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Five cross-country skiers on a race track, with a crowd of people on a bridge overhead.

Spectators typically crowd the bridge to cheer for skiers during races at Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine.
Photo by Patrick Horne

  • A Lifelong Sport: Nordic Skiing through a Pandemic

    On Friday nights in January, the Freeport High School Nordic ski team can be found crammed into a small room off the gymnasium. The sign outside the door labels it a storage closet, but periodically someone on the team covers over this sign with a piece of masking tape that says, “SKI ROOM.”

    Beneath this sign, gear is piled along the wall: backpacks, jackets, boots, sneakers, and the occasional musical instrument. Music and laughter drift out whenever the door opens, which is often—the ski room is a hive of activity. The skiers and their coaches will spend hours waxing their skis in preparation for Saturday’s race, but the ritual of waxing is, more than anything, a social event. As assistant coach Elysha Dyer said, “For high school skiers, those are where the memories are.”

    Having graduated almost two years ago, I quite agree: many of my best memories from my time on the Freeport High School Nordic ski team don’t involve skiing. In a year that will bring many changes to the sport (and high school sports in general), I wanted to know what the Freeport skiers, coaches, and parents are doing to preserve tradition and a sense of community.

    In a normal season, Freeport skiers usually race twice a week. Wednesday races are small, local, and low-stakes. Saturdays in January and February bring high school skiers from across the state of Maine together for iconic races such as Telstar Relays, SASSI Memorial, and Leavitt Hornet Classic. These larger races last all day, including a boys’ race, a girls’ race, and an awards ceremony. For the racers, it’s intense. Noah Hight, a 2020 graduate, described the atmosphere of Saturday races as “a feeling of expectation that you can’t escape from, a build-up until your race, and you can see that everyone is kind of dealing with this in their own way.” He added, “Joel will bring out the wax table if it’s really serious.”

    Two people in heavy winter wear work on sets of skis at an outdoor work station.
    Freeport High School Nordic ski team coaches Joel Hinshaw and Elysha Dyer help skiers wax their skis before important races, such as SASSI Memorial at Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine.
    Photo by Patrick Horne

    Joel Hinshaw has been coaching the team for eighteen years. “The families are fun, easygoing. They like to be challenged. They like to be outside and have all kinds of adventures. That lifestyle is Nordic skiing in some ways,” he said. “Why I come back is basically that, the Nordic lifestyle.”

    The Nordic lifestyle is a huge time commitment for skiers, coaches, and parents. Practices after school sometimes go past sunset, and Saturday races are all-day affairs. But, as all my interviewees noted, the social aspect of Nordic skiing (also known as cross-country skiing) creates a strong sense of community.

    “It’s a pretty big social event beyond racing,” said Tom Robinson, another 2020 graduate. Each team has its camp set up somewhere in the venue lodge or parking lot. The school bus is base camp, with skiers milling about, changing into racing gear, testing wax, and warming up. Coaches are busy handing out race bibs, waxing skis, and advising skiers on warmups and race strategy. Parents and families arrive closer to race time, and with them come crock pots of soup and containers packed with muffins, cookies, and brownies. Spectators line sections of the course, cheering loudly and ringing cowbells.

    “Cowbells at races is just kind of a cool thing,” said Caleb Hunter, class of 2020. “I don’t know how and where that started, but I always thought that was cool.”

    Family support both demonstrates and creates the intergenerational aspect of the Nordic skiing community. Many kids start skiing at a young age with their parents, and those who start skiing later often wind up pulling their whole family into the sport. “You can have fans of a basketball team, but the difference is that they don’t all play basketball,” said Jane Dawson, a senior.

    One person skis around a bed on a course, while a small crowd of spectators on the sideline watch.
    Crowds of parents, siblings, friends, and coaches line the course at Black Mountain, as Tom Robinson races past.
    Photo by Patrick Horne

    At Nordic ski races, parents and younger siblings can often be found on the trails, skiing and cheering for the racers. Races are, as Elysha said, “familial.”

    Races bring together more than just teammates and their families. Every skier I interviewed noted that forming friendships with skiers from other teams was a huge part of their high school skiing experience. “The community is different from other sports,” Jane said. “You get into it, and it becomes your friend group. You meet other people independent from your school but who you have a lot in common with. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Nordic skier who I don’t love. That’s why I’m still doing it this year.”

    This season, there will be no state championship races. If Saturday races happen at all, limits on gathering size mean that spectators will be barred from the racecourse. Skiers will be required to wear masks at all practices and races. And the ski room is closed for the season. These changes are especially disappointing for seniors, who will miss out on their final year of competitive high school skiing.

    Though she expressed disappointment, Jane remained optimistic about the social aspect of skiing: “Right now I’m just content to enjoy skiing, go on the weekends, enjoy the Nordic community that I’ve built over the past few years.”

    Both Joel and Elysha said that in the absence of races, this season will have a different focus. Without the pressure of developing fitness for racing, skiers can use this time to get more comfortable on skis. Elysha said, “This will be a year to focus on the fact that skiing is a lifelong sport and not just a high school sport. Nordic will be a lifetime sport for me, and I want to give that to other people.” That is why she coaches.

    Joel recognizes what the seniors are losing this year, but he says that for other skiers this season will not be a loss. “We’ll be approaching the crew with more of a ‘let’s go have some fun’ attitude,” he said.

    Three people work on a set of skis indoors.
    Sam Robinson and Caleb Hunter spend the nights before ski races waxing their skis.
    Photo by Patrick Horne

    Transportation will be the biggest challenge. “There will just be a lot more hoops to jump through on the administrative level to get to the actual skiing part,” said Jane. Both coaches expressed worry about getting transportation to the trail systems where the team usually practices. School buses and drivers have always been in short supply, but this has rarely created difficulty. Carpooling is no longer an option.

    “It can be a fun year if we can figure out the transportation part,” said Joel, laughing. He plans on having practice at a variety of locations this year to change things up. “Hopefully we can go out and do some exploration. Instead of going to Pineland all the time, we can go to Brunswick, Quarry Road, or the golf course. We can try different places.”

    Though racing is important to many skiers, it is not the heart of the Freeport High School Nordic skiing experience. When I asked team members about their favorite Nordic traditions and memories, no one mentioned the actual racing. Waxing in the ski room, playing games on skis, and skiing easy for hours on Sundays are what they treasure. Some of those traditions will be taken away this year, but the essence of skiing—spending time outside together—will remain. Erin Coughlin, class of 2019, said that one of her favorite traditions was long Sunday skis with her dad. At the heart of skiing is a love for spending time outdoors, and this is COVID-proof.

    “This is a sport that was designed for social distancing,” Jane said.

    On December 18, shortly after I finished conducting interviews, the Department of Education in Maine moved Cumberland County into “yellow” for COVID precautions, halting extracurricular activities. Nordic practices are on hold until Cumberland County is moved back into “green,” but the skiers continue to meet and ski together, without their coaches. In these uncertain times, one thing’s for sure: the act of skiing cannot be taken away.

    Severl people on skis on an open, flat area.
    A favorite team activity for skiers on the Freeport High School Nordic ski team is playing the game “sharks and minnows” on skis.
    Photo by Patrick Horne

    Lily Horne interned at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 2020. She is a sophomore student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she studies anthropology and skis whenever she gets the chance.

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