Written by Dr. Lynn E. Paulson, Ph.D., staff writer at Alaska Pacific University
In order to raise money for the APU Nordic Ski Center, Holly Brooks is working a lemonade stand on 5th Avenue, Sadie and Erik Bjornsen are waiting tables and mopping floors at Humpy’s, and Kikkan Randall roller-skis through Anchorage neighborhoods delivering pizzas, doing her best to integrate fund-raising into her rigorous training schedule. Teammates Becca Rorabaugh, Rosie Frankowski, Reese Hanneman, Lex Treinen, Scott Patterson and Tyler Kornfield are pitching in too, operating hotdog carts, riding a Pop-cycle or working as baristas and Anchorage tour guides.
Has it really come to this?
On August 28th, Alaska Pacific University hosted the second annual The Best Chef on Skinny Skis, a fund-raising event for the APU Nordic Ski Center that included a highly entertaining video spoofing reality TV’s The Apprentice, with Anchorage’s Chef Al delivering The Donald’s infamous “You’re fired!” to the skiers whose tips, when pooled, added up to slightly over seven dollars.
“Let me cook,” Chef Al advised. “You go ski, and let your supporters do the fund-raising.”
Earlier in the evening, the real Chef Al had plated mouth-watering mounds of mashed potatoes, ribs and chicken that members of the APU Nordic Ski Team, decked out in waiters’ jackets, carried from the Atwood Center kitchen and served to 76 guests before sitting down and joining them for dinner. Guests bid on table centerpieces featuring APU Nordic skiers fashioned out of forks, knives and spoons by Utah artist Judson Jennings, of Forked Up Art, and pledged their donations as “tips” on cards printed up to look like those green and white, lined restaurant checks you get at a diner. Anyone pledging over $1,000 received a framed print of a Nordic ski scene painted by Fairbanks artist, Steve Cross, using coffee, wine, vodka and water from Eagle Glacier, where the APU Nordic skiers train during the off-season.
But fundraising for the Nordic Ski Center was not the only purpose for this thoroughly enjoyable event. Skinny Skis was an opportunity to introduce new Elite Team skiers (Rosie Frankowski, Chelsea Holmes, Scott Patterson, Eric Packer) and University Team skiers (Jade Hajdukovich, Alex Loan, Skyler Kenna) to their enthusiastic community of supporters and to honor APU’s Nordic Ski Center Director and Coach, Erik Flora, and APU skier-students Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen. State Representative Andy Josephson presented the Bjornsen siblings with citations for their participation as athletes in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Olympian Nina Kemppel, representing the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Joey Caterinichio, representing the U.S. Ski Association, presented Erik Flora with his award for being named the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “Coach of the Year, 2013.”
That’s right. Coach of the Year—from among all the coaches for all Olympic sports, winter and summer games.
Take a moment and let that sink in.
Nordic Skiing has just barely begun to get recognition and support in the United States. For example, while the annual budget for the top-ranked Norwegian National Ski Team is a reported 13 million and the second-place Swedes boast a budget of seven million, the annual budget for the US Ski Team (ranked sixth in the world) is less than one million. Almost any American can name an Olympic gymnast, swimmer or track and field athlete, and maybe even a champion Alpine skier. But how many Americans outside of Alaska can name a Nordic skier?
And when is the last time you saw a Nordic skier, from any country, on a box of Wheaties?
So you get my point.
And yet the United States Olympic Committee, for the first time ever, chose a coach from the sport of Nordic skiing, our own Erik Flora, as their Coach of the Year. Why?
There are many reasons, of course, including the fact that in the eight short years since Flora assumed Directorship over the small and struggling APU Nordic Ski Center, he has recruited top athletes and coaches and worked tirelessly to develop the Center into an internationally-recognized organization of over 250 skiers ranging in age from 12 to 80 that includes Nordic skiing enthusiasts from the community, elite student athletes and national, as well as international, champions like Olympians Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks and Sadie and Erik Bjornsen. In 2013, Flora’s coaching excellence was recognized by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) that honored him as both Coach of the Year and as International Coach of the Year following the unprecedented success of American skiers (including APU Nordic Ski Center athletes Randall, Brooks and the Bjornsen siblings) at the 2013 World Cup Championships.
“We are stronger as a team than as individuals,” Flora said, in his brief remarks following the presentation of his award. This idea is central to his approach to coaching, where his world-class skiers train alongside, and inspire, the up and coming athletes. Along with a strong work ethic, Flora credits the skiers’ sense of being a team as instrumental in the rapid success of his program, which has twice earned the APU Nordic Ski Center the USSA award for Cross Country Club of the Year.
Among the attendees at the Skinny Skis event was Jim Mahaffey, 84, a legendary Alaska ski coach and pioneer of cross country skiing as a competitive sport in the United States, many of whose athletes were members of the U.S. national and Olympic ski teams. In 1968, Mahaffey developed the lighted ski trail system around the APU campus (known then as Alaska Methodist University), where, as an Associate Professor of Physical Education and Outdoor Education, he introduced wilderness skills classes into the curriculum for the first time. The trail system was named in his honor when he retired from APU in 1992. In 2010, Mahaffey received the Lifetime Athletic Achievement award and was inducted into the Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame. Like Flora, Mahaffey’s motivation as a coach came from a sincere devotion to his skiers and a deep love of the sport.
“The awards are really great,” Erik told him at the end of the evening as Skinny Skis was winding down, “but the best part is having everyone all together. That’s all I want.”
Jim nodded and smiled.
This is the reason that new talent continues to join the APU Nordic Ski Center and what inspires their hard work that has paid off in such tremendous success in recent years. This is the reason the Anchorage community keeps turning out to support them at events like The Best Chef on Skinny Skis.