Ahead of the Pack

EHS cross-country skier Jen Rolfes blazes her own trail.
Jen Rolfes

“The one time I went cross-country skiing as a child,” says Edina High School senior Jen Rolfes, “I hated it. I went with my mom and grandma, and all we did was walk up a hill and ski down it.”

These are unlikely words coming from the captain of EHS’s Nordic Ski Team who made All-State last year when she placed No. 7 in Minnesota’s Nordic Ski Championship.

But Rolfes didn’t set out to be one of the fastest high school Nordic skiers in the state. She joined the ski team in seventh grade after her first cross-country running season because so many of her running teammates also skied. “I had such a great time running with them, so I thought I should give skiing another try.” Rolfes’ mother, who remembered her daughter’s adamant dislike for skiing as a child, was doubtful that Jen would stick with it, but she quickly proved she was serious about skiing.

“You can tell middle-school students from high-school students because they often lack the maturity—just because they are younger than the high school students,” says Andy Turnbull, who has been Rolfes’ coach at EHS for the last five years. “But Jen was never like that. She’s always had an amazing level of maturity, and she works incredibly hard.”

Skiing quickly became a priority for Rolfes. At the end of seventh grade she began to train with the Minnesota Valley Cross Country Ski Team, which draws skiers from across the Twin Cities. As a beginning skier, she sometimes felt like she was in over her head. She admits that when she traveled to Utah with the Midwest Junior Olympic team in ninth grade, she wasn’t prepared for the difficulty of the Salt Lake Olympic trails.

But her coaches supported and encouraged her, and her skills improved quickly. “It helps to have the same coaches year after year,” she says. “They know you and really believe in you.” Rolfes went from finishing almost last in the 2007 Junior Olympics to finishing seventh and making All-American in the 2008 Junior Olympics. She was voted most-improved on the Midwest Junior Olympic Team.

“Jen is always upbeat, and she’s a great listener, which is a necessary skill when you’re being coached,” says Randy Gibbs, one of Jen’s MN Valley coaches. “She learns quickly and is an example to others. The younger girls really look up to her.”

But it takes more than a good attitude and listening skills to go to the Junior Olympics three years in a row and be one of the top high school women skiers in the state; it also takes dedication. “Cross-country skiers are unique individuals who have to be really motivated to train,” coach Turnbull says. “So often we lack ideal training conditions. Sometimes it’s bitter cold or there is sloppy, wet snow or no snow at all. But we still train.”

Rolfes spends an average of15 hours a week practicing during peak training times and during the summer, when she spends mornings training with the MN Valley Team. “Cross-country skiing at this level takes a lot of heart and hard work,” Gibbs says. “Sometimes it means waking up early and heading to the track before school, even when it’s zero degrees.”

Skiing at this level also requires sacrifices. Rolfes has skipped trips with her church youth group because she didn’t want to miss a week of practice in the summer, and admits that out-of-state ski trips during the school year can be stressful. “Last year, I missed seven days of school to go to California for the Junior Olympics,” she says, “so I had to make up work and coordinate this with my teachers.”

But Rolfes acknowledges that it’s been worth it. “Traveling has expanded my horizons. I’ve gone to some real cool places, including Anchorage. And each year I’ve gone to the Junior Olympics, I’ve been the only Edina kid there. It’s exciting to realize there’s something beyond Edina.”

One of the most important things she says she’s gained through her skiing, though, are friends. “When you’re training with the same group of people as much as we train, you become really close.” In the summer, after the team trains on roller-skis in the morning, they often go out to breakfast and then hang out. “I like the competition, but it’s been so fun because there is so much Gibbs describes the MN Valley team as a tight-knit group. “They each have individual goals and team goals, and everyone is really supportive of each other.” Turnbull says the same thing about the Edina ski team: “The team doesn’t seem particularly cliquish, and everyone seems to get along.”

Turnbull thinks that one reason cross-country teams often develop into strong communities is because there are no playing-time issues. Unlike football, there isn’t a junior varsity field and a varsity field; everyone skis the same field on the same day. Gibbs adds that a sense of community develops when everyone is working together. “The parents need to be supportive of their child and the coach. The coach needs to be supportive of both the athletes and the parents, and the athletes need to support each other and help each other be the best they can be.” But Gibbs also says that the athletes need to have fun: “If the athletes are not having fun, it’s not going to work. They won’t put their hearts into it.”

Both of Rolfes’ ski teams seem to have perfected this system of mutual support and fun and the resulting sense of community. Certainly this leads to winning teams, but it also leads to stronger individuals. According to the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, encouragement from skilled coaches and a supportive team can promote positive self-perceptions, mature team development, and positive stress management and mental health, especially in young female athletes.

And indeed, the supportive community has helped ground Rolfes. When she was an eighth-grader and her family was going through a challenging time, the ski team offered her a refuge. “I became more involved in sports and other things like musicals, which kept me busy and allowed me to focus on different things—friends and being normal.” She didn’t feel she needed to talk with her teammates about what was going on in her life, but just knowing they were there, supporting her in other ways, helped.

Now Rolfes is ready for the next step. She’s considered the No. 5 best returning skier in the state, and she hopes to make All-State again and be in the top 10 and make All-American at the Junior Olympics. But she also has her sights on the fall. She has applied to five colleges—Colby, Bates, Middlebury, Harvard and Gustavus—and she can happily see herself at any of them. “I’m interested in continuing to ski,” she says, “but I’d also like to focus on different things. Maybe I’ll major in international relations, and I’d love to spend a semester abroad.” No matter what she decides to do, it’s clear she will approach it with maturity and dedication.”