How cross-country skiing brings Edina families together.
A vicious check left Tom Schaefer motionless on the ice. The crowd at Braemar Arena gasped when the 13-year-old Edina hockey player didn’t see the cheap shot coming his way. His nervous father Mark stared intently at the rink in search of a sign that his boy was OK.
This heart-stopping scene set the stage for a story about how giving up the contact sport allowed for more contact between a man and his two boys in another sport—cross-country skiing. Edina families praise the longevity allowed by skiing, and how easy it can be to get the whole family together for a skiing outing.
“It’s really a lifetime sport,” says Jan Guenther, an avid cross-country skier who taught Mark, the elder Schaefer, some skiing skills during her classes. “People come back to it in a variety of ways and all variety of time periods. And in the Minneapolis area, it’s so easy to ski the groomed trails around here with the park district and the amount of groups available.”
From Skates to Skis
Before that scary incident at the ice arena in 1998, every activity Tom Schaefer participated in was compared to hockey. His dad called the sport his “gold standard.”
“When we went to Disney World, he said, ‘This is almost as fun as hockey,’” Mark recalls. “He loved it.”
Tom was a lanky but strong-skating defenseman for one of Edina’s peewee teams, but his affection for the sport ended after the big hit. Tom was conscious as he lay on the ice, and he moved his feet because he knew his dad was watching.
“The injury was so frightening, and he thought he had injured his neck or had some sort of spinal injury,” Mark says. “He actually tore a ligament in his neck and had a concussion, but it was still frightening … When everyone left the locker room, he fell into me and sobbed. [He] said, ‘Dad, I’m not going to do that again.’”
Tom had suffered three concussions in his eight-year hockey career, but he didn’t want to stop competing in sports. To parlay his strong ice-skating ability, he considered speed skating and skiing as possible options. He settled on skiing, not thinking about how it would keep bringing him, his brother and his father together more than a decade later.
Tom’s younger brother, Carl, didn’t have the same love affair with hockey and wanted to be like his older brother, so he clipped his feet into skis as well. They both went on to compete for the Edina High School varsity nordic ski team.
“That desire to win is still a large motivator,” Tom says, of putting down the hockey stick and picking up ski poles.
The Schaefer boys have since grown into men and their old man is nearing retirement. Tom, 27, works for Wells Fargo in San Francisco, where he’s working on an MBA from Berkeley. Carl, 22, recently graduated from the University of Minnesota. Mark, 59, is a psychologist and part-time professor at the university’s medical school. Their lives have pulled them in different directions, but they come together to ski.
When Tom returned from the University of Wisconsin-Madison a few years ago, Mark proposed that they get back into skiing and enter the American Birkebeiner ski race in Northwestern Wisconsin. Little did Tom and Carl know that the race was a commitment of more than a one weekend in February.
“Well, my dad is actually pretty clever, and what I failed to realize [until] after agreeing to it, is that this is going to take up a lot of time on the weekends,” Tom says. “He wanted to find something that was more than [just] stopping by the house, something more regular. We spend one afternoon a week doing this.”
To train for the Birkie, Tom and Carl come over to Mark and (mother) Nancy’s Edina home for lunch, a waxing of their skis, some training at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington and dinner back at home.
“I enjoy skiing with them, but I enjoy the eating and waxing with them as much as the skiing,” Mark says. “At this age, it’s hard to see your kids, so it’s a great way to be together.”
If he stuck with hockey, Tom doesn’t envision this camaraderie around sports. Given their ages, they wouldn’t be on the same hockey team and a shortage of ice time limits when you can play. But whenever it fits their schedule, they can ski.
Mark says, “It’s a pleasure to be active when you are twice as old as your kids,” but he can’t keep up with Tom and Carl. He will sometimes stop and just watch his boys—or doesn’t stop and watches his sons pass him.
“I watched them finish a loop, and the two of them were together … enjoying each other,” Mark says. “It was really a great thing for a parent to see.”
A Family Affair
Edina software engineer Paul Gage helped coach Carl on the varsity ski team a few years ago. The assistant coach knows of bonds like the Schaefers’ and has tried to foster a similar relationship with his family of five. His 16-year-old daughter, Greta, now skies for the Hornets, but doesn’t want much to do with the sport when dad is around.
“She enjoys doing it when her friends enjoy doing it,” he says. “When daddy gets involved, it’s not as enjoyable anymore.”
Paul Gage hopes it’s just teenage angst and contrarian behavior because when his daughter, his wife, Sheryl, and their 12-year-old twin sons, Owen and Will, have gotten out on the ski trail, the memory is invaluable.
“When the whole family is together,” he says, “it’s certainly a highlight of my winter.”
Where to Ski
Almost all 1,500 acres of parks in the City of Edina are open to cross-country skiing, says parks superintendent Vince Cockriel.
The city doesn’t groom trails, but residents can clip into their skis just about anywhere they wish.
Some popular spots are Braemar Golf Courses and Bredesen Park as well as three locations near Edina, including Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, Wood Lake Nature Reserve in Richfield and Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis.
Hyland is a hit for many skiers. “They have beautiful courses,” says Edina skier Mark Schaefer. “The Three Rivers Park District people take great care of the trails. That’s where we go more than anywhere.”
The Edina High School Nordic ski team groom trails on the school grounds for their practices, and when they aren’t using them, it’s open to the public.
For more information, contact the Edina Parks and Recreation office at 952.826.0437 or the Three Rivers Park District at 763.559.9000.
The Edina Center for Adult Education offers classes for beginners and intermediate skiers in January and February. Up to 12 skiers can enroll in the day and evening classes hosted by the community education program as well as Hoigaard’s in St. Louis Park.
–For more information, call 952.848.3952.
Kids ages 4-14 also can join the Minnesota Youth Ski League.
More than 1,400 kids are members in the league’s 20-plus clubs in Minnesota and four in Wisconsin. One of the clubs is just down the road at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington.
Membership costs $40 per year and includes eight weeks of instruction. Skiers must provide their own equipment.
For the die-hards, the weekend warriors and the family getaways, there’s the American Birkebeiner, the second largest cross-country ski race in North America. From Cable to Hayward, Wis.-area the Birkie’s many events range from a 5K/10K family fun ski to more the serious 12K, 23K and 50K and 54K races.
—For more information on the February 2012 event, visit birkie.com.