Racing Through Alaska Into The Olympics
The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Coming back from Russia with gloves – not to mention skis, poles and boots – Sadie Bjornsen wanted to get back to the Winter Olympics.
Four years after the cross-country skier who now lives and trains in Alaska competed for Team USA in Sochi, Russia, the 28-year-old Bjornsen has also qualified for next month’s 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Bjornsen, who grew up in Mazama, Washington, then stuck around the Last Frontier after graduating from and skiing for Alaska Pacific University, competed in two individual events in the Sochi games, the 10-kilometer classic race and the 15-kilometer skiathlon, which combines 7.5 kilometers each of classic and freestyle skiing. She also raced on the relay team that finished ninth. Bjornsen punched her ticket for PyeongChang after taking second place at a World Cup sprint race in Ruka, Finland in November.
Bjornsen is one of two members of her family who’ve represented the U.S. in the Olympics (Sadie’s younger brother Erik, also an Alaska Pacific alum, raced in two Sochi events). So when it comes to skiing, it’s a pretty competitive bunch.
“Up until probably high school we were training together all the time, pushing each other quite a bit,” Erik Bjornsen told USA Today. “Since high school she’s just kind of been one step ahead of me and kind of shown me the way to make it to the World Cup level. … It’s been fun to watch her. She’s been kind of a role model of mine.”
(In early January, Erik Bjornsen qualified for the Peyonchang Games and will join Sadie in South Korea. The Bjornsen’s are among several men and women with Alaska ties who will represent the American delegation cross-country skiing, including Kikkan Randall, Logan Patterson, Caitlin Patterson, Rosie Frankowski, Logan Hanneman, Reese Hanneman, and Tyler Kornfield.)
We caught up with a busy Sadie Bjornsen while she was barnstorming through Europe on the World Cup circuit to get her take on the Olympics and a love for the outdoors (and the organic benefits its fish and game provides her for helping to achieve these Olympic dreams).
Chris Cocoles Congrats on qualifying for PyeongChang! What are you thoughts on going back to the Winter Olympics?
Sadie Bjornsen It is really exciting to make the Olympic team again. It was always a dream of mine since I was a young child to be an Olympian. Over the course of these past four years since Sochi, being an Olympic medalist has become my new dream and goal. I can’t wait to head to PyeongChang for another opportunity!
CC What was it like growing up in the Pacific Northwest and loving skiing?
SB I grew up in Mazama, Washington, a very small town of 200 people, with one person per square mile. Mazama is situated at the base of the amazing North Cascade Mountains and a beautiful valley full of outdoor opportunities. I grew up doing 24-mile hikes through the mountains with my family on the weekends, floating the river on hot summer days, mountain biking through the hills, and cross-country skiing from one town to the next, with little hot chocolate stops along the way.
I was lucky to have a family that viewed “playing outside” as the best opportunity for family time. This love for the outdoors and playing developed me into a competitive cross-country skier as I grew older. At first, racing was just family trips we would take to Snoqualmie Pass (in Washington) or Mount Bachelor, Oregon. Over the years, as I started winning races, I learned that sport could be the best job in the world!
CC You started as an alpine skier and then transitioned to cross-country. What was your main inspiration for making the switch?
SB Our family started in alpine skiing because my father had grown up doing some ski mountaineering and alpine skiing with his family, so it was a natural direction for our family to go. The closest alpine resort was a long 45-minute drive away – up to the Loup Loup ski area, between Mazama and Omak. On the other hand, the cross-country trails started from our back door and went on for nearly 100 kilometers across the valley. I remember always being cold riding on the chair lifts during alpine skiing, so I decided it made more sense, and sounded more fun to ski up the hill, rather than ride a chair lift up the hill.
This is when Nordic skiing became more of an interest to me. We also had a couple Olympians move into the Methow Valley, both neighbors to me – Leslie Hall and Laura McCabe. They were both Olympians in cross-country skiing, so they kind of started my Olympic dream. I wanted to be just like them.
CC You and your brother Erik are pretty close in age. Did you push each other growing up?
SB My brother and I are separated by 18 months and I also have a sister who is two years older than me. Between the three of us, everything naturally became a competition. Who could get to the car the fastest? Who could swim to the middle of the lake the fastest? Who could eat the most spaghetti? We grew up working on a construction site with my parents, who owned a construction business. As young kids, we learned how to work hard but enjoy it together. All of these things contributed to a family full of athletes. I remember one race as a young kid at Snoqualmie Pass, where my brother, sister (Kaley) and I made a little “family plan.” I would block for my sister in the front and my brother would block in the back. We traveled as this group of three little kids through the pack of master skiers and nearly won the race together. I remember it just feeling really fun! As we grew older, the competition between Erik and I was pretty fun. It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that Erik beat me for the first time in a ski race. I remember that day, because he told me, “You will never beat me again.” And that was true; I never did. To this day, despite him being considerably faster than me, he has helped push me in a supportive way. We are able to support, encourage and challenge each other in both training as well as racing.
CC Since there are two Bjornsen Olympians, who’s the best skier in the family?
SB Hmmm. That is a good question. Maybe you have to ask each other’s opinion. I think Erik is the best, because he is the fastest. But this question could be answered different by each of the four other members of my family.
CC How did the outdoors define who you are? What was your biggest passion when you weren’t skiing/training?
SB The outdoors has always been a way to see the world from new eyes. It has provided me with the opportunity to travel all over the world, and it has provided me with an opportunity to meet some pretty incredible people. When you walk outdoors and breathe in the fresh air, it is the most natural form of medicine! Suddenly, all the problems of the world can be put aside, and you can find true happiness! Some of my biggest passions when I am not ski training are hiking, backcountry skiing, camping, fishing, climbing, and bird hunting.
CC How much are you into fishing and/or hunting? Can you share any of your favorite stories?
SB I grew up vegetarian until I was about 20 years old. At that point, I was traveling the world and competing at an international level and I was struggling to get the fuel that I needed. As a result, I started eating a little bit of meat. I always ate fish as a kid, but no other types of meat. Right about that time I met my boyfriend, now fiancé (Jo Maubet), who had grown up both hunting and fishing. He grew up in France, but spent many of his summers in the states with his American grandparents doing these sorts of activities. He gradually introduced me into the Alaskan way of living off the land – hunting, fishing, berry picking and gardening. It didn’t take me long to realize that I loved it.
I love hiking super high into the mountains and chasing after ptarmagin, or biking way up to high streams in the mountains and fishing for dinner. For two years now, my fiancé and I have turned into “Alaskan vegetarians.” We eat a combination of moose, fish, grouse and ptarmigan, all things that we have caught or hunted. It makes me feel good as an athlete to know that I am fueling my body with the most natural fuel out there!
CC What was your main trigger point to go to Alaska and did you have a welcome to Alaska moment?
SB My main motivation to go to Alaska was University of Alaska (Anchorage), the school that was recruiting me in high school. [She eventually transferred to Alaska Pacific, which has a very successful skiing program that has produced multiple Olympians.] The coach at the time was Norwegian, and I knew (Norway) had a history of success in my sport, so I wanted to go to the best. [Bjornsen’s great-grandfather was Norwegian and emigrated to Seattle.] At the time, moving to Alaska was a second thought, and I don’t think it hit me until two weeks before it was time to leave that I was moving so far away. I had watched (the Alaska-shot movie) Into the Wild for the first time and suddenly I had this feeling I was moving to the middle of nowhere; I started freaking out. Fortunately, everything was already signed and a lot of my stuff had already been sent, so there was no turning back. I was pleasantly surprised as soon as I arrived to learn that Anchorage was pretty far from the movie I had watched a few weeks earlier.
CC Is there a most important benefit of you staying in and training in Alaska after you graduated from Alaska Pacific that’s more integral to what you do than if you were back down in the Lower 48?
SB One of the most valuable qualities of living in Alaska is the weather. Because we are so far north, we keep snow really long into the spring and we get snow really early in the fall. In addition, I spend one week (each) of June, July and August up on Eagle Glacier, just a short 45-minute drive and 10-minute helicopter ride away. Our team has a little house they maintain on the rocks above the glacier, so I spend one week of each summer month living and training on snow all day long. We also have very mild summer weather and we are never limited by heat, which is convenient for the amount we are training. I also train with the strongest team in the country, which pushes me every day to be the best I can.
CC What do you want to do after your competitive skiing career ends?
SB After I am done ski racing, I have a collection of things I want to do. I have my undergrad in accounting, so I would like to stay in that field. I also really look forward to being a mother! And one of the things I look forward to the most is having more free time to spend holidays with friends and family.
CC I’m a big sports fan and I get so excited about the Olympics. What’s it like to not only compete but to wear that Team USA gear on the snow and when you march with your teammates in the opening ceremonies?
SB There is so much honor and excitement pulling on the Team USA uniform. It is so much more than I ever dreamed. I love how suddenly, you become teammates with your entire country. You no longer are just representing yourself; you are representing your country and everyone who has ever helped you along the way! The Olympic rings have this incredible ability to put all the world’s differences aside, and for two weeks allow sport to bring everyone together. ASJ
Editor’s note: The PyeongChang Winter Olympics begins on Feb. 8, with the first cross-country skiing race scheduled for Feb. 10. For more on Sadie Bjornsen, check out her website (sadiebjornsen.com) and follow on Twitter (@sadzarue) and Instagram (@sbjornsen). Like at facebook.com/sadiebjornsenxc.