While the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the athletic calendar and forced modifications in all sports, the Nordic ski community has grown considerably this winter.
Since skiers are separated into cohorts and pods in line with state guidance, coaches are delegating leadership to experienced skiers and, in some instances, to alumni, as they look to give student-athletes of all levels equal instruction.
Ayden Nichol skied for Bowdoin last year after leading Concord-Carlisle to a state championship as a senior in 2019. Now he’s volunteering as an assistant coach at his alma mater while taking a year off from college.
“It’s great to be able to give back,” said Nichol, who recovered from a stress fracture in his foot to win the individual state title in 2019.
“When I was racing, I always wished I had more time to engage with the younger kids. Now I’m psyched to see these kids coming on strong this year. It’s really rewarding to see how far they’ve come.”
His sister, Ella, was a sophomore in 2019 when C-C clinched a girls’ and boys’ state title for the first time since 1983. Now one of six senior captains in her fourth year with the Patriots, Ella leads one of five pods when the team practices three days a week on the manmade snow at Leo J. Martin Golf Course.
“This season has made me realize how special the Nordic community is,” Ella said. “It’s always been a smaller sport, so recruiting new people is important and we’re happy to share our passion. Now the team ranges from new kids who just tried on skis, to seniors who have skied since they were little, to alumni. The whole range is special.”
Some new skiers are finding immediate success at races, held each Wednesday for the Mass Bay Ski League East and Tuesday for Mass Bay Ski League West.
Weston senior Caroline Schuckel, who won the 2019 US Rowing U-17 national championship in pairs with Darcy Foreman, is pacing the Weston/Waltham Nordic team in her first official season. During the last Mass Bay West race on Jan. 13, she placed 18th and junior Ella Wozek, another first-year skier, placed 21st.
Schuckel has been training 20 hours a week since her junior year, setting three world records on the rowing machine for her age group. She’s also played ice hockey for 10 years, but decided to try Nordic skiing this winter.
“I’ve spent the last 11 months training alone and I found myself missing the environment, competition, and community that comes with being part of a team,” said Schuckel, who is committed to row at Princeton.
“I had heard that cross-country skiers are among the fittest at the Olympics and I can see why. I didn’t expect it to be such a technical sport, but my muscle memory from hockey and cardio capacity from rowing has helped.”
Of the 21 skiers on the Weston/Waltham roster, nine are new to the sport. Of those, six are completely new to skiing, and two had limited competitive experience. But the fourth-year program is having its best season with seven skiers routinely in the Girls A Bracket, including four new members of the team.
“It’s surprising because it’s a sport where form matters very much and it can take years to get great form,” said Weston coach Nicole Freedman. “They’ve picked it up very quickly and they’re incredibly strong athletes, so they’ve been able to race with people.”
Weston co-opted with Waltham two years ago, but Waltham has a few more experienced skiers. This season, a number of track athletes from Waltham and several rowers from the Weston side have joined the Nordic team.
Waltham coach Chris Daly has leaned on help from his son Lucas, who has nearly 10 years of experience with Nordic racing in the Bill Koch Youth Ski League.
“[Lucas] is almost like an assistant coach for Nicole,” Daly said. “He’ll demonstrate all sorts of techniques and if we break up into groups, the coaches can give new skiers intense instruction and he’ll go off with five or six better skiers.”
Results aren’t necessarily the main focus in a challenging season, as coaches look for ways to give all their skiers equal attention.
The Wayland Nordic program has 44 racers with more than 20 new skiers. According to Wayland coach Chris Li, a typical season might feature five to eight new skiers, but the circumstances have led to increased participation.
“It’s about finding creative ways to break up the team so you can give attention to all the skiers,” Li said. “Traditionally XC skiing is a very close-knit group, but because we have to break up into pods, first-year skiers don’t have as much interaction as they would in the past. It’s been interesting, but for the most part, kids are having fun.”
Social distancing is a bit easier for Concord-Carlisle since the program is quite literally a family affair. There are eight groups of siblings on the teams, including two sets of twins and two sets of triplets. Plus, five of the 17 new additions to the program already had siblings on the roster.
Those skiers are eager for more training reps and the opportunity to compete. With no practices scheduled this past weekend, many C-C skiers took independent trips out to the Berkshires to look for natural snow at locations such as Notchview or Berkshire East that usually host state meets.
There are tentative plans to hold an Eastern Massachusetts open for U-16 competitors in February, which would be a nice carrot for those newcomers.
“It feels like the old days, where kids are outside and it’s festive,” said C-C coach Jeff Campbell. “It’s not quite the same competition we have when 15 to 20 skiers have a mass start side-by-side, but it’s the next best thing and coaches and everybody is stepping up to make it work.”
“The real silver lining to this challenge is that we’ve found a lot good leadership.”
▪ All Mass Bay West Alpine ski teams are competing at Nashoba Valley Ski Area on Thursdays since the mountain is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. With state guidelines limiting use to 96 to 110 racers per time slot, each program can race only six skiers in succession, in a cohort.
▪ The MIAA Tournament Management Committee voted Wednesday to adopt a new power ratings system for statewide tournaments beginning in Fall 2021. The system, developed by Globe correspondent Jim Clark, combines strength of schedule with margin of victory or defeat. The TMC is consulting point differential specifications with individual sport committees.
▪ High schools are getting creative with ways to stream home games. Check in with individual schools to see how you can view games on the NFHS Network, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and on local cable access.
▪ Duxbury athletic director Thom Holdgate was given the NIAAA Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Athletics . . . Dartmouth’s Andrew Crisafulli was named Massachusetts Athletic Director of the Year by MSSADA.