonny Spillane so hard in the finger for a lactate sample his head cocked so quickly backward it almost snapped, as he let out a loud yelp. It became an ongoing joke for a while with the team. I still laugh at that moment.
- When Nathan Gerhart and Jonny Spillane pranked me at APU after the 01’ Eagle Glacier camp. Nathan kept coming to me with a bloody finger, stating it kept bleeding, one full day after a lactate measurement. I was completely perplexed, and the boys knew it. After the third return for another band-aid and sign of more profuse bleeding, I became a bit exasperated. The team finally let on it was fake blood, to howls of laughter, of course. Best prank ever.
- The time moment taking Jed Hinkley’s lactate during a roller ski treadmill project at TOSH when Bard Elden hit the start button during a rest interval. Away I went… flying off the back of the treadmill – narrowly avoiding a Hinkley ski pole impaling. Thank goodness for that treadmill ski harness!
- Crafting a “Rocky style” warm up session with logs and rocks in Norway – then getting the men ‘stuck in’ to their strength session. It seemed a fitting and fun choice given we were training at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (photo) and had little equipment on hand.
- Kari Yliantilla always reminding me to put diesel into the rental cars, until the day he put unleaded at a gas stop in Austria, then had to have it pumped out. That was funny, not at the time if you knew Kari, however. I have plenty of Kari stories….and a bunch with Matty, too.
I had no idea at the time how much a blessing it was to be part of these two programs, or how much those years would shape my future understanding of coaching and applied elite high performance sport. Flash forward almost twenty years later over an global career that has spanned working alongside 22 international teams and 14 Olympic and Paralympic programs in preparation for 5 Winter Olympic and 2 Summer Paralympic Games, delivering support to athletes and teams in 25 countries – my time with the US Nordic combined and special jumping remains, simply the absolute most rewarding.
There is a Maori saying here in New Zealand – a proverb that states He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata It is the people, it is the people, it is the people. In reflecting back on my time with each of those programs, it was the people, the people, the people in these programs that were a rich blessing to me.
I have tremendous pride knowing American Nordic medals were won by American Nordic coaches, and that many former athletes have turned their passion to the coaching, leadership, and stewardship of the Nordic combined and special jumping programs and community. And importantly, that all these men have tuned into great husbands, fathers, and contributing members of their communities.
This group, these sports, and the work being done today truly reflect that great Maori proverb He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
Meri Kirihimete me te Hape Nū Ia ki ngā iwi me ngā hapū katoa from New Zealand. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (as the Pākehā here say) to all the tribes and hapū.
WINDING DOWN, FOLKS… GET YOUR NAME ON THE LIST!
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