In December, the Methow Valley, known for its plentiful, often powdery snowfall, recorded its lowest accumulation in 20 years. But in one way, the region has produced its richest winter harvest yet.
This month, the valley is sending its first homegrown cross-country skiers to the Olympics.
Meet Sadie and Erik Bjornsen, a sister-brother duo who came up through the Methow Junior Nordic Team and were named to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team set to compete in Sochi, Russia after the Games open Friday.
Also going is Brian Gregg, 29, a veteran skier and rookie Olympian who now lives in Minnesota but grew up and trained extensively on valley trails. While the Bjornsens ski with the financial and coaching support of the U.S. national team, Gregg made it as an independent, utilizing the resources of Team Gregg, a generous group of friends and family providing support.
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“We take pride though in being king of the underdogs,” said Greg of himself and wife, Caitlin, a 2010 Olympian who narrowly missed making this year’s Olympic squad.
A total of five skiers with deep roots in Washington state (Seattle native Holly Brooks and Wenatchee’s Torin Koos are the others) made the 14-person Olympic cross-country team.
When they’re not racing in Europe, the Bjornsens train and attend classes at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, which boasts a club that includes Brooks and star Kikkan Randall, America’s best bet for an cross-country Olympic medal.
But make no mistake — the Bjornsens’ Olympic track was set in the Methow on the groomed, 200-kilometer (120-mile) trail network just 20 paces from their house. A logging road rose steeply to connect with the rest of the trails. Sometimes her family would ski it, Sadie said. But sometimes her dad, Tom, would get out the old snowmobile and the entire family of five (mom, Mary, and oldest daughter Kaley) would pile on, skis and all.
“That was fun, to see how many people could hang on getting up there,” Tom said. “You had to catch up if you fell off.”
The torturous entry to one of the nation’s largest (and least known) maintained trail systems made Sadie appreciate the rigors of the sport at an early age. Her father, an accomplished alpine skier and avid mountain climber from Seattle, started the kids alpine skiing at nearby Loup Loup Ski Bowl, but Sadie got sick of being cold. Nordic kept you warm. So does the idea of sharing a dream with your 22-year-old brother.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Sadie, 24. “As rewarding as it is to go yourself, to have a sibling makes it all the more special. Growing up, it was never in my thought process how neat it would be.”
It could get even neater. At Sochi, cross-country skiing is primed to add to its lone U.S. Olympic medal — Bill Koch’s 1976 silver in the 30K. No U.S. woman has won an Olympic cross-country medal.
Since 2002, when the U.S. Olympic team started raking in winter medals to keep pace with its summer haul, Nordic sports, like ski jumping, biathlon and cross-country skiing, remained medal-less. But the tide is turning. Americans in Nordic combined, the ski jumping/cross-country racing event, ended their Olympic medal drought in 2010.
Now, with a talented women’s team led by Randall, winner of 10 World Cup races and two overall World Cup sprint titles, it may be cross-country’s turn to make history.
Cross-country offers numerous medal events, including relays. Before being felled by illness that knocked her off the World Cup circuit for a month after Christmas, Sadie was part of seven top-10 finishes since December 2011, mostly in team sprint events. She excels at classic (diagonal stride) skiing, but is also a strong freestyle (skate) skier. She joins the deepest women’s team in U.S. history, particularly in freestyle. Seven members of the team have World Cup points in sprints.
Sadie clinched a spot on her first Olympic team in early January based on her ranking that included two World Cup top-10 results at the season’s start.
“Those were breakthrough events for her, a massive step up,” said U.S. team coach Chris Grover. “She has an incredibly fast sprint.”
A few weeks later, Erik, the national 15K champion, was named to the team. He got his career first World Cup points just weeks before the Games with a top-20 finish.
“He’s an exciting young athlete. Much like his sister, he is extremely versatile,” said Grover, pointing out that he is likely to compete in individual sprints as well as some distance races.
Sadie and Erik developed an in-house rivalry that continues in college, where they share a house with teammates.
“It took Erik until he was 14 years old to be able to beat me,” Sadie said. “Even though now he’s beating me, it’s always a competition (of) who’s doing better.”
Growing up, the pair found Olympic inspiration at nearly every turn. Retired three-time Olympian Leslie Thompson Hall moved into the neighborhood and directs the youth program. Another new neighbor, Laura McCabe, was training for her second Olympics, the 1998 Nagano Games.
“They were so talented, running all throughout our house,” said McCabe, now a program coach. “They were super-active kids.”
When McCabe returned from Japan, Winthrop threw her a parade. Residents lined the sidewalks. One of them was Sadie, 7.
“She rode in on a fire truck, and I remember thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing in the world. That’s something I want to do someday,’ ” she said.
McCabe helped ramp up the junior team about then, which now averages 100 to 120 kids a year, drawing from an elementary and high-school population of just 400.
Olympic-caliber imports have made the valley their training home for years through the Methow Olympic Development Foundation. Roberto Carcelen, the first Peruvian-American cross-country ski Olympian, trains in the valley, as did veteran U.S. ski team member Koos, among others. Other nations sent their Olympic teams to the Methow to train before the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Finances and logistics will keep Mary and Tom Bjornsen, a local builder, from going to Sochi. They plan on doing what they usually do when their kids race overseas: Watch the live stream. Except this time, they might have more company from the Methow community.
For Gregg, making the team was the culmination of a dream that took root at age 16.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” said his dad, Jim. “It’s not like it’s our kids going. It’s our valley’s kids. A lot of people have a lot to do with bringing our kids up.”
Yes, it takes a village. And a nearby ski trail.