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Hey, It's No Huge Surprise

World Championships

Thu, Feb  26, 2009 - By Peter Graves

Peter Graves, a former U.S. Ski Team coach, is a noted nordic television commentator for Universal Sports, columnist for Ski Racing Magazine and a longtime follower of the nordic scene, having announced at the first FIS Cross Country World Cup in Telemark, WI, in 1978. You can watch highlights of the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships on UniversalSports.com presented by High Sierra. Graves reflects on an historic day for U.S. nordic skiers, who lead the medal count at Nordic Worlds.

Everyone knows what a big week this has been. Reporters slather on the superlatives, use words such as unbelievable, amazing, or it's a miracle. The more enlightened types among us simply sit back with a wry smile and absorb it all with a kind of zen-like attitude.

So it was this morning when we woke up. I got to the computer early and joined the live FIS Timing of the sprints at the Nordic Ski World Championships. Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall were in good shape after qualifications. I had coffee and rejoined the big show. The finishing information was amazing. Alaska's Kikkan Randall had won a medal - a silver. Was I dreaming? I think not.

My partner [Dartmouth ski coach] Cami Thompson winced when I hollered, "Cami, it's just unbelievable." Cami is the kind of person who gets right to the point and to the heart of the matter.

"Well, I don't think it's unbelievable at all. They've been moving toward this for years", she wisely counseled me.

Thanks to Cami for putting it into proper perspective, and U.S. Cross Country Head Coach Pete Vordenberg, too, whom I spoke with a short while after the race.

"Yeah, it is really cool", Vordy said in his typical understated way. "No doubt Kikkan raced really well, one of her best ever. She's strong and fit, skied tactically well, and had great skis."

I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. "But this is huge! What's the reason all this is happening this week," I asked like a child who was on the brink of opening Christmas gifts around the tree.

"Well, there's a lot of reasons," the coach figured. He reminded me that all this wasn't about the stars in order or the luck a winning of lottery. The athletes had worked very hard to do this. He talked about team and community. He said, "this isn't just about the U.S. Ski Team, this is about U.S. skiing. We are all one country." He's so very right.

For all of those living, or since dead, who have helped build this platform - everyone - this sport is in your debt. There are too many to speak of. This is a nordic world here that is steeped in tradition.

Vordy spoke of people that are helping out in Liberec like Erik Flora, Nathan Schultz and others who are here helping on their own dime. That's impressive, that's community.

Flora has been Kikkan's coach at the famed APU (Alaska Pacific University) program, the program that launched many great careers.

Today I spoke with my old friend and former U.S. Ski Team nordic combined coach Tom Steitz of Steamboat. He, too, was over the moon with the combined results. "I can believe it. The program has been working on this for a long time. The coaches, Dave [Jarrett] and Chris [Gilbertson] were on my team. The tradition is so strong. For all the people who believed in us for so long I am very grateful, it's kind of hard to put this all in words," he said.

Following the event I talked with Kikkan.

''This has been an amazing day. In sprinting anything can happen, but it is an incredible day for me and for us. I have had to overcome a lot," Kikkan said. "From a couple of surgeries and blood clots, I didn't return to training until June."

Years ago, at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, I had been on the ski team with Kikkan's uncle Chris Haines, himself an Olympian. I couldn't help but think how proud Chris would be, and Aunt Betsy [Haines], as well, who was on the 1980 Olympic team in Lake Placid.

Kikkan said, "They, and my parents, made me believe anything was possible and I've had great coaches and role models along the way."

Furthermore, this year hasn't been easy, and, she said she started slow on the World Cup tour.

"Today", she said, "it all came together. I was worried at the start. After my warmup my legs felt heavy, then something kicked in. I felt like Steve Prefontaine. I led the race from the front."

I was proud to hear what she had to say. On the amazing amount of publicity this has generated she would add, "Americans like to see Americans win medals."

This APU program member is a star on and off the race course.

She left the call with one more nugget for us. "We have a strong team, everyone is working so hard, training together. We are one, cross country, nordic combined and jumping."  So very well said.

Perhaps it seems fitting for us to take a breath, ponder the significance of all this, and not be too surprised anymore. There is enough out of all this to derive a lifetime of joy and celebration on skis.

We've all been doing something right for many years.