Alaska’s elite nordic skiers face tough decisions on European World Cup

A skier in a blue and red white striped race uniform skis on a snowy trail with spruce trees around
Hannah Halvorsen of APU Nordic Ski Center at a recent training session at Hillside Ski Area in Anchorage on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s top cross-country ski athletes are days away from the first races of the season in Europe, but the raging pandemic is forcing tough decisions among athletes. 

“I’d really like to race, but I’m definitely questioning going over there,” said Scott Patterson, a 2018 Olympian. 

He has plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The ski-loving Lillehammer, Norway just canceled a weekend of racing, with other venues threatening to follow suit. Cases in Europe are surging and COVID precautions on the road are ultra-strict, forcing athletes to spend much of their time cooped up in hotel rooms with little entertainment. And there’s also the danger of bringing the virus into a small town in Europe. 

“I’m starting to feel like we shouldn’t even put be putting ourselves in that situation. It seems like exacerbating the problem,” said Patterson, who skis for the APU Nordic Ski Center. 

World Cup veteran Rosie Brennan said that the U.S. Ski Team and International Ski Federation have designed a slew of new protocols to keep athletes and their host countries safe: safety goggles for flights, regular bleach wipe downs of hotel rooms, special hand sanitizer. There will also be testing every few days, and the dozen or so athletes will be subdivided into “pods” for eating and socializing to avoid unnecessary exposure. 

But with travel, there’s no way of avoiding all risks. With the week-to-week travel required for the World Cup circuit with races in a different country each weekend, there’s no way of using the “bubble” model that was successfully implemented by the NBA. 

“We’re not in a basketball arena or something like that. It’s outside, we’re traveling, we have to do different courses. That’s part of the racing experience, being on different courses and having different snow conditions and all that type of thing,” said Brennan. 

Some race venues have dubious records with COVID-19. Switzerland, for example, where races are scheduled to be held in December, was recently called “one of the world’s worst coronavirus hotspots” by Foreign Policy magazine, with a 27% positivity rate. Germany also has reported some of the worst rates of COVID-19  spread in recent weeks. 

If an athlete catches COVID-19, it means an automatic two week quarantine in a lonely hotel room.

“We will be left behind by our team…We’ll be responsible for ourselves,” Brennan said. The rest of the team, wax techs and coaches, will likely move on to the next venue while the COVID-positive athlete remains in that country locked in a hotel room. 

A skier in a blue jacket and red face covering talkks with another sksier standing with a lighter blue jacket
Scott Patterson (foreground) talks with APU Nordic Ski Center Program Director Erik Flora before a training session on Friday, Oct. 13, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Brennan, who serves as an athlete representative for US Ski and Snowbaord, said the sport’s governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS) could have done more to make it easier for athletes. One option would have been reducing the travel schedule by holding races at the same venue for several weekends, instead of moving each week. 

“They (FIS) did not involve athletes nearly enough to not only develop the protocols, but develop a calendar that makes sense,” she said. 

Getting left behind might not be the worst. Athletes have heard horror stories from other endurance athletes who have gotten sick with COVID and had debilitating effects for months. 

“We rely so much on our lungs and our heart, and that seems to be one of the really negative downsides of possible long-term effects from COVID. That’s something that I think has been on the forefront of all of our minds,” Brennan said.

For some athletes, winter race prizes and endorsement money make up the bulk of their income. A positive COVID-19 test could jeopardize all of that.

In anticipation of leaving this week, athletes are taking COVID precautions even more seriously. A positive test before flying could mean at least a  two week delay in the racing season. If some races are cancelled or if Europe locks down, there might not be another chance of getting in the country.

Athletes who are committed to going are doing their best to plan for the limited socializing. JC Schoonmaker, a UAA skier on his first long-term World Cup trip said he’ll try to keep busy with extra books and schoolwork. He considered bringing a hockey stick and skates. Brennan said she’s trying to find online volunteer opportunities for mentoring youth.

“You have to take into account your mental health and you don’t want to just lock yourself up. So kind of finding that that balances is definitely tricky,” said Brennan. She said she’s been avoiding grocery stores and other public gatherings for the duration of the pandemic, especially so in recent weeks before traveling. 

APU Nordic Ski Center coach Erik Flora said there’s not much to say to athletes who are struggling with the prospect of a season that takes away a lot of the fun of ski racing. 

“It’s going to take a special approach, you know, to be able to have big goals and to be flexible every day and to adjust all the time,” he said. 

For skiers like Patterson, all the adjustment might not be worth it. He says if he decides not to go, he’s looking forward to enjoying Southcentral Alaska’s backcountry. And, he says, he’s preparing for the 2022 Olympics. 

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