Olympic Nordic skier contextualizes sport

Last Thursday evening, the Williams Outing Club (WOC) welcomed two-time Olympic cross-country skier Andy Newell, age 27, to the Log. Newell, a native of Bennington, Vt., addressed a crowd of about 40 skiing enthusiasts on the evolution of cross-country skiing in the United States. 

Newell brought a wealth of personal experience, having competed as a professional racer since 2003 and as an integral member of the U.S. team that won the first international cross-country skiing medals for the nation in over 20 years. Newell got his start out of high school in 2002 after competing in the World Junior Championships; he then competed in the Under-23 World Championships the same year. The U.S/World Championship team took notice and invited Newell to compete in Italy at age 19.

As a Vermonter, Newell remembers being inspired by a group of cross-country skiers from the 1970s that put the United States on the map in the sport. Newell fondly remembered the excitement in the sport created by Brattleboro, Vt., native Bill Koch and his groundbreaking silver medal at the 1976 Olympics. His was the first medal won by American in Nordic skiing.

“The effects of skiers like Bill Koch lingered in New England, which is why so many great skiers come from Vermont,” Newell said. “Those skiers and stories of those skiers affected me as a young skier.”

Newell recalled the decidedly less glorious 1980s, in which America produced virtually no notable Nordic skiers. However, he used a graph of U.S. World Cup points since the 1970s to show that “as skiing evolved in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we had a huge jump.”

In particular, Newell noted that after hosting the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, U.S. skiing improved remarkably. “That just shows how important it is to have big races in the United States,” Newell said. “We’re not at the top yet, but having big races is huge for the sport.”

The skier attributed the team’s successes to taking chances. “We had a group of people that weren’t afraid to try new things,” Newell said. “There are certain times when it’s important to take a chance. Now, there are different types of chances, rolling the dice or calculated chances. We took a calculated chance and transformed the way we trained.”

In an attempt to garner respect for U.S. Nordic skiing, Newell and his teammates trained in revolutionary ways. “We were reaching out to new resources, whether that was physiologists or trainers,” Newell said. “We trained like sprinters and did explosive intervals. We tried stuff that cross-country skiers had never tried, and we started winning.”

The team tested its training first in smaller races, competing in the unglamorous Europa Cup. After sleeping in vans, waxing their own skis and racing on unkempt courses, the team-members started to earn respect. “The respect you get on the tour is measured by how big your wax room is, and we definitely started getting bigger wax rooms,” Newell said.

The team was gaining confidence with each win on the Europa Cup tour. “When we started winning in the Europa Cup, we brought that success to the World Cup in 2006,” Newell said.

Newell earned a fourth-place finish in the sprint at the World Cup that year. “That was the best finish I had ever had, so I was going into the Olympics with confidence,” Newell said. “The United States rarely got top 10 then, so it was huge.”

The team members entered the 2006 Torino Olympics with open minds. “We didn’t have expectations,” Newell said. “We knew we were getting better, but we were slow getting results.” Newell qualified second in his heat but did not perform well in the final race. He called 2006 a building year, citing the importance of U.S. skiers cracking the red group, which consists of the top 30 cross-country skiers in the world.

Gleaning important lessons from 2006, the team trained hard in order to impress at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, venturing as far as New Zealand to put its training to the test. The team was challenged, however, by drastic changes in the sport. In an attempt to increase television ratings, the International Ski Federation (IFS) combined the distance and sprint cross-country races, doubling the distance of the races in which Newell was accustomed to competing.

After disappointing results at the new distances, Newell began taking chances again. “I was frustrated and ready to train for the Olympics, but I trained much more like a distance skier,” Newell said. “I convinced my coaches doing distance races was a good idea, so I did that on the World Cup tour.”

Newell qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics but crashed after trying to take a corner too quickly. While he was certainly disappointed with the result, Newell was proud of his new techniques. “I had prepared much better for this race,” Newell said. “I knew I was where I needed to be.”

For now, Newell said he is continuing to train like a distance skier as he prepares for the World Cup tour, but he is doing so from his home state. “I’m moving back to Vermont and getting back to my roots,” he said. “I want to get back to real cross-country skiing and get away from the technology of racing.”