Six Olympic Skiers and Riders have Midwestern Roots

Which state is sending the most athletes to the Winter Olympics? Nope, Colorado is only second (behind California), and it’s tied with … Minnesota. At least 23 athletes at Sochi spent some of their formative years in Minnesota or another state in the Midwest.

Here’s how the states break out: Indiana (1); Illinois (10); Michigan (13); and Wisconsin (15). Minnesota leads the pack with 19. Most of the 23 compete on ice—11 current or former Minnesotans play hockey, for example—but the list does not lack for skiers and snowboarders.

Speaking of Minnesota, it is sending two skiers to Sochi. Leif Nordgren (biathlon) lived his first 10 years in Colorado before moving to, as he puts it, “the ski crazy state of snowy Minnesota.” He attended high school in suburban St. Paul (Forest Lake) and trained with Nordicwerks Ski Club.

Jessie Diggins also grew up in suburban St. Paul (Stillwater), and learned some of her skills with the Minnesota Youth Ski League. She says, “what I love about skiing is the chance to push my body to the limit, to be training outside on beautiful trails, and the chance to find something new about myself with every race.” Her best result this season was placing second at the World Championships skate sprint at Val di Fiemme in Italy.

While Minnesota can claim two skiers, Michigan has three snowboarders, each representing the three major events in the sport: snowboardross, slopestyle, and halfpipe.

Nick Baumgartner, who competes in snowboardcross, hails from Iron River, in the state’s isolated but snow-rich Upper Peninsula. He’s a proven quantity, having participated in the 2010 Winter Olympics and won silver and gold at the Winter X Games.  As someone who also enjoys motor sports, his goals are to “be the first one down the hill, the first one around the track, and the coolest dad on the planet.”

Karly Shorr went to high school in suburban Detroit (Milford) and spent a lot of time at Boyne Mountain as a youth. Today she competes in snowboard slopestyle. She will be competing in the Olympic finals, set for Sunday.

Danny Davis, like Shorr, hails from Oakland County, Michigan. He has gone onto success in snowboarding competitions, earning gold at the 2014 Winter X Games in halfpipe and on the US Grand Prix tour.

Indiana, meanwhile, has a connection to the Olympics through Nick Goepepper, who grew up in the southeast part of the state, near the border with Kentucky and Ohio. He learned to ski at Perfect North slopes. Today, he competes in slopestyle. He’s already won on the big stage, snagging a gold medal at the 2013 Winter X Games. He has also won third on the FIS World Championships.

(Note: I compiled this with the help of an article from Wall Street Cheat Sheet, which lists only the ten states with the most Olympians. I just happened to know of Goepper from this article from Mike Terrell, so I added him to the list. There may be another athlete from Indiana, Ohio, or another Midwestern state that I have overlooked.)

UPDATE, February 7

I knew I had missed some athletes. Minnesota Public Radio says there are 44 Olympians from Minnesota, though their connections with the state are probably more tenuous than those I listed above.

These include David Chodounsky, an alpine racer who left the state for bigger slopes at age 11. He learned how to ski at Buck Hill, where other world-class athletes (Lindsey Vonn being the most prominent) started out. Grete Eliassen, a skier who competes in halfpipe and slopestyle, split her childhood between Minnesota and Norway. Keri Herman, who also competes in slopestyle, skied a little bit in high school, but mostly played hockey. She didn’t pursue skiing with a vengeance until after she moved to Colorado.

MPR also lists Brian Gregg, saying he “lives in Minneapolis,” though his profile on the U.S. Nordic team says he is in Wisconsin. MPR also says that Nordic skier Torin Koos was “born in Minneapolis” but a quick online search for information on him shows no significant connection to the Midwest.



Add snowshoeing to your winter agenda for pleasure, exercise

If you are a skier or snowboarder, you already know the benefits of getting off the couch. But have you considered a low-cost way to enjoy the snow in an entirely different way with snowshoeing?

Snowshoe ratchets

Why snowshoeing? For starters, it has some of the pleasures that skiing and riding offer, but with minimal costs and greater accessibility. It has the same sense of “aliveness” that comes from moving about in the crisp air and over the snow. Seeing your breath is a way of  saying “Take that, harsh forces of life! I’m going to persevere and overcome!” And if you’ve never been a skier or snowboarder, snowshoeing can give you an insight into these pleasures without having to learn a new skill. (As people often say, if you can walk you can snowshoe.)

Granted, snowshoeing isn’t likely to give you the rush that you’ll get from laying down a perfect carve on groomed slopes, having powder spray into your face, or nailing a feature in the terrain park. But it can, in some respects, outshine downhill activity.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding burn calories and release endorphins. But in the Midwest, where the descents are small and the lifts are slow, you’ll be burning and releasing in small doses. In the Twin Cities, for example, you’ll sit for three minutes on a chairlift for every minute you are skiing or riding. In snowshoeing, though, you’re always moving, so you’re always getting the benefits of movement.

There are other advantages of snowshoeing. You may also find that you can do it when it’s just too cold for lift-served skiing or snowboarding. Again, that’s an advantage to moving over sitting.

Hate crowds? Snowshoeing may offer more opportunities to experience the outdoors without the swarms of people that can accumulate at lift lines. (This is not to say that ski areas, even in urban areas, are always crowded.)

If you’ve never played on the snow, shoeing can be surprisingly cheap. If you’re already a skier or rider, it costs very little to add snowshoeing to your menu of winter fun. You can buy a cheap pair of snowshoes, with poles, for $75 at hardware stores or warehouse clubs. You can also spend over $250 for models with advanced features and advanced materials.

Snowshoeing also has few ongoing costs. Lift tickets for downhill activity can be expensive, and even groomed Nordic trails have fees. If you head to a city park, you won’t have to pay anything for snowshoeing. If you use a state park, you may pay a small entrance fee, and some businesses offer groomed snowshoe trails for a small fee, too. When it comes to maintenance, snowshoeing beats skiing and snowboarding.  There’s no need to pay for waxing p-tex or sharpening edges.

Getting prepared

What should you take on a snowshoeing trek? Poles are not necessary, especially on flat ground. But they do add some stability, and they can serve as a steadying force when you’re going up or down a hill.

You’ll probably get a pair of poles when you buy the snowshoes. If not, you can reuse your downhill ski poles. Many snowshoers advocate adjustable poles, which you can make shorter for ascents and longer for descents. But if you go that route, step up for some more expensive models; cheap ones that collapse on descents aren’t worth the trouble. Their locking mechanisms can also freeze into place, making them unadjustable. For these reasons, and the fact that I snowshoe on relatively flat terrain, I prefer fixed-length poles. If you plan to walk in a lot of powder, it’s better to have poles that have large baskets, so the poles don’t seek several feet into the ground. Depending on the poles you have, you can swap out baskets depending on the snow depth. (In my case, the baskets on my el-cheapo set were dislodged the first time I walked through some woods with underbrush and thin snow cover.)

As with any winter activity, proper clothing goes a long ways. Use a base layer of wicking material, just as you would skiing or riding. Follow that up with a shirt or fleece, and a jacket, but know that you may need fewer layers than you would for skiing or riding. Snowpants are always a good idea. As for shoes, you could get away with putting old athletic shoes on your feet, especially if you’re not going to walk in deep snow. Lightweight, waterproof hiking boots are much better, though. And though it may make you look like a dork, wear your ski goggles. They will keep your face warm and shelter your eyes from the wind.

If you’re going during daylight hours, wear sunscreen. At night, a small headlamp gives you a place to focus your eyes. It also makes the snow glisten, adding to the visual appeal of snowshoeing.

As for the shoes themselves themselves, the most important factor is your weight: The heavier you are, the longer  your snowshoe. If you plan to hike in mountainous terrain, step up your product to some advanced models that have extra features such as crampons underneath the heel.

Where to go and what to do

You can go snowshoeing in many different places, including state parks, county parks, city parks, and even your own land. Compare this with downhill skiing or riding and you’ll see there are many more options. (Can you walk outside your back door and go snowboarding? Probably not.)

If you know a few city parks well, visit them on snowshoes. They’ll have a different look. If you limited to official trails, which can get packed in with large amounts of traffic, head for the edges of the trail for some softer stuff. If there’s no prohibition on it, though, break your own trail through meadows and forests. Wherever you go, be respectful, don’t trespass, and stay off cross-country ski trails.

So what can you do while snowshoeing? How do you make “just walking” interesting? Here are some ideas.

Make fresh tracks. This is one of the best things about snowshoeing, especially if you don’t get much powder action at your downhill areas. There’s something delightful about disrupting snow with your feet. Feel it float over your shoes. Look behind you and see your tracks.

Do some sliding. If you’re lucky to have a new dump of snow, head to a place with some hills. Shuffle and feel the sensation of sliding down the snow.

Make a winding path between the trees. Nothing says “winter” like snow-covered evergreens. Get close to them in a way that you might not get on a snowboard or skis.

Be a detective. You may see animal tracks along the way. What are they? Read up on tracks for animals commonly found in your area.

Listen to the snow.  You may encounter a variety of snow conditions on your walks. Sometime the snow will crunchy beneath your feet, and other times will yield no sound at all.

Look at the snow. Different lighting conditions give snow different appearances and character. Go snowshoeing on a bluebird day, then under the moonlight, and then under the power of a headlamp, and you’ll see the snow under different conditions. Use walks as a laboratory to better understand snow.

Use your imagination to go elsewhere. This works better at night, but with a healthy imagination, you can transport yourself from a small stand of trees in an urban park to a wilderness far away. That can in itself be a way of relieving stress.

Is there a special technique in snowshoeing? For flat terrain, just walk much as you would in the summer: Put one foot in front of the other. For extra aerobic activity, move your arms (left leg, right arm; right leg, left arm.) If you want even more aerobic benefit, pretend that you’re punching snakes with your poles and plant the pole near the heel of your front foot. If you’re going down a hill, plant the poles a couple of feet in front of you.

This short introduction has only scratched the surface of snowshoeing. As is true with any activity, snowshoeing offers many levels of interest, dedication, and financial commitment. For just knocking about the metro area, even low-budget snowshoeing get you off the couch, and into health.