This trip to Beijing is the culmination of Julia Kern’s own comeback story.
A Waltham native, the 24-year-old Kern is competing in the Winter Olympics as a member of the US cross-country ski team. Unsure of what to expect but excited, Kern has persevered through adversity to make her Olympic debut.
“From what I’ve been told, I think it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience in many different ways,” Kern said from a pre-Olympic training camp in Livigno, Italy. “Not just in terms of the Olympics, but the country we’re traveling to and the environment we’ll be in, compounded with COVID.
“All I want to make sure I do is enjoy it, really be present in the moment and give it my best.”
A 2015 Waltham High School graduate, Kern got her first exposure to cross-country skiing at just 15 months old when visiting her grandparents in Germany. She started ski racing at age 7. It soon became her thing, as she trained at the Leo J. Martin Ski Track in Weston with the former Cambridge Sports Union club team, now Eastern Mass. Cross Country Juniors.
Of the seven junior national champions Rob Bradlee has coached, Kern has been the best because of her ability to overcome adversity and her all-around athleticism, as she played basketball and ran track growing up.
Bradlee, Kern’s coach during her early club career, remembers a 10-year-old skier beating experienced adults during Tuesday night races in Weston.
“She had a lot of injuries, illness and things in high school, but it was her ability to keep training or work around them and stay positive, that’s what makes her an elite athlete,” Bradlee said.
Kern didn’t join Team USA officially until 2017, but started traveling to races around the world soon after starting the sport competitively, with the encouragement of her Waltham High teachers.
A two-time World Championship medalist (2017 juniors, 2020 U23), Kern became the youngest American to podium at the World Cup with a third-place finish in the freestyle sprint in Plancia, Slovenia, in December 2019. While training, she completed her Dartmouth degree last spring, majoring in economics and minoring in human centered design, and competed with the Stratton Mountain School elite program, SMS T2.
“It’s been quite the journey, actually,” Kern said. “After that podium, I had a breakout performance but also some setbacks.”
She still isn’t sure why she struggled. But Kern acknowledges that a lack of social interaction and an unusual training schedule due to the pandemic took a toll. Add in a nagging hamstring injury, and the 2020-21 winter season didn’t go her way.
“We were just going week by week, and fell into this pattern of not getting a physical or mental break,” Kern said. “And the COVID stress, too, I was just worried. That’s the only thing I can pinpoint, but I still will never know.”
The lifting of restrictions paved the way for a more normal winter season this year and another breakout. A national-team training camp and time in Germany helped her find her groove. Two weeks of hard training, one week of recovery.
She also focused on doing what she loves outside of skiing — spending time with friends and family.
Coming into this winter season, Kern “felt a lot more like herself.”
Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, a two-time Olympian and former teammate of Kern’s who recently retired, first met Kern at Stratton Mountain School. Both Dartmouth alumnae, they spent three seasons on the World Cup team. Hamilton said Kern’s passion, grit, and “genuine love for the sport” set her apart.
“It’s very obvious she feels lucky to make her passion for her job and her lifestyle,” Hamilton said. “I haven’t met many people who can push through obstacles with a smile on her face. And I think this year it’s started to come together for her.”
In December, Kern and teammate Jessie Diggins, a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, placed second in the World Cup team sprint in Dresden, Germany.
“Top form,” Bradlee said.
“I was a bit nervous going into the season not knowing what went wrong last year,” Kern said, “but I was really excited to find my form early on and have some really good races this year, feeling a lot more like myself again, even better than when I podiumed.”
US cross-country coach Matt Whitcomb noted that Kern lived with Diggins for nearly half of the first pandemic year. She never let her struggles show.
“She didn’t dive in internally and get lost in the difficulties of struggling, instead staying positive and having decent performances because of it,” Whitcomb said. “For her to come out of last season quite disappointed yet still so positive, optimistic, and true to her character, it was no surprise to me that she was able to turn things around.”
Kern hasn’t been in the United States since mid-November, and since then, she has competed in Switzerland, Finland, Norway, and Germany, where she saw her family at Christmas.
Patrick O’Brien, Kern’s coach of five years with SMS T2, said all of the skiers’ biggest challenge in Beijing will be “navigating the environment that is the Olympics in a place like China.”
“But the American athletes who spend six months a year living out of a duffle bag away from home might have an advantage,” O’Brien said. “Julia, she’s adaptable, and an athlete like that is greatly positioned for success.”
Kern has been at a pre-Olympic training camp in Italy, at approximately the same altitude as Beijing, and is scheduled to arrive Saturday in Beijing.
Unlike some sports in which athletes qualify for specific events, cross-country ski teams prepare athletes to compete in multiple races. Kern will likely race in the sprint and skiathlon, Whitcomb said.
“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” Kern said. “I just want to be able to feel good, have good races, and be able to fight.”