Whatever this winter brings, it won’t be the Olympics. No opening or closing ceremony, no pin trading, cowbell clanging, tear jerking or faster-higher-stronger mania.
And that’s just fine with East Montpelier’s Liz Stephen. Though she’s one of the top skiers in the U.S., last season was a bit of a letdown: She had a bum foot, some bummer results and no hardware to bring home from the 2010 Olympic Games.
But, in a couple of months, Stephen will take part in an event that could make the Vancouver Winter Olympics look like a backyard skating party. She’ll be racing in the Nordic World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway, one of the most highly anticipated competitions in her sport.
Never heard of Stephen? Try switching gears from Alpine to Nordic. That’s what she did at the age of 15, after training as an Alpine racer, and she doesn’t regret taking up a less visible sport.
So far, trading fat skis and gates for skinny skis and gut-busting efforts has paid off: Stephen is one of the rising stars on the American Nordic squad. And, though she’s just 5-foot-2 and 115 pounds, she could kick just about any Vermonter’s butt in any number of sports, including Alpine skiing.
“I grew up playing all sports,” Stephen says. “Mostly, my brother and I had extra amounts of energy and needed to burn it off somewhere — we just were always running around doing whatever we could — soccer, T-ball, softball.”
When she wasn’t on the field, Stephen ran for the sake of running; in the sixth grade, she was seeking out races and four-mile training loops around her family’s home. “It was just the purity,” she says of her attraction to running. “You just throw your shoes on and go out the door, and it’s your time. It clears your head and gets rid of some energy.”
Stephen tried basketball one winter, but that didn’t stick because she was too busy Alpine skiing. The Stephen family spent nearly every weekend racing at Burke Mountain. For six years, Liz attended the Burke Mountain Academy (BMA), where her mom occasionally coached.
Founded in 1970, BMA has become a venerable factory of top Alpine ski racers. More than 100 alums — including Diann Roffe, Julie Parisien and Erik Schlopy — have been recruited by the U.S. Ski Team or other national ski teams. Success at BMA is often a trip straight to downhill stardom.
But Stephen was tired of going downhill — or at least of racing on a set course. “I wasn’t in love with Alpine anymore; I didn’t want to be in gates every day,” she says of an early realization at BMA. “I wanted to ski the mountain.”
BMA has no program for backcountry skiers, but it does have a Nordic program. Once Stephen tried the sport as a way to cross-train in the winter, she realized she could permanently make the switch to skinny skis.
That is, after a couple of stumbles. She first got on cross-country skis at an elite camp in West Yellowstone, Mont. “I was going down one of the hills and thought I could just carve a turn,” Stephen recalls. “But the skis obviously don’t carve the same way, and I just went straight off the trail. I realized it was a very different sport, for sure.”
Still, cross-country skiing clicked quickly for Stephen. By 2004, when she was 17, she broke into the top 20 at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nor-Am Cup; the following year, she competed in the FIS Junior World Ski Championships in Finland — and earned a spot on the U.S. Ski Team.
“It was meant to be,” says Stephen, who still skis downhill in both Vermont and the Rockies in the spring. (She lives part time in Park City, Utah, where the U.S. Ski Team is based and has its world-class Center of Excellence training facility.) She devotes her summers to working out in the gym, road biking and slaying a lot of the competition in running races.
Last September, Stephen was the first woman to finish Utah’s XTERRA Wheeler Canyon Xduro, a 21-kilometer trail run that includes a 2300-foot mountain climb. Competitors who finished in less than three hours earned a spot in the Trail Running World Championship, scheduled for this Sunday, December 5, on Oahu. Stephen finished in less than 90 minutes.
Hawaii is about 7000 miles from Kuusamo, Finland, where Stephen competed last week in the second World Cup of the season. She just finished 25th in the 10K at Gällivare, Sweden — pretty good for an American Nordic skier — and says she’s feeling good about the winter ahead. “I’m really psyched with the season so far,” Stephen says. “I’m confident that there’s more to come from me, and from the team, as well.”
Her teammate Kikkan Randall was 19th at the Swedish World Cup, after winning FIS races (not quite as prestigious as World Cup races) in Muonio, Finland. U.S. Ski Teamer Kris Freeman also won at Muonio. And Andy Newell of Shaftsbury, the only other Vermonter on the U.S. cross-country squad, finished last season ranked fourth in the world as a sprinter. At Vancouver last winter, the U.S. Ski Team’s Nordic combined (including ski jumping and cross-country skiing) athletes won the first U.S. Olympic medals ever in their sport. Clearly, Stephen is part of a trend with momentum.
Held every two years, the Nordic World Ski Championships are “as big a deal, if not even better competition, than the Olympics,” declares Stephen. And this winter, the competition is in Oslo, considered the birthplace of skiing. As many as a half-million fans are expected to hit its snowy streets. “You don’t get the same kind of extras that you get at the Olympics,” says Stephen. “People are there to focus more on competition.”
Scheduled for February 23 to March 5, the championships make for a nice long stretch in what can be a World Cup skier’s whirlwind-paced schedule. “It’s four months of travel,” says Stephen. “We live out of suitcases; you’re on the road in small quarters, and sometimes — all the time — something goes wrong: Somebody’s not having a good week, or somebody’s having a bad season, or somebody’s sick, or somebody’s just in a bad mood. You have to learn how to deal with all that’s getting thrown at you; you have to figure out how to stay positive even when you’re not having a good time at all.”
Still, anyone reading Stephen’s blog, Full Sass, would never call her the Negative Nancy of the group; her entries are entertaining, insightful and energetic. The blog, she says, gives her a pastime on the road and will serve as a souvenir for one of the world’s best cross-country skiers.
“This isn’t going to last forever,” says Stephen, who sometimes checks in with her family in Vermont when the skis aren’t going straight. “There certainly are times,” she says, “when I’m calling home, going, ‘Man, some homemade applesauce would taste really good right now.’”