Friday, December 31, 2010

Morgan Arritola: Late bloomer with a big engine

Ketchum’s Olympic cross-country skier is 2010 “Athlete of the Year”

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo by Travis Jones Sun Valley’s Morgan Arritola tested the track at Whistler Olympic Park north of Vancouver, B.C., Canada in January 2009 in an Olympic “Test Event” 15-kilometer pursuit race. She was the second American, in 25th place overall.

Morgan Arritola's Olympic dreams as a youth had nothing to do with cross-country skiing. Playing college soccer was her dream. She was good at it, confident she could pursue the ball harder than anyone. And she has always liked running.

She started playing soccer for The Community School as a sophomore in 2001 and scored five goals. She had seven goals in 2002. As a senior in 2003, she led the Cutthroats with 11 goals including the eventual winner in a 3-2 state tournament win over Payette for third place.

Even then, she strove hard and got results from dedication.

Imagine Arritola's surprise when, as a Community School junior in December 2002, she stepped into cross-country skis at Lake Creek for the first time and didn't do well. She was embarrassed by her amateurish technique. "I'm a hard worker by nature, but skiing was so hard to begin with," said Arritola.

Way more proficient on snow were the soccer teammates who had convinced Arritola to try skiing in the first place—Community School classmates like Alissa Praggastis, Erin Magee and Lexie Praggastis. Arritola realized she had big-time catching up to do. She went out and did it.

How quickly she did it was phenomenal. Then, she was 16. Now, she's 24 and an Olympian. Morgan Arritola's steely determination to improve and stick to a rigorous year-round training program of nearly 800 hours a year are reasons she's the Idaho Mountain Express "2010 Athlete of the Year."

Rick Kapala, head coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Junior Nordic ski team, said, "Morgan was clearly a real good athlete but she had never skied. She was dedicated, though. You didn't have to convince her to train.

"I think she got on snow for the first time Dec. 4 that winter. About six weeks later she had her first race. She won."

At the time, Arritola was 16, living in Fairfield with her mother, Donnale Brown, and commuting 55 miles one way, each day, to school and ski practice. She said, "I would just show up early and ski. Skiing was unlike anything I'd ever done, but I liked the challenge it presented. And I won the first qualifying race I ever did."

From the beginning of what became a rapid rise from unskilled skier to gold medalist, Kapala and assistant coach Ali Deines talked about Arritola's "engine," her ability to train and train some more. She's small in stature at 5-4 and 108 pounds. Just try to catch her.

"She's not very tall and not super big, and she gives away a little on the flatter, double-pole courses," said Kapala. "But for Morgan, the harder the course, the better."

In the summer of 2003, she was on roller skis the minute the snow melted and shattered the ski team's hill climb record by 93 seconds. Remember that association—hill climbs and Morgan Arritola. They fit together like a hand and glove.

She was tenacious in her training and remains that way, something she attributes in part to coach Kapala. "Rick Kapala is contagious!" she said, amused at thinking about her coach as a kind of flu bug she had inadvertently picked up. "But he makes it fun."

In the winter of 2003-04, she raced at her first of eight U.S. National competitions. Two months later she won her first Junior National gold medal, in the J1 5-kilometer skate race at Lake Placid, N.Y. In 2005 as an Older Junior at 18, she won three gold medals at Junior Nationals in Truckee, Calif. and was the top Yank at Nordic Junior Worlds in Finland.

By 2006, three years after clicking into skis for the first time, Arritola was in the conversation but didn't have the points to make the U.S. Olympic team. But last Jan. 19, she was selected to the eight-athlete 2010 U.S. Olympic Cross Country Team for the Winter Games at Vancouver, B.C.

"We've never had anyone take that fast a ladder to the top," said 24-year SVSEF Nordic program director Kapala.

Cross-country skiing at the World Cup level is incredibly demanding. Arritola, of Basque heritage, would be the first to say she's nowhere near "the top." She's been racing internationally for four years, on the World Cup for two. The travel and the training, indeed, everything about the sport, demand maturity and patience.

"I'm chipping away at it," said Arritola on Tuesday shortly before she left for Boise and a long cross-country trip for the 2011 U.S. Nationals at Rumford, Maine—coincidentally the site of her first national Nordic competition back in 2004.

She added, "I'd like to have more top-30 finishes and be in the hunt. I know I can ski in the top 20. It's just a different ball game. There are 30 or 40 girls who could be in the top 10. The tiny little things matter a lot. But I'm really hard on myself. I'm getting better at that, but there's lots of room for improvement in that area."

One of the "little things" is the international travel itself. On her way to Europe in mid-November for the first World Cup races, she picked up a 24-hour flu bug—the day she left. "It just knocked me out and it took a while to get my feet under me," she said. She raced, but her results were sub-par.

"The travel part is always terrible. Let's put it this way, you get good at waiting. The big thing is you learn not to freak out about it," said Arritola.

By mid-December, she was back on track competitively.

Arritola posted her career-best World Cup finish one week before Christmas, in fresh snow at La Clusaz, France. She and teammate Liz Stephen of East Montpelier, Vt. pushed each other through the last half of the women's 15k free mass start race and finished 18th and 19th respectively, three minutes behind World Cup leader and 42-time World Cup race winner Marit Bjoergen of Norway.

"It was nice to get that big monkey off my back of finishing in the top 20," she said. "Then it took me three days to get home from Europe with all the travel delays going on."

Talking Oslo and Sochi

Much is made about the importance of the Olympics, and Arritola doesn't take them lightly. On her long-range radar is a trip to her second Winter Olympics, at Sochi, Russia in 2014. After that, at age 27, she said she plans to reevaluate where she'll take her career.

For the moment, she is more focused on Oslo, Norway, site of the 2011 FIS Nordic World Championships Feb. 24-March 6. "Having the World Championships in Norway is 10 times bigger than the Olympics. Cross-country skiing is king there. It's an atmosphere no one can understand unless you've been there," she said.

Arritola was there in Norway for the first time last March as a competitor in the Holmenkollen Ski Festival—the Super Bowl of Nordic racing. She did pretty well, finishing as the top American in the women's 30-kilometer mass-start classic in 31st place, just outside the points bubble.

"Actually, I felt terrible that day. I was sick and didn't sleep at all the night before. I guess it was a good result for the place I was at," she said. That "place," just two weeks after the Vancouver Olympics, wasn't a good place for Arritola at the end of the 2009-10 racing season.

She doesn't have many good memories of the Olympics.

"To be honest, I had always wanted to be in the Olympics since I was a little kid—and I realize it was my first Olympics and it was only a first step. But, I wanted to ski well and I didn't. I just don't think I was ready for it. I was bummed out, got sick and I think it affected the rest of my season," she said.

Cross-country skiers are asked to race for essentially two weeks at the Olympics—no jumping in, running your one event and getting right out. Arritola, a key part of the very young American women's team, competed in four separate events over 12 long days.

< "There's a lot of stress and energy. Living in the Olympic Village and being with the other athletes was fun. So were the Opening Ceremonies. Being at a venue like that for two weeks is just so consuming. Everything seems to take 10 times longer to do. It was exciting, but not easy," she said.

She started with 34th place, the second of four Americans, in the 10k skate race Feb. 15. Four days later she was the top American in the women's 15k pursuit race last Feb. 19 at Whistler Olympic Park. She finished 38th, three-and-a-half minutes behind gold medalist Bjoergen. But she wasn't pleased with a rough start that caused her to spend plenty of energy reserves to recover.

She said afterward, "I skied as hard as I could, but it just wasn't my day. The (7.5k) freestyle leg went OK, I skied up a few places, but I know I can classic ski with some of the girls who are farther up the line. I'd like to get that chance. So I've just got to keep racing."

Arritola did, running the third, freestyle leg on the American 4x5k relay team that placed 11th Feb. 25. Then, she was one of three U.S. racers in the Olympic-ending 30k classic mass start race Feb. 27. And she uncharacteristically DNFd.

Kapala said, "The Olympic thing was a huge learning experience for those young gals. Morgan needed to have that experience. She was always just a little tired last year. It's so competitive, that if you're just a little bit off, you're not in. It's a real challenge going across the pond and being your best physical self."

Though her Holmenkollen finish in March took away some of the bitter Olympic aftertaste, Arritola went back to basics and put together one of her best warm-weather training seasons in preparation for the current 2010-11 campaign.

Her volume of training increases in the summer to about 25 hours a week—running, roller skiing, biking and strength training. She tapers off her training hours in the winter to incorporate rest.

"I have to rein myself in," she said. Her 800 hours of training a year, the equivalent of 33 full days, puts her at the upper end of elite athletes.

Arritola said, "I really like to train. I like the process of it."

Coach Kapala added, "We think she has absorbed a big training load the last two years and also learned how to listen to her body a little better. It shows maturity on her part."

"I've learned rest is as important or more important than the training you do," she said.

Still, Arritola's local hill climb results this past summer were remarkable.

On June 26, she handily won the inaugural Dollar Mountain 10k Trail Run in the fastest time of all runners, male or female. On July 17, she captured her third straight Backcountry Run 10-miler by two minutes over the next woman.

After winning the 1.86-mile, 3,140 vertical-foot Baldy Hill Climb in 2006 and 2007, she didn't enjoy finishing 42 seconds behind 12-time women's winner Adrienne Leugers in 2009. "I don't like getting second place. I went into this year's climb with a mindset of setting a new record," she said.

Kapala said, "She's so motivated, so driven. You see the quiet determination. She was always 10 minutes early for practice, her gear always organized. But when things don't go her way, she takes a deep breath and quietly trains."

So, in September, Arritola became the only woman to ever break 40 minutes since the Baldy Hill Climb started in 1979. Her 39:53 clocking was 1:41 faster than the previous women's course record, set by Arritola in 2006 at age 20.

"People think I train for the Baldy Hill Climb by doing it again and again," she said. "Truth is, I do it once a year. I train for cross-country skiing and fit in the Baldy Hill Climb as a hard, interval workout."

Heading off to Maine this week for U.S. Nationals, Arritola flew a little under the radar about her objectives for the weeklong event. For one thing, she has never won a national championship despite five silver medals and one third place.

She probably came the closest at one of her favorite venues, Utah's Soldier Hollow, back in 2006. Arritola finished second, just three seconds back of eight-time national champion Rebecca Dussault in the 15k freestyle event. She had one more silver at Soldier Hollow, and three silvers at Fairbanks, Alaska in 2008-09.

"The main thing is I'd like to ski well at nationals. A national championship would be a feather in the cap for me, but I don't focus on it. But the 20k skate (Thursday, Jan. 6) should be a good event for me," she said. "I do remember my first nationals at Rumford in 2004. It was cold and very little snow."

Listening to her talk about her life and career, you might get the impression that Morgan Arritola is a nose-to-the-grindstone person, too serious for her own good. And she does take her craft seriously, as she should. She's representing a country as well as herself.

But Arritola is very unassuming and personable, with a beautiful smile and grateful spirit. She rents a condo in Warm Springs and works the counter at The Elephant's Perch, plus odd jobs and house-sitting. She helps Kapala with projects at the Lake Creek training center, and writes post cards to young children.

She's still looking for a headgear sponsor, but she appreciates the ongoing support of the community and local businesses. She feels strongly about the importance of Nordic skiing in the fabric of the Wood River community. "It's good as a community to keep the sport in the forefront," she said.

"Financially it's always a challenge," said Kapala. "Like, how do you sustain the energy and the focus to keep going? How do you stay mentally in the game? But Morgan was fortunate to have two things happening simultaneously when she started her skiing.

"The first was the SVSEF committed to the Olympic Development Team concept. The second was the U.S. Ski Team finally got it. They decided they had to provide a support structure for developing talent. Before, they would never stay with a Development Team concept long enough to take these kids into the World Cup ranks.

"Before, there were all these built-in excuses for Americans. But we've grown skiers like Kikkan Randall and Kris Freeman who are among the best in the world. I think a lot of our athletes have seen it's possible to be among the best. It takes time to do these things."

Like any 24-year-old, Morgan Arritola has a life away from her busy schedule. She graduated from The Community School in 2004, attended Montana State University for a semester and has taken classes at Salt Lake City's Westminster College through the U.S. Ski Team's link with the school.

She might take a Westminster class this summer—after all, she's eligible for four years of free schooling there because of her skiing. "I'd like to have a college degree," she said. "I like Europe. I'd like to see more of the historic parts. I'd like to pick up German, meet more of the athletes there, visit them.

"I'd like to live in Europe and see it in the summer. Now, that would be different!"

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