Nordic skiing can whisper—at times the only sound resonating in winter’s air is the steady rhythm of skis caressing the snow, urging quick, smooth slides—even as muscles scream and lungs ache with every push to the finish. For the Edina Middle School and High School Nordic ski team, the voice of camaraderie can rise above the quiet and fill the 200-member team with the motivation to power on in the name of this nearly half-century-old program.
“There’s a place on the team for everybody,” Anne Hinrichs, parent/coach, says of the seventh- through 12th-grade athletes, ranging from beginners to state contenders. “It’s a huge spectrum,” she says. Hinrichs is the mother of two of the team’s athletes, Raegan, 17, (captain) and Sadie, 14. but while her daughters may have drawn her in as a team supporter, it was another child who drew her in as a volunteer and now coach. “I decided to head over to the high school last year on the first day of practice,” she recalls. “We already had snow, and, as usual, there would be a lot of brand-new skiers.”
“Our head coach Andy Turnbull likes to say it’s like watching Bambi on the ice—they are struggling to stay upright and get the hang of it,” Hinrichs says of beginner skiers. She approached novice skier and junior John Osler and gave him some pointers. “The next day, I returned to EHS and worked with a few other skiers,” she says. “As I was taking off my skis, John came over and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you. Do you think you could help me again? I’ve been working on the things we talked about yesterday.’” Hinrichs explained to him that she was a volunteer and couldn’t commit to coming every day. “But as practice time rolled around the next day, I couldn’t help but think of John and the other 200 skiers and busy coaches at EHS,” Hinrichs says. “I packed up my gear and headed over.” Hinrichs’ experience, while personal, may be indicative of the team’s broader culture—when it comes right down to it, the team is a family, which happens to include its share of siblings, and lends a steady hand until nerves are settled or muscles relax into competitive movement.
Turnbull explains that the sport attracts a variety of students. “It’s a sport that operates on two levels,” he says, adding that some students primarily participate for the social aspect, while others are dedicated to extending a ski across the conference, section and state finish lines. Whatever the motivation, Turnbull says Nordic skiing often forms lasting relationships among its athletes. He recalls a note he received from a former EHS Nordic skier. “‘When I signed up, I never considered myself to be an athlete,’” he recalls the student writing. But by her sophomore year in college, the EHS alumna raced in the American Birkenbeiner (Birkie), the largest cross country ski marathon in North America. “It’s one of those sports that people who may not view themselves as athletes [participate in], but it gives them a lifelong sport,” Turnbull says. “One thing that really impressed me last year was seeing beginner skiers take up the sport as seniors,” Hinrichs adds. “It’s impressive to me that 17- or 18-year-olds are willing to try a sport for the very first time as a senior. Instead of being self-conscious and reluctant, the students were willing to take up a new and often difficult sport.”
Combining different athletic goals among 200 student athletes can be nothing less than a challenge, but senior and team captain Talia Willmert, 17, doesn’t view it that way. “I think we are a very inclusive group and really want to see each other succeed,” she says. Talia needn’t look far to understand the importance of honoring all ranges of aspirations. As a three-sport athlete, Talia competes in cross country running, Nordic skiing and badminton at EHS, while her sister, sophomore Triana, 15, has her high beams singularly trained on Nordic skiing and hopes to compete on the junior national level. “They love it, and they support each other,” Marta Martinez-Davison, their mother, says.
From November through February, EHS’s Hornet hiihto trails (hiihto is Finnish for skiing), is the team’s afterschool home. Close to five kilometers of groomed paths weave and roll throughout the school’s campus. One would assume, since Edina is a hop, “ski” and a jump away from Frostbite Falls, that weather wouldn’t interfere with snowfalls to enhance skiing conditions. But the weather has a mind of its own, and EHS coaches occasionally use a round-the-clock snow machine to pick up where Mother Nature leaves off. “It’s a huge commitment that they make to ensure our kids can ski,” Hinrichs says, and it’s unique for a high school to have its own snow-making capabilities. “There are so many benefits to being on this particular team. It’s an opportunity to be outside in the winter, you’re surrounded by an amazing group of student athletes and you can literally walk right out the back door of Edina High School and be skiing, thanks to some really committed coaches, especially Paul Gage and Craig Jarvinen, who work tirelessly to groom trails and make snow if necessary.”
While workouts along the trails can be intense, coaches try to infuse some levity into practice sessions. Turnbull says, “We also try to make sure there is a giggle factor in most practices,” he says, but maintaining focus to condition and train just that much better than the next meet’s challengers is still the end goal. The skill and speed of an opponent can be the least of the skiers’ problems. Weather can prove to be the hardiest adversary. Turnbull says. “I’ve always maintained that cross country skiers are an exceptional group of kids,” given their abilities to stay the course despite bitter punches from wind and cold. The weather can also test the patience of the coaches, as they keep daily watch on how snow conditions can affect practices or meets.
While the regular Nordic season ends in February, Hinrichs says the team doesn’t intend to pack away its skis soon. She says the skiers are striving to qualify as a team for state this year. “It’s very clearly defined that it’s our goal this year,” she says. Talia is optimistic about this year’s team and down the line. “I think our team is really gaining momentum, so it’s really exciting to see,” she says. “We’re starting to realize what we’re capable of, and the next few years will be exciting.”
After the season melts into the EHS athletic annals, many Nordic athletes, including Turnbull, will frequently turn to dry-land training. “I’m on roller skis often, but, as the nights get cooler, the inclination to get out on skis rears its head,” he says. Turnbull might not be alone in his drive to hit the trails—he’ll probably be joined by 200 or more Nordic Hornets.