Cross-country ski stars encourage the next generation
Julia Kern looked out at the dozens of young cross-country skiers asking her questions and realized she could have been looking at herself five or 10 years ago.
The 2015 Waltham High graduate and US National Team member, who earned three starts in this winter’s World Championships in Seefeld, Austria, still has posters of Stratton Mountain School T2 teammates Sophie Caldwell and Jessie Diggins hanging in the bedroom of her childhood home.
Now she is competing with them at World Cups and trying to encourage the next generation of skiers in the booming sport alongside them at events like the Aug. 5 clinic in Lincoln with the Eastern Massachusetts Bill Koch Ski League and Cambridge Sports Union.
“It made me realize that it’s possible,” she said of similar events she attended when she began competitive racing with CSU at the Leo J. Martin Golf Course in Weston. “They seemed like really awesome people. But they also seemed normal. They seemed like anyone else. They were friendly and easy to approach. They passed down lessons and paved the way for us. It was incredibly inspiring.”
Kern was one of eight SMS T2 skiers — including Caldwell, a two-time Olympian, and Diggins, a gold medalist at the 2018 PyeongChang Games — who made the three-hour trip from the team’s home base in Vermont to do dryland training, answer questions, and sign autographs for the CSU and EMBK skiers. CSU has a roster of 54 competitive skiers, while EMBK is the largest youth cross-country ski program in New England with 220 members.
“It’s cool to see how excited they are,” said Diggins, who won America’s first women’s cross-country skiing medal in history when she raced to gold with Kikkan Randall in the women’s team sprint in South Korea. “This gives them a chance to interact with some role models and get to learn that even the big kids get nervous before races. I think that’s super important and kind of humanizes the World Cup.”
That was the take of rising Belmont High junior Shea Brams, who started skiing with EMBK when she was barely old enough to walk, and who this past winter raced to fourth in the U-18 sprint at Junior Nationals.
“Just to see Julia — and to know she was exactly where we were when she was growing up — it makes you think anyone can get there if they work really, really hard,” Brams said. “It’s so inspirational to have a gold medalist, and all these Olympians here, but at the same time it feels more real to know that they are people too. They are just people who work really hard at what they do.”
That was the case for Kern as she balanced school at Waltham High with traveling the country for national competitions, and to Europe for Junior World Cups. Now a four-year member of the US National Team, and part-time student at Dartmouth College, she won her first women’s national championship in the sprint in January.
Kern then qualified for the World Championships early in the World Cup tour and went on to finish 23rd in the sprint, 19th in the distance, and was on the US women’s relay team that finished fifth.
“To be on the women’s relay had always been a dream of mine,” she said, “and took many people by surprise when I made it.”
While it would have been a shock about a decade ago to have any US skier beyond Randall even threaten the medal stand, now Kern said that has become the expectation — with expectations only rising since Diggins and Randall broke through for the first gold.
“For me it was just cool to see the ripple effect,” Diggins said. “There were, like, 10 new chapters of the Minnesota Youth Ski League started after that. Hundreds of kids joined. More families were like: ‘Oh, cool. We’ll join that sport.’ For me, the coolest thing has been seeing that excitement spreading.”
Lincoln-Sudbury rising senior Laura Appleby has had that enthusiasm for the sport since she first joined EMBK when she was in fifth grade. Now she is getting a kick out of seeing her passion start to turn the mainstream corner among her classmates.
“This year in my French class I heard someone say the name Jessie Diggins,” said Appleby, who finished 10th in this winter’s Junior Nationals U-18 sprint. “That never happens that someone is talking about Nordic skiing. All of a sudden, it makes it more real.”
If Kern has anything to say about it, this is only the beginning.
“I came into the sport when the team getting a top 30 on the day was a really good day,” Kern said. “Now if someone is not in the top six — or on the podium — it’s a bad day for our team. From when I started racing to now things have really shifted with perspective. I think that’s really cool for the young skiers here to see other people achieve, and then going through the same programs, it makes you think it’s possible for you.”