Excellent and efficient

NMU ski team continues to find success nationally

Journal Sports Writer
MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University Nordic skiing team has been achieving high levels of success for many years and both hard work and excellence is expected.
You’ll see the skiers on sunny days rolling past on Lakeshore Drive, diligently focused on the road in front of them, even though it will be months before snow will litter the ground in Marquette.
They hold themselves to high standards and even an All-American finish isn’t enough sometimes, which says something about how impressive the program is.
When asked what has been the key to all of these triumphs, longtime Wildcats coach Sten Fjeldheim says it comes down to getting the best athletes and not just the most talented ones.
“We have to recruit the right kids, not just ones that get along, but ones that push each other,” he said. “I also hold my thumb pretty close to the heartbeat of what is going on and I think that we’ve established a culture within the group.
“The athletes wouldn’t tolerate someone for being lazy and they have to be really diligent. We start the second week of May and we take two weeks off in April. It takes a lot of time and discipline and you have to live the lifestyle of an athlete 24/7.
“Even if you’re talented and people have told you that, there are a lot of other talented people on the course. Talent only takes you so far. Work ethic, determination and smarts will take you the rest of the way.”
His four keys to success were evident at the recent NCAA Championships when the Wildcats earned four All-American awards.
One of the honorees was former NCAA national champion Fredrik Schwencke. Two years ago, the Norwegian won the title in the 20-kilometer freestyle despite battling the flu and had to deal with that issue again this year. Although he didn’t win a championship this time around, he was still happy to get one last award his senior year.
“Winning a national title is what it’s all about, so that was awesome,” Schwencke said. “When I won the national championship, it was the second of the two races and I got sick before the first one. I wasn’t sure how the race would go or if I was even going to be able to, but I felt super good the next day, so winning it was unexpected.
“This year, it was the third year in a row where I started feeling sick before the first one. I still ended up having a good race, but in the second one, once the lead pack turned up the pace, I had nothing left. I wish I had done better, but it was nice to get one last All-American before I was done.”
Even though Schwencke wasn’t entirely pleased with how things went, Fjeldheim praised his efforts and thinks he has the potential to have a good professional career.
“We’re the type of sport where you can’t fake it,” he said. “Freddy tried and he was with the lead for the first lap, but after the second, he was dead.
“He was a great leader for us and he’s a multi-time All-American and he’s been to U.S. nationals a few times. He’ll go back to Norway after graduation, but I think he’ll keep racing. There are a lot of good teams out there.”
Adam Martin also had a strong performance for the Wildcats as he took home two All-American honors, finishing sixth in the 20K free and seventh in the 10K classic. Like Schwencke, Martin wanted to do better, but he was also content with how things turned out. After graduation in May, he hopes to join a professional ski team.
“I went there with high hopes and maybe didn’t race as well as I would like to,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, though, they were really fast skiers and I’m happy with how I finished.”
Fjeldheim says that Martin has made a lot of progress over his career and that he’s got a lot of potential to earn a professional spot.
“Adam is extremely smart and he’s really got a bright future,” Fjeldheim said. “I’ve seen him make an incredible adjustment from his freshman year till now. He’s way stronger and trained a lot more than he used to.
“There are also a lot of uncontrollable variables in our sport like how steep the hills are and how fast the downhills are, how tight the corners are, whether it’s warmer or colder, snowing or not. Adam has adjusted well to those things, though. He has a long list of successful races.
“He’s also been a good team captain and he’s very analytical. I’ll meet with him on occasion and he has his whole next month laid out. That’s what I want to see with my upperclassmen. If they want to be on the U.S. team or the Olympic team, they have to start taking control and understand how to do their training. Adam had done that very well.”
Northern’s final All-American was Vivian Hett, who placed sixth in the women’s 5K classic. The Wildcats almost had two more All-Americans on the women’s side, but Kristen Bourne and Nicole Schneider were just a few seconds outside of the top 10.
Unlike her male counterparts who had mixed feelings when looking at the final NCAA standings, Hett was ecstatic with how her day went.
“That was so awesome,” she said. “When I found out that I had got it, I fell to the ground and started crying a little bit.
“That was my goal at the beginning of the season. I made it there (NCAA Championships) last year and I was hoping to get a top 10, but I didn’t.
“So this year, I told myself that I am going to do it and I’m still stoked about it.”
“Vivian has gotten better since she started,” Fjeldheim said. “She has improved quite a bit from last year and she had a great race, so it was fun to see because she works really hard.”
Dedication is important, but Hett also says that you need to have fun at the same time to be successful on the course.
“You have to have motivation,” she said.
“You have to want it and enjoy it. The minute you don’t love it, you aren’t motivated. At the same time, I love skiing, but when I’m doing it, I just tell myself to keep going. That’s what coach says: ‘When you let your mind wander, you won’t be in it at the end.'”
With another four All-American awards added to its list, it’s pretty clear that NMU’s success won’t be wandering off any time soon.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.