US Nationals sending Stephen back to school

By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2011

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RUMFORD, Maine — For Liz Stephen, the US Cross-Country Ski Championships show she has come full circle.

As a teenager, her first nationals were overwhelming, stressed, and somewhat crazy. Now 23, the Burke Mountain Academy grad from East Montpelier, Vt., is an Olympian and US Ski Team member with a top-20 and a top-30 World Cup finish this season.

She’s not only focusing on her races, but traveling in a van, eating meals, hanging out, and lodging with teens from her northern Vermont alma mater competing in this year’s championships at Black Mountain of Maine through Saturday.

“I just hope I can bring some excitement and experience to them,’’ said Stephen, a seven-year nationals veteran. “I hope to help them with any questions and let them know your goals can become bigger because as you become more seasoned you become better at the job.’’

More than 400 athletes have turned up for the competition, which is not just about national titles. Hosted by the venerable Chisholm Ski Club, the competition is also the trials for the Junior and U-23 World Cross-Country Ski Championship teams, the Junior Scandinavian Championships for skiers 17 and younger, and the last shot for elite athletes at the Nordic World Ski Championships team.

Colleges from across the country (Alaska Pacific University to Dartmouth), ski club programs and academies (Craftsbury’s Green Project, Stratton Mountain School, Burke, etc.), masters, and independents also are here to measure up against the best in the country at their level.

“I think it is pretty unusual to have a sport that has 424 athletes all able to compete on the same day for national titles,’’ said John Farra, the US Ski Team Nordic director and 1992 Olympian. “This is a collection of our best skiers, but not just elite athletes.’’

For Farra, a former NCAA All-American and Maine Winter Sports Center vice president, the competitions are also a valuable talent pipeline.

“I think the single greatest advancement in cross-country skiing in a decade are the highly professional clubs coming in with coaching and support,’’ he said.

No matter the level, there’s pressure.

“The athletes that are on the World Cup are coming home to prove that they deserve to be on the World Cup, that they deserve those spots,’’ said Matt Whitcomb, US Ski Team World Cup coach, who grew up in the Western Massachusetts town of Worthington. “In that sense there is a lot of pressure on those athletes. They don’t come here like we used to and win hands down by a minute or two. There’s a much deeper level of excellence.’’

Returning to her roots, Stephen is helping to groom skiers at the academy that groomed her. It’s a way to help the development system and have the best athletes pair up with club athletes to maximize training.

“This is the first year they are putting national team skiers back in the club system as a way to give back,’’ said Stephen, who switched to cross-country skiing in 2002 following a promising start in alpine racing.

With the young skiers mostly ages 15 to 18, Burke Nordic coach Pete Phillips says having an Olympian around is inspirational to them.

“Four years ago [Stephen] was a senior at Burke who is now beginning to come into her own as an international athlete. It’s a real pleasure for them to see, talk to, and live with someone who has carried the sport to the next level,’’ said Phillips, who also has coached the US Scandinavian Cup Team and US World Junior Team.

Though the academy experience has students living away from home, being away from school for a week, even in New England, can be trying on developing athletes.

“Being in a weeklong competition is kind of new to some,’’ Phillips said. “Some are vets, but the youngest are doing it for the first time and it’s an eye-opener on how to manage time, get some sleep, and get their schoolwork done.’’

Plus, some of the better skiers will be running circles, literally, around them.

“When we are training and racing on a 2 1/2-kilometer loop, you are constantly going to be going around junior racers, master racers, and national team racers, so the opportunity to see what is really going on at all levels can be really inspirational for some of these younger developing racers,’’ said Whitcomb.

For Stephen, it brings her back.

“I think back to when I was at Burke and how cool it would have been if there was a US Ski Team member suddenly back on the team again,’’ she said. “It still feels the same.’’