That was the tour of my wildest dreams! It has always been the biggest goal of mine to become a true all-around skier, to be able to be competitive any day, any race, any course. Which is why winning the Tour de Ski was such a pipe dream, an absolute reach goal, because it means you have to be the overall best both mentally and physically over 8 days, sprint and distance, classic and skate, over multiple race courses. Most importantly, it means your team has to be the strongest over those 10 days. You don’t have to be a hero any given day, but you can’t have a bad day or even a mediocre day at any point. This tour I was both happy and simultaneously under more pressure than I’ve felt since the Olympics; maybe even more. It definitely took a toll on my body, but my family, friends and team took care of protecting my brain. This for me was the tour of sparkles because I felt that I could be myself and that happiness really IS fast!
But before we take a deep dive into the tour, let’s back it up for a moment to where I last left off, right before Dresden! As a team we had an incredible period 1 of World Cup racing. I was thrilled for Rosie Brennan as she was on fire, super stoked for Hailey Swirbul in her first World Cup podium, and JC Schoonmaker had some really impressive sprints, as well as Logan Hanneman and Julia Kern making the semifinals two sprints in a row. And I was actually in tears watching Hannah Halvorsen race her first World Cup back after being hit by a car last fall, and then qualify for the sprint heats in Dresden! What a comeback.
Simi Hamilton and Kevin Bolger together made up 1/3 of the men’s sprint final heat in Dresden, which was super cool. Of course, let’s not forget Sophie Caldwell-Hamilton making the podium in Dresden – she’s done it a lot, but that doesn’t lessen the significance every time she steps up there! Suffice to say that it was a wild ride, and a really positive one, all through our first month in Europe.
For me personally, it was also an exercise in trust – trust in my plan, in my body, and in patience. It’s not that I didn’t have great races, or that I wasn’t proud of them! I turned myself inside out each and every race. And I’m so glad I did, because when my sharper race form came around I was already ready to dive into the pain cave, and I knew how to push myself. Perhaps Coach Matt best put my feelings into words when I finally got on the podium during the Tour and he said “that’s a really cool monkey to get off your back! It’s a privileged place to reach in your career when you’re feeling pressure because you haven’t been one of the top three fastest people in the world yet this season.” It’s not that I automatically expect results or am sad without them. But I do feel pressure to produce them as I get older and more experienced. I had to trust in my plan with Cork and know that my sharp race form would come around in time for the Tour.
I do think it’s important to recognize that during the tour it wasn’t that I was more motivated, wanted it more, was more focused or tried harder than any other race. I was simply in better race form, because I rested up over Christmas break and trusted in my plan. It was much easier during the tour because my body was firing on all cylinders. The person winning the race isn’t necessarily the one who gives the most or pushes their body the hardest…which is why my goal for each race is to be that person, regardless of results. That’s the only part I can actually control.
It is easy to be a positive force when everything is going right. It is significantly harder to generate that energy and optimism when it’s not already obvious that you’re going to get the outward satisfaction of all the hard work you’ve put in since the last spring.
And yet it’s how we interact with our team, how we take the extra second to check in on someone, that defines who we are as humans outside the race course. It’s always good to remember that those things – unlike race results – are always within our control. You have to work hard to be the exact same teammate when you have a bad race as you are when you have a great race. But if you can do that, you can go to bed each night feeling so much pride in how you carry yourself as a member of the team.
Decoupling who you are and how you feel about yourself from your race results can be hard, especially when that’s what everyone wants to talk about each weekend. I feel the need to say that because I know there’s some young racers out there who are struggling with this right now.
For me, I’ve thought a lot about what my passion is in life, and what my purpose is in life. They’re different things. I am passionate about ski racing. I love the challenge, the rush, the people, the endorphins. But my purpose in life isn’t to race fast. My purpose is to try and help other people have a better relationship to their bodies and feel confident in sport through advocacy work. THAT I can do whether or not I achieve my racing goals, and it’s this separation of what I want to do in life from what I enjoy doing in the moment that helps me stay as happy and stable through poor races as I am in the good times. It gives me confidence and direction, and knowing that I get to be an ambassador for all these amazing organizations no matter how ski racing goes allows me to put less pressure on myself and be better able to just enjoy each day.
Speaking of amazing organizations, in Dresden I got an extra boost of energy after accepting a position as one of the new Board Members for Protect Our Winters! If you haven’t checked them out yet, please do so at this link.
One of the many things I love about them is that they see the bigger picture and embrace imperfect advocacy. Because although everyone I know cares about protecting our climate and saving winter for the next generations, I don’t know anyone who is “perfectly carbon neutral”. We have to travel for work, or commute. We eat meat. Even if we drive electric cars, where’s the electricity coming from? Simply put, individual action is not enough on its own. It’s about the huge changes that can be made by advocating for better policies higher up. Which is why Protect Our Winters makes trips to the capitol with groups of athletes, scientists, creative and business leaders to advocate for non-partisan policy changes. You can check out their active campaigns on their website and see how you can help out!
I now serve as a volunteer on the Board for Protect Our Winters (getting people to care about saving the world, literally), Share Winter Foundation (getting opportunities for learning a snow sport to diverse communities of kids around the US) and our SMST2 team (getting international results while inspiring locally). These are things I’m going to be passionate about my whole life, and knowing that I can help with these initiatives even when I’m not racing at my best takes away pressure to perform and lets me focus on having fun when it comes to race day.
After Dresden, we zipped on over to Seefeld (ok, it was actually kind of a long drive, but Simi got us there pretty quickly) for Christmas! I stayed in an apartment with Julia Kern, Gus Schumacher, Hailey Swirbul and Katharine Ogden. We got into a Netflix show together, made about a million batches of cookies and muffins, blasted Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” (sorry, Gus) and cooked everything we don’t get on the road: curry, tacos, sushi. And yes, of course, we did a lot of sledding. In Seefeld we had a big group of US skiers and even got to ski with the Nordic Combined team, so it really felt like home away from home.
It’s never easy to be away from your family and the person you love, and it’s especially hard on Christmas. But I will say that I was so grateful to be with such a great group of people, and I loved the happy atmosphere we had!
Ok ok Jessie, we get it – you LOVE plugging these organizations and your team. GET TO THE TOUR ALREADY.
The tour started in Val Mustair, which we fondly refer to as Val-Mustache, because why not? It’s an adorable town in a beautiful valley, and we started the tour off on the right foot with tons of sparkly new snow that would make each venue the most perfect skiing we’ve had all year.
Stage 1: Skate Sprint day in Val Mustair. This course is gnarly in the higher altitude with such a big climb that you do twice, and it floods your legs before you even know what’s happened! At the start of the finals, I was happy and excited to send it and see what I could do. And it sure got wild; Nadine went down on the banked right hand corner before the rollers, and as I saw her sliding towards the inside of the corner I didn’t have a whole lot of time to react. My window for making it out of the corner without hitting her was rapidly closing down. I really didn’t want to ski over her equipment and I really, really didn’t want to hit her! So I jumped, and just barely cleared her pole before sprinting it in to the line. I’ve never felt more like Andy Newell in my life, but I also realized I need to work on my vertical jump height!
That was my first podium of the year, and such a cool moment to share with the coaches and techs as my body finally came into it’s full race form.
Stage 2: Val Mustair 10km classic mass start. My goal was simply to stay out of trouble and near the front, but I found myself surprised by having just enough energy on the last lap to push the pace at the top of the big climb! In a classic race? What the heck. Maybe 2021 really IS a new year. My finishing sprint left something to be desired as my body was just flooded, but getting my first “official” classic distance podium after 216 World Cup starts was a very special moment indeed!
Stage 3: Val Mustair 10km skate pursuit start. If you’d told me before this race that I’d win it, I wouldn’t have believed you. My body felt so incredibly bad on laps 1, 2 and most of lap 3! I went out trying to do my part leading our little pack, but my pace wasn’t going to be fast enough and Frida took over. We had a really hot lap 1, and it took me most of the rest of the race to pull it together from that! But near the top of the climb, Rosie made a move, I followed her, and as we got to my strongest part of the course, the gradual downhill, I knew I needed to basically start sprinting in order to make any kind of move stick on that course. I left every ounce of energy on the snow, and I was proud of myself for racing with the experience of knowing where my body could and could not make a move work. I was able to accurately read how my body was responding in real time, and then use my course knowledge and tactical knowledge to pull out a win.
Stage 4: Toblach 10km individual skate race. I need to let you know EXACTLY how invested in our Bridgerton Netflix show Julia and I were. At the start of the race I kept making myself smile by saying “you MUST MAKE HASTE!” that I went out hotter than I’d intended, and then was stuck trying to hold onto that pace! I was so excited to go ski this course because it’s what I call a “thinking course”; you have to be present and engaged for every single second or you’re going to start losing time on the gradual sections. It’s also where so many great memories are for me after my first ever podium here during the 2016 Tour de Ski, so that never hurts! You know what DID hurt? My legs. My lungs. My arms. This was a tour where I had to work incredibly hard for every single second, and I think that’s what I appreciate so much about it. What made this win even more special was that Rosie was second place…which obviously meant even MORE wedges of cheese going into the wax truck!
Stage 5: Toblach 10km classic pursuit. Yes, yes, I know I fell down and slid on my butt for a hot second during this race. But that’s no excuse! One little misstep doesn’t have to define a race effort or be a reason to stop the show, and I was fortunate to have Ebba, Yulia and Rosie to hang onto. I had to really get gritty with it during this stage in order to keep the time as close as possible. I couldn’t feel my legs for much of this race. But I was proud of myself for just gritting my teeth and pushing as hard as I could to hang onto those girls, and finished the stage still in yellow.
Stage 6: Val di Fiemme 10km classic mass start. Before this race even began I knew this would be the biggest test for me in terms of hanging onto the overall tour. I knew this was going to be my day to just hang tough and fight for every single second. Knowing this, I was prepared and ready to hurt like hell. And wow, I sure did. I couldn’t feel my body from the waist down for the whole last lap, but I kept moving somehow. Huge kudos to the techs for such great kick, because if you can get up a hill while unable to feel your legs, you know you’ve got some great skis under you. I went for the bonus seconds and while I finished a little ways back from the leader of the day, I only lost 3 seconds to Yulia, which is what mattered for me in the overall. At this point, I really started to get nervous, because I knew I had a serious shot at winning this thing with the distance classic days finished.
Stage 7: Val di Fiemme classic sprint day. This was just a fun day all around. My body felt shockingly good, and my mission was to make the semifinals for the bonus time. Making the finals would have been awesome, but our semifinal 2 was so fast that even through we flew through the course compared to semi 1, I was 5th in the heat and done for the day. And that’s just how sprinting works sometimes! But I was ok with it because the second I was done, I was getting food, dry clothes and cooling down so I could get off my feet and recover as much as possible before the big climb!
The last few days were tough mentally as I knew that this was already the best tour of my life and had the potential to be the biggest thing I might achieve in my career. I kept talking with my awesome sports psychologist Lauren, and we worked on keeping it small when it started to feel too big. We broke it down to what I needed to be doing that day, that afternoon, that hour in order to have a good tour. If I knew that I was doing everything I could possibly do to have a good tour, then I didn’t need to stress over anything that was out of my control. And if I’d already done all my recovery things for the day (massage, foam roll, visualize, set goals for the next race, eat enough, drink enough) then my only goal was to relax and be in a good headspace. This usually came in the form of Netflix shows with Julia.
I felt the pressure physically even as I tried to keep it out of my head. I often had to leave dinner before being able to eat as much as I needed to, because I had to lay down with how much my stomach hurt. Thankfully Chef Allen kept me alive with the high-calorie smoothies he made for the team every night! I tried to sleep as much as possible, but if I woke up in the middle of the night and accidentally thought of the race the next day, my heart would start pounding and I’d start sweating and whoops, there went a perfectly nice night of sleep. To combat the stress, Julia and I watched season one of “Bridgerton” on Netflix (highly recommend, please start production on season two asap). We also decided that “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon was the song of the tour.
Stage 8: In fact, this song was literally stuck in my head during the final climb, because of the Swedish sprint team being the bodyguards for Ebba (and me, by accident, because I was right behind Ebba!) They had the strategy to block for her and pull her down the valley to a faster time, and I saw what was happening and scooted in right behind them. Thanks, Sweden! I owe you one.
My personal strategy for the flats before the hill was simple: be smart, save your energy, and don’t let anyone take you out in a crash. My thoughts for the actual final climb were 1.) don’t. stop. moving. and 2.) don’t blow up. Which translates to: be in touch with your body and how much lactic acid it can handle every single second. I knew that I needed to ski smooth, smart and steady, so when I started to pull away from Yulia, I just kept plugging along at the top pace that I knew I could sustain until 800 meters left. Then I left it all out on the course. I wanted to celebrate as I crossed the finish line but to be honest, I was just too darn tired! I have a nice little set of bruises on the inside of my knees from my starfish flop.
My little “ugly cry fest” at the finish line came as I started walking towards the coaches and it suddenly hit me. I realized what this meant to myself, but also to our team and to the people who have sacrificed so much to give us these opportunities! The hugs I got from so many friends on the World Cup – not just our team but from every team, meant so much to me. It was a really emotional moment for me, and super cool to be able to celebrate with so many great people from around the World!
I was pretty smoked after the climb, but first, I was so excited for my own personal “stage 9” of the tour that I do every year. After a quick shower and lunch, I got a ride with the coaches back up to Alpe Cermis and cheered on our boys! I love getting to do that because it’s not often that we can cheer for our teammates without sacrificing energy for the next day’s race. So getting to run alongside them, losing my voice, felt like a perfect way to celebrate the tour being done.
One of the things I liked so much about this tour was how fair it was. Pretty much every other year, you’d see one or two teams completely blow the wax and the whole team would be out of the running for the tour – because as we know, one bad day can really take you down in a cumulative tour. That happened to us last year, and to be honest it was rough! This year there were, of course, days when some teams certainly had amazing skis, but I didn’t notice any team having a crazy bad day. It was really satisfying to feel that in a sport with many variables you can’t control, at least the skis were pretty fair across the board.
And speaking of skis, our techs just nailed it. Every. Single. Day. I can’t speak highly enough of their dedication, work ethic, their positive energy and how they delivered exactly what we needed to be IN this tour every single stage. I never felt pressure to perform coming from within our team, only positive support, encouragement and smiles. It was an impressive feat, since the tour can get more and more stressful as we all get more and more tired out!
I’ve said it about ten thousand times, but I really mean it so here we go ONE MORE TIME: the positive team environment and the happy vibes we kept going were huge for me. And none more so than in our room that I shared with Julia Kern! That girl is so fun to be around. We actually still like each other after being roommates since mid-November, which says a lot. We watched a lot of dance movies on Netflix, she let me braid her hair and sparkle her up before every race, and she made a really fun (and funny) vlog with all the behind the scenes of what it was like on Tour! Check it out HERE.
Another big reason I think this tour was so successful was because of many little improvements over time thanks to our supporters behind the scenes looking out for us. Our wax truck. Our amazing volunteer PT’s and MT’s taking care of our bodies. Having coaches who don’t also have to wax tech so they can help us in the start/finish pen. Better funding thanks to our many donors so we can wax with what we need for fast skis. Also because I was finally being confident enough to articulate what I needed after doing the tour so many times! After finishing one too many tours with no energy left, I realized that because of my stomach getting so upset after races, I was essentially slowly starving myself of the energy I needed to perform in the last 3 stages. I asked the coaches for help with this and we started bringing Chef Allen Tran on Tour with us, and now we will probably never start another tour without a nutritionist there to help us get in enough calories when it’s so hard to keep eating around changing race times.
It was crucial to my tour, but I was not the only athlete benefitting from asking for what I knew I needed. I think women in particular can be intimidated by asking for what they need in order to perform, because we “just don’t want to be a bother” or “aren’t sure we deserve it”. However, if you’re able to just get it out there, chances are, other people around you are also going to benefit from the changes made! So if you can’t speak up for yourself, do it because it will help everyone around you, too.
I’m not the biggest stats person, but I can recognize that this Tour was a big deal for our country. Rosie and I made history two days in a row with our 1-2 finishes in Val Mustair and Toblach 10km skates, and I now hold the most World Cup podium finishes for any American male or female in cross country skiing. Gus Schumacher notched the best American men’s finish in 18th, and Hailey Swirbul matched him with an 18th place finish of her own in her first Tour! Perhaps best of all, I took over the Overall World Cup leader jersey, which gives me my own start spot and therefore opens up a new window for another woman from the US to race World Cups.
We’re now in Seiser Alm, Italy for a recovery and training camp. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole wide world to ski, and I’ve been so happy! Headed into this next period of World Cup racing, I’m so excited for our country. I’m excited to get some new faces over here, and see what we all can do together! In the meantime, I’m enjoying the rest, recovery and possibly the most beautiful skiing in the whole world here in Seiser Alm!