Friday, November 26, 2010

Chasing winter around the world

U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team head coach embarks on 6-month competition season

Express Staff Writer

Hailey resident Chris Grover is gearing up for a busy season as coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team. Photo by David N. Seelig

Chris Grover spends almost half the year chasing winter around the world. However, today he's at home in a cozy Hailey neighborhood tucked behind the cemetery. His globetrotting cohorts, the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, left the previous Sunday for Finland, but he's in no rush. He'll catch up with them in about a week, living out of a suitcase soon enough.

The team's competition season kicks off in mid-November and will last through April, spanning half the year, much longer than most team sports.

Despite starting his first season as the team's head coach, Grover, 39, is no newcomer, having been coach of the sprint squad within the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team for the preceding four years. Europe is the Nordic skiing epicenter, and races will keep him on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for much of the next six months. There, he said the athletes are seen as stars, and races appear on TV daily. In America, on the other hand, the sport remains on the fringe, barely visible.

"When you can't watch something on TV, that's a huge factor," Grover said. "In our culture, that's how heroes are created."

And children grow up trying to emulate their heroes.

Despite the fact that Nordic skiing doesn't receive much attention in America, Grover managed to become a passionate cross-country skier at an early age. He grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, where winter sports are king.

"Cross-country skiing is a regular high school sport up there," said Grover, who still skis despite his coaching responsibilities and has a predictably lean build. "You letter in it and everything."

He went on to ski at Dartmouth College, knowing that he wanted to stay involved in the sport after he graduated in 1993 but admitting that he was without the talent to remain competitive. The answer: coaching.

Grover started off as an assistant coach at Vermont's Stratton Mountain School, moving on to the Sun Valley Ski Team two years later to be a prep coach, then taking the job of cross-country head coach at the Mt. Bachelor Ski Education Foundation in Oregon. He joined the U.S. Ski Team in 1999 as an assistant coach, but took a two-year leave in 2004 to be the first head coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Olympic Development Team.

"When I left a few years earlier, I knew I wanted to come back," he said.

Despite returning to the U.S. Ski Team in 2006, Grover said he wasn't going to repeat the mistake of leaving the Wood River Valley to live in Park City, the U.S. Ski Team's home base.

"That was my one condition," he said, realizing that he'd be away from his wife and two daughters, ages 6 and 8, much of the time regardless of where they lived, and wanted to keep the valley as the family's home.

Even when the season is over in April, Grover and the team have only a few weeks break before training starts in May, preparing for the next season. He said the sport becomes life consuming out of necessity because of the endurance, strength and technique required to compete. The athletes can never let off. He said that's why it often takes skiers until their late 20s to peak.

Grover said the late blooming that comes along with this sport creates a problem because many skiers don't have an outlet after college, at least not in the United States. He said the Wood River Valley is one of the rare exceptions because of its Olympic Development Team, which he said is one of the strongest programs in America.

Grover said one of his main goals is to develop stronger club programs throughout the country, and transition away from the current centralized model for athlete scouting in which only the most talented skiers are identified early on and absorbed into the team. He said it would be better to let the clubs, like Sun Valley, develop those with potential.

"The process is just getting started," he said. "We've got a long way to go as a country. There aren't many strong clubs yet."

Nordic skiing isn't like many other sports that have semi-professional and professional teams all over the country.

But Grover can't focus on this front too much now. He's always having to divide his attention—a long season is just starting, culminating with the Nordic World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway, in late February. Plus, he's already preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"My bosses have already been to Sochi," he said. "We have the trail schematics, snow profiles and the elevation."

He said they'll be racing at about 5,000 feet elevation, and are beginning to build the skis to meet all the variables.

"We're already talking about how to prepare for altitude training," he said.

Having just taken the head coach position, Grover can't see much farther beyond the next few years, but said life after the ski team won't revolve around the sport.

"I can't imagine what it would be, but I can imagine myself doing something completely different," he said. "I will do something completely different for sure."

The question is when.

"Whenever the passion expires," he said. "The amount of traveling will get old real fast."

Trevon Milliard:

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