The alternate title for this blog post was going to be “Julia Kern and Jesse Vaananen take amazing photos” but that didn’t exactly fit in the title bar. 

Just working on my jumps! 🙂 (photo by Julia Kern)
Kevin giving your girl a lift when she was too tired to walk uphill! (photo from Julia)

Our training camp is Seiser Alm was, frankly, the most incredible experience. I felt very spoiled after the Tour, and I wouldn’t have changed a single detail! Whenever it was sunny (which was often) Julia and I would make a coffee and perch on the windowsill in full sun, getting hyped on caffeine and doing our computer work on the deck. 

Julia and I have different internal thermostats but share the same love of sunshine deck time!
In a rare moment of necessary reverse-hazing, I was made to finish this before dinner. It was awesome. (photo from Julia)

The food was incredible, and I found that I really enjoyed the long 5 course dinner because it was our only real social opportunity to hang out with our larger team pod since we haven’t been going inside each other’s rooms all season long. 

Testing out the depth of the snowbanks, the high-risk but high-reward way. (photo by Julia)
Upon arrival some sunset walks were necessary. (photo by Julia)

We stayed at the Alpenhotel Panorama, and they very kindly kept the hotel open for us as the alpine areas were closed, with only the cross country trails open. This meant that for most of the time we were on the mountain, we were the only guests in the hotel, which further helped any anxiety we had about covid. Not that we stopped wearing masks for one second- any time we left our hotel room we had one on indoors. But it did help us to feel much safer! 

Cork, being a serious strider. (photo by Julia)
Me, laughing at this. (photo by Julia)

We were at altitude (6,500 feet) which meant that we did need to be smart about training slow and not accidentally pushing the pace. Staying on top of hydration was also key. The remedy to both? A drink belt with a camera inside the top. Stop, drink, take photos and just breathe! 

Snowbank-sitting, sunset-admiring time (photo by Julia)
I think these wooden cabins all over the field are so cool! (photo by Julia)
If you didn’t enjoy Harry Potter, then you won’t get nearly as much joy from this photo as I do. (photo from Julia)
Loving all the fresh snow! (photo from Julia)

To be honest, the only hard part was NOT skiing for hours and hours every day! That’s the strange irony of being a professional skier; in the winter when racing, we actually have to hold back and not train as much as we’d like to in order to be able to race fast. Or, in this case, absorb a crazy amount of racing. Yet even with short skis I didn’t feel that I missed out on anything because everywhere you looked there were jaw-dropping views of the Dolomite mountains spiking up into the sunset. 

Group ski time! Cork, Hecker, Tim, Me, Scott, Rosie, Caitlin and Grover (and Julia behind the camera)!
Julia out for a rip!
One of the few times we got Cork to pose for a photo and smile! Big deal alert! (photo by Julia)

It was hard to leave, but I found myself pleasantly surprised to be really excited to race again. Why surprised? A few reasons. Firstly, some years after the tour I’m mildly burned out for a little while from the intense high of getting nervous, hyped up and focused so many times in a row and I need a little more time. The burnout usually coincides with being extremely exhausted and not yet fully recovered from the Tour. This year, I felt that I had recovered well simply because I found myself psyched and wanting to do intervals and race. But there’s really only one way to test and see if you’re ready – to race again! 

Not ready to leave these views and sunset skis, but ready to race again! (photo by Julia)

It had been a few years since I’d last raced in Lahti, simply because the Lahti weekend kept falling right after the Olympics or during a time when I needed a training break to keep my season together. It was time to get back there! I was extremely excited to see some of my SMST2 club teammates as well as the rest of our USA squad. Hunter Wonders and Sophia Laukli started their first-ever World Cup races, which was super exciting and a lifetime milestone that shouldn’t be left out. 

Racing with my Rosie buddy! Pretty darn special to have the yellow and red bibs between the two of us. (photo by Jesse Vaananen)

Here’s a fun fact for you: in my first ever trip to Europe to ski race as part of the Under-18 Scandinavian trip, we came to Lahti for our pre-camp before taking a ferry to Estonia to race in Otepaa. It looks exactly the same as it did then; big stadium seating hugging the side of the oval stadium that looks up at the jumps, with steep and hilly race course loops on branching out on either side. 

The ski exchange – not a place where you can really win the race, but a place where you can accidentally lose it if it all goes wrong! (photo by Nordic Focus)

The Tour de Ski was great practice for not letting the yellow leader’s bib freak me out – nor the starting position of the top of the chevron. I was excited to push my body as fast as it could go, and with some sports psychology help, I wasn’t putting pressure on myself. The only thing I had to do was execute the elements under my control to the very best of my ability. Warm up right, test skis with a clear mind and communicate well with my tech, focus on skiing with the most efficient technique I could and be mentally ready to charge into the pain cave. Those are all things I can do! There’s no need to put pressure on myself to be a hero…I just had to be me

Ready to send! (photo by Jesse Vaananen)

The 15km skiathlon was a great race for me. I think the classic half was the best classic skiing I’ve ever done on the World Cup! It didn’t hurt that we had fabulous kick, either. In the skate half, I definitely did not have a glide advantage, and our skis were slowing down with every lap. However, that’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes – and it’s never an excuse to give up! It’s simply a fact. When you realize that for whatever reason, your skis aren’t gliding as well as those around you, you have to take that fact, process it quickly and then re-adjust your strategy to give yourself the best chance you can. I was proud of myself for doing just that; not giving up, but analyzing and figuring out what I could do in each second while still pushing as hard as I could. If I’m being honest (and I am) was it a little frustrating to be so close to the podium when I knew my body was in a great place? Yes, of course! That’s human. But how we react to disappointment or frustration under pressure is what defines us. I am so proud, always, of our staff and how hard they work. I am grateful to them and lucky to have them, and I also don’t automatically expect to have the fastest skis every day, just as nobody could expect me to be the fastest skier every day! So I write about our ski performance not to try to make excuses, but in fact the opposite; to show young skiers that it’s never ok to give up on a race or stop trying. And it’s really not ok to throw a tantrum (or, good Lord, throw your equipment around) after the race! You won’t always have the fastest wax, but you might have the biggest heart, and that’s the most important thing you can bring to the table. 

Finishing with nothing left in the tank, as usual. (photo by Jesse Vaananen)

My big takeaway from the weekend was joy that my body recovered well after the tour, and that both body and brain were excited to push hard and be in the mood to fight against the timing clock once more! 

Ready to give it my all, especially when wearing the relay socks! (photo by Jesse Vaananen)

Which brings us to relay day! I just love it. All the parts of it. But especially the part where I get to hand out the socks and paint the “USA” with the lighting bolt “S” on everyone’s face before the race! Our team was Rosie Brennan, me, Sophia Laukli and Caitlin Patterson, and my only regret from the day is that we forgot to take a cheesy team photo at the end. 

The first time I got to paint the USA on the US Women’s team, it was 2011 World Championships in Oslo. I was 19, anchoring the US team for the first time, and flying back home to Junior Nationals the next day. I will never forget the feeling of support, excitement and kindness that came from all the older members of our team, and how they made me feel part of the group. I sincerely hope every team gets to feel that, because I know I get a lot of energy now as one of the older members of the team, getting to see the World Cup through the fresh eyes of our youngest team members. It’s a two-way street, this energy and inspiration.

Sending it on the downhills is just as important! (photo by Jesse Vaananen)

After literally a decade of anchoring the US relay, I thought it was time to try something new and test out being in a classic leg. It was exciting! I was ready to push my body absolutely as hard as it could go, and wow, did I ever. I went deep into that pain cave, never gave up, and never stopped pushing, and that’s all I could really do at the end of the day! I was so proud of both our teams for giving everything of themselves to the relay race, and everyone represented our team with energy and grace. 

Caitlin, Rosie, me and Sophie after the relay. (photo by Nordic Focus)
We went out hot! (photo by Nordic Focus)

Of course, both relays were completely forgotten when Finland and Russia crossed the finish line after the men’s race. If you’re a fan of cross country and haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the video. Bolshunov’s slide tackle came as a surprise hit to the sport. There are two ways to read that sentence, and both of them are true. Rightly or wrongly, the act of attacking another skier made cross country skiing a headline item. Heck, it even made Barstool Sports. And it sure came as a shock and surprise to the skiers watching (or on the receiving end, if you were a Finnish skier). Just another reason for me to remember that how we react to the situation we find ourselves in is everything.

Now we’re in Falun, Sweden, getting ready for our next round of World Cups. I just love it here – crazy big hill and all. We are living in little cabins and I am having fun flashbacks to summers in Stratton, Vermont because I’m living with Alayna Sonnesyn and Julia Kern! Stay tuned to our SMST2 team website for updates on all the different varieties of muffins/cookies/interesting concoctions we manage to cook in our short cabin stay!