Birkebeiner is baptism by fire for rookie Nordic skiers

By Daniel Kerwin

If the brief walk between buildings on campus is sometimes too much for you during the harsh winter months, then you can appreciate how grueling a sport Nordic skiing is. Tomorrow members of Macalester’s Nordic ski team will be taking on one of the sport’s toughest challenges, enduring hours of exposure to the elements as they compete in the American Birkebeiner in northern Wisconsin. It’s not just an average race, but one that coach Ari Ofsevit ’06 describes as “by far the largest and most prestigious race in the [Western] hemisphere.”

Besides being perhaps the most well known race in America, it’s also one of the most challenging. The event is comprised of three main races, the longest measuring a grueling 54 km. To put this in perspective, a full length marathon is just over 42 km.

The race is tough for even the most experienced skiers, and this year a number of Macalester students are competing in the event for the first time. Some of them don’t have any Nordic ski racing experience at all.

The latter is particularly true for Terrence Steinberg ’11. Despite having experience in endurance sports such as triathlon, Steinberg is brand new to Nordic skiing. The Birkebeiner will be his first ever race, and he’ll be participating in the longest of the three races, the 54 km classic race.

In looking toward the race, Steinberg said “I’m optimistic. Even though I don’t have the best technique or most experience, it’ll be an adrenaline rush and I’ll just have fun.”

Of his choice to take up Nordic skiing, he said “I just wanted to learn a new sport and use it for cross training, work on my endurance and stuff and be outdoors.”

Emil Mellgren ’10 is coming into the Birkebeiner from a similar place to Steinberg. A fellow triathlete, Mellgren joined the team with a background in Nordic skiing but without any racing experience.

Steinberg and Mellgren are just two of the many new members on the team this year. The team was cut as a varsity sport back in 2003, and in recent years has struggled to gain many members. This year a large crop of experienced first years as well as new upperclassmen like Steinberg and Mellgren has made the team huge, perhaps saving the program from further woes.

One of the experienced new first years is Tess Carley ’13. Carley raced heavily in high school, but mostly shorter races; her previous longest race was 33 km. Tomorrow she’ll be competing in the 50 km freestyle race.

“The 33K was one of the longest days of my life, so I’m a little bit nervous to add on 17 more,” Carley said. “Nordic skiing is just really tiring. I’m hoping to reach a point where I don’t feel my arms anymore, or my legs, that’ll make it easier.”

Fellow first year Tommy Symms ’13 has already started looking at what waits beyond the race.

“It’s going to be sweet to be able to brag about doing the biggest race in the Western Hemisphere,” Symms said.

While finishing the race in the first place hold enough bragging rights in of itself, the team is looking to make an even bigger impact at the race. The team has entered three teams in the competition, a combination of two over the two longer races and one in the shorter 23 km Kortelopet race. The team will be led by Collin Cousins ’10, who is skiing in the elite wave of the race and is looking to finish in the top 50 in a total field of over 8000 competitors. Ofsevit, who despite being the coach will also be skiing in the elite wave as a member of the team, likes Macalester’s chances of placing high.

“I think we have a decent chance to win some hardware,” he said.

According to Sarah Van Etten ’10, racing the Birkie is addictive. “Once you get bitten by the bug you can’t stop doing it,” she said. Van Etten grew up in Spooner, a town about an hour away from the course, and for her each year the Birkie is a huge family event. Come tomorrow morning the first time Birkebeiner skiers on the team will be able to understand why the Birkebeiner is so close to the hearts of so many Nordic skiers the world over.