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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

“Dream another dream, this dream is over” – Van Halen

Yes, it is all over.  My quest to make the 2002 Olympic Team ended with the completion of the 50K classic race in Bozeman, Montana on January 13.  Over ten years of work finally comes to a close. As most of you know already, I did not make the team.   My chances to make the team rested almost exclusively on this year’s Nationals in Bozeman.  Because of waxing miscues, unpredictable weather, and timing errors I did not perform as well as I had hoped for at Nationals. 

I will not be aiming for 2006.  I have expended most of my time and energy over the past six years towards this goal and I simply have nothing left to give.  Skiing at an elite level requires a single-minded focus that I can no longer maintain.  So now that my journey is over, it is time to look back.  It was a hell of a ride and I think it is about time I took a few minutes to sort it all out. 

Where Did I Finish?
Where I ended up is hard to quantify.  On the USSA points list, I am ranked 20th.  But that list takes into account a lot of races from last season, which was a disaster for me, and therefore does not accurately reflect how I am skiing right now.  I finished 14th in the US Ski Team Gold Cup two weeks ago, only a matter of seconds from 8th place.  So if I had to guess I would say that I am somewhere between the 10th and 15th fastest skier in the country right now and they are taking the eight fastest to the Olympics.  I was close, but not close enough. 

I have no complaints about not being selected.  There are five people who are clearly the fastest skiers in the country right now and they all made the team.  It was clear to me in the Gold Cup and at Nationals that Justin Wadsworth, Carl Swenson, John Bauer, Kris Freeman, and Andrew Johnson are at a level above the rest of us and deserve to represent the United States in the Olympics.  Then the remaining spots will probably be filled by specialists who can do well in the specific events (Torin Koos – sprints, Pat Weaver – distance events).  There was a lot of controversy surrounding the selection criteria and the selection races, but when all was said and done, the fastest skiers made the team.

Why Didn’t I Make It?
I still believe that under the right circumstances, I have what it takes to make the Olympic team.  To illustrate my point, let me tell a little story.  About 10 years ago, the men’s US Ski Team had about 6-8 athletes on it.  Over the next 5-6 years, some athletes retired, but very few new athletes were brought on board, mainly because the skiers on the US Ski team were clearly the best in the nation.  The focus was not on developing younger athletes, but on supporting those who had proven to be the best.  Included on the team during this time were Justin Wadsworth, John Bauer, Carl Swenson, and Pat Weaver. 

Then, in approximately 1998, a new regime took over at USSA.  The team was slashed to 2-3 athletes and a greater focus was put on developing younger athletes.  A residency program was started in Park City for college–aged skiers who were deemed to be the future of US skiing.  This program has been underway for 3 years now and includes Andrew Johnson, Kris Freeman, and Torin Koos. 

The results speak for themselves.  This year’s Olympic Team is made up exclusively of members of these two US Ski Team training groups.  From the ski team’s perspective, they have done an excellent job developing the strongest skiers in the country.  But take a look at the ages of the skiers involved.  Everyone on this year’s Olympic Team is either over 31 or under 24.  What happened to everyone in between?  The late twenties are supposed to be prime years for cross country skiers, yet no one in that age bracket made the team.  Were there no good skiers born between 1972 and 1978?  I don’t think so.  Unfortunately, for those of us who were born during that period, it was a matter of bad timing.  We were part of the generation that got skipped by USSA’s development program.  When they changed their focus from skiers like Weaver and Bauer to skiers like Johnson and Freeman, they skipped over a lot of people in between, like Dave Chamberlain, Justin Freeman, Scott Loomis, Chad Giese, myself, and many others. 

To be fair, skiers who were selected for support by the Ski Team definitely deserved it.  Johnson and Freeman were clearly the cream of the upcoming crop when they were first picked.  But others with equally good credentials were overlooked.  When I graduated from college, I moved to Park City and began training full time.  That first year on my own (1996-7), I shot up the rankings.  I was only 22 and I was ranked in the top ten in the country.  But I did not receive even a second glance from the Ski Team.  I think they were waiting for me, or anyone else, to make the next jump to being one of the 3-4 best skiers in the country before giving support.   And for the next few years I continued to hover around that same ranking.  It wasn’t that hard to get to that point, but trying to make the next jump to the top of the list was nearly impossible to do on my own.  I had to hold a full-time job, pay for all my training and racing expenses, train on my own, and take care of all my own travel arrangements and waxing.  All of that took its toll and wore me down.  I was never able to focus solely and completely on skiing, which is what you have to do to be the best.  I am sure that Dave Chamberlain, Justin Freeman, and Chad Giese all have similar stories about trying to make it to the top.  In the past 10 years, very few people have made it all the way to the top without Ski Team help.  For those of us between the ages of 24 and 30, the support was never focused on us.  We worked hard; those of us with jobs had to work even harder.  But it takes more than just hard work to get to the top.  It also takes a lot of support and a lot of luck.  We just had bad luck with the timing and focus of USSA’s development programs.

I am not trying to place blame for my Olympic shortcoming upon those who overlooked me a few years ago.  It is also entirely possible that I simply do not have the talent to ski at that level.  In my career I didn’t place too much value on testing, mainly because it never gave me good news.  The tests I did always told me that I was a better than average athlete, but nothing special.  My VO2 max is a lot closer to an average person’s than it is to Bjorn Daehlie’s.  My times in running tests were always decent, but not as good as most other skiers.  In the weight room, I was always hoping no one was watching me try to do pull-ups.  On paper, I wasn’t Olympic-caliber material.  Yet when I got on skis, I could compete with people who had higher VO2 capacities and were faster runners.  I tried to tell myself that I had a little something extra that couldn’t be measured in cubic milliliters of Oxygen or pounds of resistance.  I was never sure what it was, but it kept me going and kept me competing at a level higher than many machines told me I should be able to reach.  Maybe that is what kept me from making it any higher.  Maybe I had simply reached the maximum of my potential.  That could be true, but I don’t believe it.  I might be close to reaching as high as I can go, but there is ALWAYS some way of getting faster, whether through technique, diet, training or something else.  I don’t have to be much faster to be the best in this country and I believe that under the right conditions I could get there.  To be the best, you have to believe that. 

Another reason I did not make the team is that there are simply a lot of fast skiers in this country right now.  In my opinion, men’s ski racing in the United States is as competitive as it has been in at least 15 years.  For instance, look at Justin Wadsworth’s 8th place in last year’s pre-Olympic World Cup at Soldier Hollow or Carl Swenson’s 11th place earlier this year.  Just as significant as these placing is the fact that they were not light-years ahead of the rest of the US skiers when they got those results.  Even on their home-turf they had to fight for victories.  Earlier this year, Marcus Nash was sent to the World Cup where he posted a few results in the 40’s.  There is nothing remarkable about a 40th place in a World Cup – the top US men over the past few years are usually around that.  But what IS remarkable is that Marcus was not even in the top ten in races in North America just prior to, and just after, his World Cups.  To me, this says that we have at least 10 guys in this country who could potentially score World Cup points.  When was the last time that happened?  A long time ago, if ever.   My ranking is another example of the current competitiveness in US skiing.  Five years ago I was ranked 10th in the country with 75 FIS points (lower points are better).  Now, I am ranked 20th, with 60 FIS points. Even though I have improved, my ranking has dropped because there are many more fast skiers than there were a few years ago.  75 points will only get you into 32nd place these days.  If FIS points are to be believed, we now have 32 people skiing as fast as only 10 people could ski just a few short years ago.  That is a huge jump.  I think that they way I am skiing now might have put me in contention for an Olympic team 6-8 years ago, but not now.  This is bad for me, but good for the sport in general.  I really think our US Olympic cross country ski team is going to surprise people.  I think there is potential for a couple of top ten finishes and I think everyone on the team has top twenty potential.  This is the strongest team we have sent in years.  You heard it hear first. 

What I Did Right
Overall, I am very happy with the path that my ski career has taken.  I made a lot of good decisions along the way and accomplished quite a bit.  Here are some of the things that I think helped me become the skier I am today.

1)       I worked REALLY, REALLY hard.  It goes without saying that if you want to make the Olympics you have to work hard.  But it is easier said than done.  It is not easy to train twice a day, almost everyday.  It is not easy to have every waking moment be in someway related to your performance years down the road.  Training isn’t just in the back of your mind for six years, it is front and center, forcing everything else to somehow fit in around it. 

2)       I remained focused.  I remember when I made the decision to keep skiing after college. I decided that I wanted to see how good I could be, and find out if I could make the Olympic Team.  I said that as long as I was still improving and still having fun I would continue to ski.  Did I really think I would make it through all six years leading up to 2002?  I’m not sure; it is a daunting task when you look at it all at once like that.  But I took it day-by-day, season-by-season, always keeping one eye on the task at hand and one eye on the ultimate goal.  There were times when I wasn’t improving and times when I wasn’t having fun, but by being focused, I was able to recover from those pitfalls and move on.

3)       I didn’t give up when I was down and out.  Perhaps the accomplishment I am most proud of is that I did not give up after last season (2000-2001 winter).  I was not having fun and I was skiing horribly.  It would have been very easy to call it quits.  But I knew the Olympics were only a season away and I still believed, despite my recent results, that I had the potential to be in contention.  I think making it to the top in skiing is like walking up an icy slope with poor footwear.  As long as you have momentum, you can walk right up with ease, but as soon as you slip and start to slide down, it is very difficult to get going again and regain that momentum.  Last year was like I tripped and felt flat on my face.  I was sliding back down the icy slope and there was no way for me to stop the slide. My results were getting worse and worse.  I had lost all self-confidence.  But I regrouped by heading back East to train on my own and I was able to get back on my feet and make small steps back up the hill.  I did local races and trained a lot. Those small steps gradually got bigger as I worked extremely hard this summer to get back on track.   By the time this winter rolled around, I had regained the momentum from a couple years ago and was back in my normal form.  It was not easy.  Getting my ski career back on track was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I worked my ass off all summer and fall.  And now, finally, I am proud to say that I didn’t let one bad season conquer me.  I stopped the slide and began charging back up the hill.

4)       I moved to Park City, Utah.  In college it became apparent that I was not as good a skier at high altitude.  Knowing that many important races in this country take place in the west at altitudes above 5000 feet (including the 2002 Olympics), I decided that I needed to move out there and get acclimated.  I chose Park City because at the time it had the greatest concentration of elite cross country skiers in the country (Luke Bodensteiner, Marcus Nash, Scott Loomis, etc).  I still race better at sea level, but over the years my altitude results have improved a lot.

5)       I hired a  coach.  I was spoiled in high school and college with excellent coaches.  They were not only very knowledgeable resources, but great friends as well.  It wasn’t until I was on my own that I realized exactly how important a good coach is.  One of the reasons I moved to Park City was so that I could work with Torbjorn Karlsen.  For the past five years he has been an excellent coach and motivator and a big reason for my success.

6)       I started a website.  As far as I know, I was the first cross country skier to document his journey so completely on the web.  When I first started getting emails from people I didn’t know, who knew all about me, it kind of freaked me out.  I began thinking maybe the website wasn’t such a good idea.  Did I really want so many people knowing about my every move?  What if I don’t make the Olympics?  Will I have misled them all?  I got over my concerns when I realized that all these people were pulling for me and supporting me.  They weren’t reading this stuff just to see the race results.  They were reading because they genuinely cared about how I did and appreciated my efforts.  These people were going through the same ups and downs I was with their own training and together we were able to motivate each other.  That has kept me going on many occasions.  I am also glad to have such a thorough account of my journey, that I am sure I will enjoy reading through at some point in the future. 

What Did I Do Wrong?
On the flip side, I have asked myself this questions a lot recently: “What could I have done differently in my career to increase my chances of making the 2002 Olympic Team?”  Since I can’t change US Ski Team decisions or my own genetics (not yet anyway), I have been looking back through my career for missed opportunities.  I am not doing this so that I can lament my mistakes and wallow in what could have been, but rather so that you can learn from my mistakes and not make them yourself. 

1)       First of all, I would have found a strong team to train with.  I always train better when other people push me.  The main reason I moved to Park City in the first place was because of the other athletes to train with.  Unfortunately, shortly after I moved here Luke Bodensteiner retired and Marcus Nash moved to Tahoe.  Scott Loomis and Erik Stange were still in town and we trained together often, but it was still not a “team” atmosphere, which I thrive on. 

2)       I should have left Park City about two years ago.  At that point, I had done enough training and living at altitude so that racing up high wouldn’t be a problem anymore.  And plus there was no longer a real team for me to train with.  I think that I should have left for a better team atmosphere at a lower altitude.  The problem was that there wasn’t a really good alternative out there, except possibly Anchorage.  Besides, I had just started a well-paying, exciting job at an internet company and I was reluctant to leave that behind.  In hindsight, I think I lost some of my natural speed because I trained too slow at altitude for too many years.  I am glad I came here, but I think 3-4 years would have been enough time. 

3)       I shouldn’t have taken the job at the internet company.  It seems silly to say that, especially since I like the job and it has provided me with a mental challenge to compliment my athletic physical challenge.  But I think the fact that I have to spend an hour in the car every day just to get to and from work puts an added time crunch on my already time-strapped schedule. An eight-hour workday on top of 4 hours of training is too much.  My boss is a friend of mine and a former skier, so everyone was very understanding of my situation.  But even so, it has been more stressful than I would have liked and I think it affected my training.  The irony is that without this job, I would not be able to afford to ski.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Success or Failure?
So how do I feel about my ski career? Am I a failure because I did not accomplish the ultimate goal?  Am I a success for making it this far? In the past week, I have experienced the full range of emotions, here is a sample.

I am frustrated.  Regardless of whether I made the Olympics or not, I wanted to know that I skied my best and gave it my best shot.  To a certain extent I did that.  But this year’s Nationals will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  I came into those races as physically and mentally prepared as I have ever been.  Then, because of inexplicable weather, bad wax, and timing glitches, I was kept off-kilter all week.  I never got into the rhythm I had hoped for.  Would it have made a difference as far as the Olympics go?  No, probably not.  But I wanted to leave town with my head held high, knowing that I was a force to be reckoned with.

I am disappointed.  For as long as I can remember, my goal has been to make the Olympics.  I have always known that it was an outside chance and it would take a lot of luck as well as hard work.  But I also knew that it was possible.  Now I have to come to terms with the fact that it didn’t work out for me.  In the past few days I have broken down and started crying on a couple of occasions.  It hurts to try so hard for something and come up short.  It hurts a lot.  I wanted to walk into the opening ceremonies and have a whole country cheer for me. I wanted to match the best skiers in the world stride for stride.  I wanted to have the title “Olympian” on my resume.  I wanted my mom and dad to be able to brag that their son was an Olympian as my way of saying thanks for everything they have done for me.  (My eyes are starting to well up again…better move on).   Was I shooting too high?  Was my head caught in the clouds?  Maybe, but no one has ever accomplished anything big by shooting too low.

I am relieved.  At the finish of Sunday’s 50K race I was relieved to be at the end of the journey.  One person can maintain the necessary drive and focus for only so long, and I don’t think I could have kept it up much longer.  In some ways I am surprised that I kept at it for so long.  Six years after college is a long time to devote yourself to a sport that 99% of the world doesn’t care about.  I will not miss having to force myself out the door to train even when it is 35 degrees and raining and I am really tired.  Most of the time the journey was a lot of fun, but not always.  I look forward to training when I want and because I want, not just because the training plan says I have to.

I am proud.   Over the course of my career, I accomplished a lot.  2-Time New Hampshire State High School Champion, 3 High School Ski Team State Titles.  Junior National Champion, NCAA All American, Captain and Most Outstanding Skier on the Dartmouth Ski Team.  Winner of the Great Ski Race, Lexus Sprint Event, and many other races.  4th, 6th, 6th, and 10th at the 1999 US National Championships.  Under-25 Champion in the American Ski Marathon Series.  10th place in the Birkie.  Multiple podium appearances in marathons and Continental Cup races.  World Cup racer.  World Record Co-Holder in the Dunkin Donuts Challenge.  International Rollerski Series Champion and founder.  I am proud of all these titles.  I know that even if I did not acheive my dream goal, I did accomplish a lot – more than most people even attempt.   I am also proud that while I was reaching these goals I accomplished a lot off the trails too:  Dartmouth College graduate, an additional degree from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, a job as a software engineer, and designer of multiple websites.

I guess when I review all of these emotions, it all boils down to this:  I am disappointed to have come so close but not reached the ultimate goal, but I have no regrets about any of it and I am proud of what I have accomplished.  All in all, that’s a pretty good feeling.

What’s Next?
It’s funny, when you are so focused on the here and now, all of a sudden the future sneaks up on you.  I haven’t done much planning for my life after last week, but here are my thoughts.

I plan to race the rest of this year and next year.  I have worked for years to get my body in shape and I am not going to lose it all overnight.  I want to take advantage of that hard work and do some more racing.  Besides, I’m an addict – I don’t think I will ever completely give up skiing and exercising.  My attitude will be more relaxed – each race is no longer do or die.  I look forward to enjoying the races and doing more to promote skiing outside the races.  As a racer I have had to be extremely selfish.  It was always other people who were volunteering to help at races that I participated in.  It was always other people who donated money so that I could afford to train.  I look forward to giving back some of my time and resources as a way of saying thanks to those who have helped me and to help others pursue their dreams as I have.

As for this website, in many ways I think it has run its course.  It is all about my life as a ski racer trying to make the Olympics and that time has passed.  Don’t worry; I am not going to stop writing tomorrow.  I still enjoy sharing my experiences and keeping you all updated on race results and top 5 lists.  I plan on keeping the website in its current capacity at least through the end of this year.  I will be doing reports from all my races, and I hope to give insider coverage at the Olympics.   After that, I don’t know.  Maybe I will turn it over to another aspiring skier to share his/her thoughts.  Maybe I will maintain it, but with a different focus.  I am still figuring that out.

Final Thoughts
The journey to get to this point has been the most rewarding experience of my life, mainly because it has BEEN my life.  If I can put half the time and effort and dedication I put into ski racing into my other endeavors in life, I have no doubt that I will be successful.  I have learned many valuable lessons about hard work, focus, patience, and adversity in my career.  The main reason I chose to pursue my ski dreams is that I could not bear to wonder, years down the road, if I could have reached my goals or not.  I couldn’t accept not trying. It wasn’t an option.  It has been said that the only time you fail is when you don’t try at all.  Never have I believed that to be more true.

There are two questions I always got asked when I told people I am a cross country ski racer.  One is “Do you do that shooting thing with the gun?”  The other is “Are you training for the Olympics?”  I always answered the second question by saying, “Yes, I am training for the Olympics, but I am a longshot. Even if I don’t make it, it will have been worthwhile because the journey itself has been a lot of fun and very rewarding.”   I have been very lucky to be able to be a ski racer.  Not everyone gets a chance to chase his dream so vigorously.  I encourage anyone who gets a chance to follow his or her dream to take it.  Don’t be afraid of failure.  Dream big.  Chances are that even if you don’t make it all the way there, you will make it further than you ever would have without the dream.  I can say from experience, that in the end you realize that the journey, rather than the goal, is the biggest reward.

Next month, as you sit down to watch the Olympics and the commentators drone on and on about all the hard work the athletes put in to get to that point, remember that there are others out there who worked just as hard, or harder, and didn’t make it to the games.  And their stories are just as enthralling as the ones NBC will show you.  All aspiring Olympians must have talent, must work extremely hard, have good luck, and persevere through the bad times.  There were hundreds of athletes who worked for each single, coveted Olympic spot, but the person on your TV screen earned it.  That is what makes being an Olympian so special.

If you are a ski racer who begs for support for six years, when it is all said and done, you are going to have a lot of people to thank.  And I have many.  My success is due as much to the help of other people as it is to my own efforts.  If you are reading this, chances are I am indebted to you for something and I want you to know I am truly grateful.  I am sure I will forget to thank some people, but I have to try.

Thanks to:

My Mom and Dad – If I thanked them for everything they’ve done, I’d never finish writing.  But I want to mention one thing in particular.   When I told them that I wanted to move to Park City to train for skiing full time, they had just finished paying for four years of my Ivy League education.  Instead of hassling me about getting a “real job,” they bought me a truck and sent me on my way.  That was the single most important action in helping me to follow my dreams (except for, maybe, buying me my first set of skis, which they also did).

The rest of my family and friends who all believed in me and pushed me to follow my dreams.  You all know who you are, and so do I.  Thank you so much.

My coaches: Fred Griffin, Dave McGraw, Jim Pammer, Ruff Patterson, Torbjorn Karlsen  – I have been blessed with good coaches my whole career.  They have helped make me who I am as a skier and as a person.

Everyone who has donated money to my training fund.  I certainly would not have made it this far without your help.

My roommates Scott Loomis and Erik Stange for motivating me get up every morning to train.

All my teammates in high school, college and beyond for pushing me to be a better skier.

John Hanson and Peter Camann for organizing fund-raising efforts on my behalf.

Everyone who has opened his or her home to me in order to help me reduce the cost of travel.

All of you who read this website and send me words of encouragement.  I may not always have time to respond, but your thoughts do help.

All the people who volunteer at races around the country.

Nordic Equipment, Inc for the job, Solda wax, Pro Ski rollerskis, team clothing, and of course, underwear picture in the catalog.

Eric Maas and Infopia, Inc. for giving me a job and being extremely flexible and understanding with my work schedule.

Dr. Lon Howard and Littleton Orthopaedics for giving me funding and putting my body back together on numerous occasions.
SkiNH and their Friends of New Hampshire Skiing grants
Rick Halling and Atomic Ski USA
Salomon boots & bindings
Exel poles
Ian Harvey and Yoko Gloves & XL-1 sportsdrink
Odlo/Bjorn Daehlie Clothing
Rudy Project eyewear
Enervit sportsdrink
Suunto watches
ARCS in Park City for grinding my skis
Peter Camann and Nautilus of Littleton


© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.