Saturday, August 15, 2015

Utah's altitude draws the running elite (+video)

SALT LAKE CITY — With the sun beating down on the University of Utah’s bright red tartan track, a pack of runners rounds the final bend for the 16th — and final — time. The cadence and stride length of Amy Hastings picks up as she pulls away on the home straight. Following closely behind, but looking a little more labored, are three men.
In 2012 at the London Olympics, Hastings placed 11th. With the Rio Games just under one year away, Hastings and her husband, Alistair Cragg, a three-time Irish Olympian, visit Utah's thinly oxygenated, high-altitude training grounds.
Looking to Brazil, Hastings and Cragg believe being in Utah for month-long high-altitude training blocks gives them an advantage by naturally boosting their red blood cell counts — and thereby performance.
Hastings and Cragg aren’t the only ones seeking out Utah's thin air these days.
Two days earlier, Bowerman TC, a team of professional runners sponsored by Nike, hammered out a series of high-intensity intervals on Utah's track. The workout was their last hard session before boarding a plane to East Asia.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why U.S. Olympic Swimming Dominates

At the Olympic Games, USA Swimming has won 520 medals -- 220 of them gold. Second place country Australia has 171, total. 

Outside of a 17 day cycle once every four years we will only hear the names of swimmers like Lochte and Phelps for their more dubious distinctions. How is it that America can so thoroughly dominate a sport you won't find on Sportscenter or in your daily newspaper? 

"Olympic champions don't just do much more of the same things that summer-league country-club swimmers do. They don't just swim more hours, or move their arms faster or attend more workouts. What makes them faster cannot be quantitatively compare with lower level swimmers... Instead they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different, their parents treat the sport differently." Via The Mundanity of Excellence report

Today, Fortune magazine weighed in on with the article Why U.S. swimming is so dominant. Perhaps the biggest key: A rigid management roadmap for their Olympic team. 

One takeaway from Chuck Wielgus, director USA Swimming:

“We’re a not-for-profit with a bottom-line orientation. Performance by committee is a major mistake. So coaches run their show, directors do their part, and it’s a separation of state.” 

Is there something in there for other sports to learn?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Utah slips to third by end of NCAA Ski Championships

Utah's lone All-America on Saturday, Andy Trow in action

     Utah slips to third by end of NCAA Ski Championships

On a cloudy, windy morning on the slalom ski slopes of Whiteface Mountain, the Skiing Utes tumbled to third for the NCAA team title. 

The Utes headed into the final day in Lake Placid, NY behind the eventual champion Colorado Buffalos. Denver University put up the day’s dominate performance in the men’s slalom by going two-three-four. 

“I have to hand it to Denver today,” Utah’s ski director Kevin Sweeney said. “They skied solid. No, it was more than solid. They put down some results today where I had to go, ‘Wow, that’s impressive. To do that they did I was actually in awe of that.’”

The NCAAs were the first time all season the defending national champion Pioneers defeated the Utes in a team title competition. 

“I think that’s where we got into a little bit of trouble — we were skiing solid but conservative to defend our position,” Sweeney said. “We took more rounded lines and skied a bit cautious as opposed to taking tighter lines and letting the skis really run.”

At these championships Utah tallied 13 All-America performances during the four days of races though only junior Andy Trow’s seventh earned the honors Saturday.

In addition to Trow’s run, Joergen Brath finished 15th while Endre Bjertness was 26th. Ana Kobal led the Utah women in 12th while Kristiina Rove finished 17th and Chloe Fausa was 20th.

“I’m sitting here trying to digest it,” Sweeney said. “This group is of championship quality. I need to remind myself we were on the podium as a team and that’s certainly an accomplishment. Yet at the same time, we had the opportunity to take gold and we didn’t capitalize.”

Colorado won by scoring 505 points during the five days of competition, followed by Denver (478) and Utah (471). Vermont (443) and New Mexico (402) rounded out the top five teams. 

In the last five years, Utah has three second-place finishes and one third-place. Utah hasn’t won the team title since 2003. This twelve-year title drought is the longest in school history.

“He was really in the zone,” Sweeney said about Trow’s two All-America performances at the championships. “He was really focused and came in here with a lot of confidence. I give him a lot of credit for being able to dial it in while under such pressure.”

Trow started his first run with a mid-pack starting position, yet skied into ninth. On his second run, Trow was able to move up two positions. The Canmore, Alberta native said blocking out the team title standings was key for his consistent performances.

“I can’t start counting the points to see where we are at,” Trow said. “I just try to ignore all that. I know how to ski race. Team standings are important but I can’t let that change my game plan. I just have to go out there and race like I do every day. I just try and block all the rest of that out and perform. When I do that, that’s what’s best for the team.”

Utah’s individual national champion undecided 

While Utah might have left upstate New York without the crown jewel of NCAA skiing, the Utes return to Salt Lake City with some hardware. Veronikia Mayerhofer won the individual title in the women’s 5-km freestyle. The freshman from Bad Gastein, Austria nearly added another in Friday’s 15-km classic but lost out in a photo finish. 

The 22-year old says she will soon decide whether she’ll return of Utah next year. Mayerhofer was an up-and-coming talent with the Austrian national team. Despite making last year’s Sochi Olympics, she said she was burnt out and looking for a new challenge. Psychology studies and competing with the more team-oriented focus of NCAA skiing for Utah provided the new environment. It’s her teammates that might keep Mayerhofer wearing Ute Red (Pantone 187) for years to come.

“We spend so much time together, not just training,” Mayerhofer said. “I don’t know how to live without them. Yeah, I’ll come back… but the final decision will be made in the next week.”

Utah hopes Mayerhofer returns, not just for her performance but what she brings to the team’s dynamic. “It’s been a tremendous experience having Veronika on the team,” Sweeney said. “She’s found a team, she’s found friends and she’s found success in all that. I’m just hoping she wants more.”

The Utes are also already aiming for more than just a place on the podium at next year’s NCAA championship.  “We’re happy with what we did but we wanted more,” Trow said. “We definitely wanted more. We’re just going to train harder, train faster and beat them all next year.”

Friday, March 13, 2015

Utah skiing locked in final-day battle for NCAA team title

Utah's All-Americans from Friday's classic races
Article LinkUtah skiing locked in final-day battle for NCAA team title
The NCAA team title in skiing is coming down to the wire. Utah ski director Kevin Sweeney called the battle “a real slug fest.” The University of Colorado leads Utah 388-381 heading into Saturday's slalom competition, the final day of the four-day championships.
“It’s definitely a battle between us and CU,” Utah’s nordic coach Abi Holt said after Colorado jumped ahead of the Utes with a razor-thin advantage.
Just how close is the competition? After 12 giant slalom runs and 150 kilometers of nordic skiing, the difference separating Utah and Colorado on the race course is two seconds in cross-country. Or less than half a second in the alpine.
On Friday, the women raced 15-km and the men 20-km on trails made for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. “I can’t remember going into the final day this close,” Holt said. “We know alpine will have a lot of pressure on them.”
Mayerhofer goes from golden girl to NCAA runner-up
Utah's Veronika Mayerhofer, who became the national champion in freestyle on Wednesday, also knows something about close finishes. The freshman from Austria held a slight advantage heading into the final straightaway on Friday. Mayerhofer lost out by a photo finish to the University of New Mexico’s Emilie Cedervaern.
“I didn’t have much tactics or a big plan,” Mayerhofer said about the day’s head-to-head racing format. “I just tried to stay at the front of the race and stick with Emilie.”
Mayerhofer added: “It’s actually good she won. She was the strongest.”
Course challenges coaches and athletes alike
The terrain tested athletes with features like “Russian Hill,” an unrelenting climb that became infamous during the 1980 Games.
The conditions, with temperatures moving from the high teens to the high 20s during the race, challenged coaches in the wax cabin. With the classic tracks starting to glaze up with a thin sheen of ice on the top layer, Utah skiiers went with klister, a sticky wax that excels on the steep climbs, but comes at the cost of glide.
“You could see it. If you didn’t have kick on the hilly back side of the course, you were just out of the race,” Utah’s Niklas Persson said. “We chose right today.”
First-team All-America for Utah’s Persson
Persson paced the Utah men’s team to a fifth-place finish, the junior’s second All-America performance of the week. While Persson’s coaches say he was aiming for a podium race, Persson said he was far from disappointed with fifth.
“You had to be nice and smooth and light on your skis today,” Persson said. “I did that.”
With Kevin Bolger and Noe Bellet finishing 16th and 22nd, the Ute men rallied a bit from Wednesday’s performances. “We talked after Wednesday,” Persson said. “We weren’t super happy, we wanted to ski better. We were just more on it today. We wanted it more.”
Crowd favorite Sloan Storey earns second first-team All-America at these championships
Joining Mayerhofer and Persson with first-team All-America accolades on the day was Sloan Storey. In a sport dominated by Central Europeans and Scandinavians, Storey was the day’s top American, finishing fifth.
Storey was the crowd favorite as well. “I didn’t have to look for Sloan,” Mayerhofer said, laughing. “Everyone was cheering for her. She’s American, she had a cheering advantage.”
Utah’s team captain drew praise from Holt: “(Sloan) always shows up on race days. She’s a big championship performer. She always delivers.”
Utah's Anna-Lena Heynen added her second top-10 result of the week, moving up from 23rd to 10th in the race’s final kilometers.
Saturday’s slalom to decide skiing’s top prize
A warm swell is expected to bring a mixture of rain-snow-sleet into upstate New York Saturday. With impending inclement conditions, several teams petitioned to move Saturday’s slalom at Whiteface Mountain to Friday to ensure fairer conditions. The race jury denied the request.
Of all the alpine disciplines, slalom racing is the most fickle, with a crash or a missed gate a near certainty from at least one racer from any team. “It’s pretty wild to go into the final day like this with slalom,” Holt said. “These races are probably the most unpredictable out there for who will finish and how it will go. It’s a pretty crazy place we’re in right now.”
The Utes will turn to Andy Trow, Endre Bjertness and Joergen Brath on the men’s alpine side. Kristiina Rove, Chloe Fausa and Ana Kobal will compete for the women.
“With a slalom day, it’s really not over until that last skier really crosses that finish line,” Persson said. “All we can do is go on the hill, cheer on our guys and hope they do well.”

Utah in driver’s seat midway through NCAA Ski Championships

Utah's four All-Americans in Thursday's giant slalom in action. 

Midway through the NCAA Ski Championships, the University of Utah finds itself in the team title driver’s seat.
With conditions on the Whiteface giant slalom course in upstate New York alternating almost turn-by-turn from soft and grippy to rough rolling pebbles of ice, though, the situation looked dicey for at times for the Utes.
Utah's Endre Bjertness stood in the starting house when one of those moments of misfortune hit in alpine ski racing. Teammate Joergen Brath pushed hard into the first few corners of his race before clipping a tip on a gate. Brath lost a ski, and his day finished hardly before it even started.
“Just before I went, I saw Joergen lose his ski at the top of the course,” Bjertness said. “I saw this and I was pretty nervous about that — I knew I couldn’t do the same, you know?”
Bjertness, a freshman from the outskirts of Oslo, made it just past the gate that ended his teammate’s day. A moment later, Bjertness hip-checked the snow, nearly crashing out of the race himself.
“It wasn’t an option to ski out,” Bjertness told his coach, then the media afterwards. “Sure, it happens… but it just wasn’t an option for me today.”
Bjertness stood up and got his feet under him. “Then he just charged the rest of the hill,” said Utah assistant alpine coach Luke Patterson.
By the second run, the mishaps were over for the Utes. The freshman also felt more at ease. Bjertness posted the second fastest run of the day to move from 11th to sixth. He went from nearly skiing out to first-team All-America.
“I was a little nervous in the first run,” Bjertness said. “I then managed to ski with more confidence. That second run—that’s probably my best GS skiing in a long while.”
Teammate Andy Trow helped Utah’s title chances with an eighth, the third All-American finish for the junior from Canmore, Canada.
For the Utah women, the captain shows the way
Only the top step of the podium eluded Kristiina Rove from winning the NCAA giant slalom title last year in Park City. But the senior captain had more than individual honors on her mind Thursday.
“Kristiina’s a very special athlete,” Patterson said. “I think in her heart-of-hearts she wanted to win. I think she evaluated the conditions and evaluated the competition and knew she had to stay on her feet for us to win the team title. I think she’s very happy with fourth even though she’s very capable of skiing much faster.”
Rove, who competed for her native Finland at this year’s world championships in Vail, Colorado, echoed her coach’s comments.
“Many racers made mistakes because of the windy conditions and inconsistent snow. My approach was to ski two solid runs and not risk too much. This paid off.”
Sophomore Chloe Fause finished immediately behind Rove in fifth, 17 hundredths of a second seperating the two.
Senior Ana Kobal skied out on coming off a pitch when the snow transitioned immediately from windblown, chalky snow to “hardpacked ball bearings,” according to Patterson.
“It’s easy to get lulled into a too aggressive line for the conditions that might wait at the next gate,” Patterson said about Kobal’s and Brath’s early-ending performances . Coaches and teammates say the two will come out charging for Saturday’s slalom races.
“Those two (Kobal and Brath) are really going to sink their teeth into the next one," Patterson said. "They made hard mistakes on the day but they weren’t catastrophic. At the end of the day many teams, especially the real contenders, lost one or two athletes.”
The team title leaderboard could hardly be tighter. Utah leads Colorado 241-237; the difference between the two teams being one Ute bettering one Buffalo. Defending national champion Denver University sits in third with 232 points.
“We’ve lost it before halfway through,” Rove said. “We’re going to have to fight all the way through to the last race. We’re such a good team. We can definitely win this.”
Rove added: “We feel good, but not too good.”
Utah looks to extend their razor-thin lead in the team title chase with Friday’s classic style competition. The long distance (20-km for men, 15-km for women) and the head-to-head racing of mass starts should play to the Utah’s nordic strengths.
“It’ll be even better on Friday,” Wednesday’s national champion Veronika Mayerhofer said. “Not just me, it’ll be much better for all the boys and the girls on our team as well.”
Utah might have a secret weapon with cloudy, temperate conditions forecasted. It’s the work nordic coach Abi Holt and program director Kevin Sweeney do in the wax cabin.
“Our coaches are so good at waxing and preparing our skis,” Mayerhofer said. “That can be our advantage. Yeah, we’ll be great.”
NCAA’s wrap Saturday with the men's and women's slalom.
“I could not be more impressed with the efforts and scoring of our four All-Americans today,” Utah’s ski director Kevin Sweeney said. “The championship is turning into a real slug fest.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Utah's Mayerhofer atop the podium at NCAA Ski Championships

With temperatures rising into the low 40s and the women’s 5km freestyle at the NCAA Ski Championships heating up to a three-way battle for the title, University of Utah’s Veronika Mayerhofer dropped the hammer.
In Wednesday’s race in Lake Placid, NY, skiers raced against the clock, each starting solo, 30 seconds apart. Midway through, Mayerhofer passed Utah's nordic coach, Abi Holt. As Mayerhofer went by Holt gave some welcoming news: the freshman from Bad Gastein, Austria was tied for first through 2.5 kilometers.
“I didn’t feel super special until I heard that first split,” Mayerhofer said. “Then I decided to really go for it. You had to push so hard to the top of the final climb. Maybe it was a risk…”
The course’s second half climbed to the top of Russian Hill, a hill so steep and challenging Olympic skiers from Russia lobbied — successfully — to have the hill’s peak bulldozed before the start of the 1980 Games.
Mayerhofer said she was flooded with lactate and nearly seeing stars on the final downhill into the finish from the uphill effort. If it was a gamble to pick up the pace on the hardest part of the course for Mayerhofer, the risk paid off.
“I knew Veronika would be a contender, but I’m shocked to see these final results,” Holt said. “To win by 13 seconds… I wish I could have seen the second-half of her race. It must have been something else.”
Mayerhofer adding her name to the record books
The last Utah woman to win an NCAA title came in 2012 from Maria Graefnings of Sweden. All told, the Utes have had five women win a total of eight national titles in the cross-country skiing in school history.
Mayerhofer’s competitors probably can’t count on the victory changing her approach. The night after her win, the Academic All-America could be found brushing up on her studies in psychology.
The skiing and school combination gives skier new motivation
The 22-year old Austrian credits Utah for helping her find new motivation after making the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“After the Olympics I said, ‘Now I need a change,” Mayerhofer said. “I just thought it was a good opportunity to come to Utah. I didn’t talk to other teams — I don’t know why. I just had a feeling it’d be good here. It’s been even better than I thought.”
Utah’s first day: four All-Americans
Utah junior Sloan Storey from Hailey, Idaho was fifth while sophomore Anna-Lena Heynen, from Regensburg in Germany’s Bavarian region, finished ninth.
While Utah’s women surged, the men’s team struggled a bit. Niklas Persson, a junior originally from Sweden, was tenth to earn his third All-American citation. Sophomores Noe Bellet, from Serre-Chevalier, France, and Kevin Bulger of Minocqua, Wisconsin were 17th and 26th.
“I’m not counting them out at all,” Holt said about the men’s nordic performances. “I think they will all take that starting line again on Friday and know we all have their backs. They were a little off today. That happens.”
Sitting in second heading into day two
While Utah’s last team title came in 2003, the Utes are in a decent position to end the longest  NCAA team title drought in school history. Utah is in second in team scoring with 131 points, just behind Colorado’s 155 points. Vermont and New Mexico are tied for third with 106 points while Denver University, last year’s defending national champion, are in fifth.
“Sitting in second, I think that’s a healthy place to be after day one,” Holt said. “This certainly gives everyone the sense that we’re in striking distance of an NCAA championship title. But no one has the impression that we have a lot of room for error, either.”
Thursday’s races
Day two of the NCAA Championships turns to the alpine side. Competitors will take to the slopes at Whiteface Mountain for the giant slalom competiton. The venue has plenty of history as the place where ski legends Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden and USA’s Phil Mahre battled for Olympic gold in 1980.
On the women’s side, the Utes turn to Kristiina Rove, Chloe Fausa and Ana Kobal. All three are returning All-Americans. The Utah men’s team will rely on Andy Trow, Joergen Brath and Endre Bjertness. Trow and Brath are returning All-Americans while the freshman Bjertness gets his first NCAA start.

Friday, February 13, 2015

In remembrance: Jack Owen

Last night I talked to my dad as he was on his way to pay his last respects to Jack Owen. Jack was one of the greatest generation. He was instrumental to putting U.S. skiing on the map. Here is the letter I received from my dad today, the day Jack passed away. You will be missed -- and missed dearly.

February 13, 2015

Jack Owen, one of the Pacific Northwest’s preeminent and pioneering ski coaches passed peacefully last night at the age of 95.  A lifelong and accomplished outdoorsman, Jack discovered Nordic skiing in the mid-1960’s when his five children joined Herb Thomas’ fledgling Wenatchee Ski Club. 
Prior to that discovery, Jack had been a standout high school basketball player.  His father’s Granite Falls, Washington sawmill provided cedar stock to George Pocock’s, and Jack struck up a friendship with Pocock in the course of making deliveries to Pocock’s Boatworks.  Some Owen lumber may have accompanied the Boys in the Boat to Berlin.  If so, it would not be Jack’s sole brush with the Olympic Games.

Following high school, Jack and his family homesteaded on Kodiak Island, and Jack’s first career was as a tug boat captain working in the Gulf of Alaska.  Jack enlisted during the second World War, was trained as a weatherman, and scrambled up a Normandy Beach on D-day.  Following the war he used the GI bill to attend Montana State University where he earned a degree in electrical engineering.

Following graduation, Jack began working as a engineer for Alcoa.  He was eventually transferred to the Alcoa plant in Wenatchee, Washington; a community that meshed perfectly with Jack’s interests in family, the outdoors, and career.

Jack took over head coaching for the Wenatchee ski team in 1967.  Both he and Herb Thomas had been years ahead of Title 9; and believed that females could equally train, compete, and enjoy endurance sports.  This was a time when the US did not have a women’s ski team; when women were barred from the Boston Marathon, and when the longest track event for women at the 1968 Mexico Games was the 800 meters.   

Jack was all in as a coach, and like Arthur Lydiard, made sure to trial his training ideas and concepts on himself first.  He possessed an analytic, engineering orientation; and became a student of great classic ski technique.  It was ultimately evidenced in his skiers.  There is a ski technique bible in Norway that devotes a chapter to the classic technique of Jack’s daughter Alison.

Jack was the sort of coach who reached out to other disciplines.  He developed a friendship with legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman.  The two shared a passion for fly fishing, and shared coaching ideas and perspectives while bringing trout to fly on the McKenzie River below Bowerman’s home.

Female Swedish and West German ski champions made a point of stopping in East Wenatchee while touring North America.  Those were wonderful opportunities for stars and up-and-comers alike. The porch light was always on for nordic skiers at Jack and his wife Bess’ home.

In 1966, Jack’s 13 year old daughter Alison broke the gender barrier at the Junior Nationals in Winter Park, Colorado.  She had qualified for the PNSA boy’s team, and raced in the boy’s class.  The organizers made precautionary provisions, with an ambulance standing by.  Alison showed them something, and the next year females were welcomed and had their own races.

There was a time in the mid-1970’s when half the U.S. women’s team came from a one block radius in East Wenatchee.  The five neighborhood girls were Alison and Sally Owen, Tammy and Tracy Valentine, and Joanne Musolf.  The latter four finished 2 – 5 at the 1974 Junior Nationals in Steamboat Springs.  Not surprisingly, they also won the relay by a wide margin.

A number of Jack’s skiers went on to NCAA and international success.  Alison was the most notable, winning World Cups and finishing second at Holmenkollen.  Perhaps more telling is the profound respect and connection they have maintained with their old coach, and with one another.

Jack retired from ski coaching in 1982.  A number of his former charges followed him into coaching, and remain active role models today.  Having caught the endurance bug as a coach, Jack indulged it after his retirement from Alcoa, also in 1982.  

He became an accomplished road cyclist.  Coming down a generation in age group, he and Muffy Ritz were a formidable tandem team at the Master’s nationals.  Devoted to his custom made Davidson road bike, Jack would allow himself a replacement every 70,000 miles.

Jack lived independently into his 95th year.  He followed his beloved Seahawks from his apartment to SuperBowl 49.  He had the good sense to fall asleep for their 4th quarter demise.

Jack is survived by his five children, and host of admirers.