The NCAA Skiing Championships in Lake Placid, NY ended with a sting. The team skied outstanding slalom on day three of four, with Leon and Ella posting top 10 All American finishes. It would be the highlight of the week. Our true strength, the Nordic group, was out of sorts with a nasty virus. Day one GS was a rattled disaster right out of the box. Things didn’t break our way. I packed our wax, video, and communications equipment into abused metal Zarges boxes and shoved them into the back of the rental trucks.
Six hours south of Lake Placid is a small but bustling New England fishing village on the southern coastline of Rhode Island. The fastest way to get to this particular harbor from NY is by driving eight miles-an-hour over the speed limit on US 87 to the Mass Pike. My gut hinted that I may need to pay a visit, but duty presented a necessary detour. With the NCAA skiing championships in the rear view, there was still a ton of season in front of the headlights.
From New York, we drove to Boston and boarded an Alaska Airlines 737-900, exchanged aluminum tubes in Seattle, and landed in Anchorage. Time to get back to work. The Nordic group recovered from battling hard through their plague and the Alpiners flipped a switch to prepare for FIS spring series in Panorama, BC.
Spring is an ironic prep period in ski racing. Often times, the freeze-thaw snowpack provides the best training surface of the season. The light is on and pressure is off. Our athletes make more progress from March 15th to April 15th than at any other time of the year. And then poof, they take some exams and disappear.
May rolled around and I wanted to put some thoughts onto paper, update our 314ers, and move on. A new season arrives in the fall. But somehow, I just couldn’t do it. The business of competing for a 2023 championship was long over, but for me it was unfinished. Still scratching my head and not the pad, I could only stare at my pen, dormant on the desk in front of me.
June arrived unceremoniously in Southcentral Alaska. Leaves sprouted reluctantly and turned green, but we were still riding our bikes across snow on most of the mountain bike trails. After a rain-soaked afternoon ride, I sat back down at my desk with every intention of writing. The laptop flipped open and my screen lit up, only to illuminate letters on my keyboard that had turned to brick. A barrier commonly known as writer’s block invaded my home office and set up camp. I just couldn’t move past the season. Time for a change.
I left home, or at least traded one for another. From the largest state, I flew east to the smallest one. My wife and I bought a small colonial home in South County, RI back in the 90’s when she was finishing her doctorate and I landed my first NCAA head coaching job at Brown University. We left New England for Alaska in the summer of 2000, and just never got around to hanging a For Sale sign. It’s nearly bankrupt us several times, but we’ve managed to hang onto it. Pro Tip: don’t fall in love with a home, especially one built in 1885.
Four months after a bittersweet 2023 championship and 7888 air miles later, I returned to Boston Logan Airport. Instead of heading north to the Adirondacks, I pealed south for the coastline of Block Island Sound – the long way from Lake Placid to Narragansett. Far removed from my natural habitat, I now had some capacity to properly reflect on the full arc of our team’s year. The old house demands a lot of attention. In return, I get a lot of time to think.
My thoughts drifted to the melancholic departure from NCAA’s, our team, and why I haven’t been able to shake the funk. We have incredible athletes. We had some great results throughout the year. Podium finishes in both Alpine and Nordic at World University Games, career best FIS results, and more top-10 regular season finishes than I have room to list. But when it came time to put it all together at a championship, things just didn’t fall into place. We had a lot of pieces, but the puzzle didn’t produce a picture. Why?
You could blame kitchen-tile ice and a choppy GS track that eliminated half the Alpine field, including more than half of the Seawolves. You could pin our final team finish on a badly timed virus. Then there’s jet lag, or a new venue, or bad weather, or the crappy grocery store, or school stress, or missed wax. Or…it could be something else.
Adam Verrier (If you want to check out Adam Verrier’s UAA ski team blog – check it out here: https://uaanordic.blogspot.com) the longest serving and still active Seawolf Ski Team coach likes to preach that “consistency is the hallmark of excellence.” But what if you’re consistently missing that mark down the hall?
Last season, we broke from our traditional strategy. Instead of periodized training blocks, we crammed in Nor Am races. Instead of a winter break camp, we focused on World University Games. It’s what all the big DI schools were doing, and if we want to win a title, maybe we should join the arms race. But in doing so, we sacrificed consistency. And we got away from our strengths, from what we do best.
The University of Alaska-Anchorage is a D II school competing with big dollar DI programs. Ask anyone who has never been to Alaska where Anchorage is located, and the answer is usually somewhere north of Greenland or the dark side of the moon. It’s work to recruit kids to the University of the Dark Side of the Moon. We are perennial underdogs, dark horses. But we routinely take athletes who get overlooked by the big DI schools, and often enough – the unchosen fruit ends up crushing the picked cherries. It’s that energy that fuels our character.
Alaska is many things. It’s rugged, diverse, challenging, majestic, and extreme. Alaska requires adaptation, innovation, and imagination. Adversity is no stranger, and when met, we’re stronger for having done so. As I tell my team each year, “You didn’t choose Alaska. Alaska chose you.” We’re scrappy. We’re blue-collar. We’re Seawolves.
Back in Rhode Island and two weeks into projects, I was ripping out wood from a deck first nailed down in 1938, when something occurred to me. These boards endured Atlantic hurricanes, Nor-Easters, cyclone bombs, 85 years of foot traffic, and the 1960’s. Only now did they need to be replaced, and they didn’t go easy. The porch was an addition from a kitchen remodel finished in the final years of the Great Depression. It was almost a shame to replace it. Square, level, and built to last.
I could have replaced the deck with a bigger one, but it wouldn’t have fit with the colonial style or match the home’s simplicity. Extravagance wasn’t a factor in 1885, and certainly not in 1938. I fastened the new wood to the old joists with deck screws, leaving the footprint exactly as it was. Thinking back to skiing and the 2023 season, we had tried something different. It didn’t work. The experiment was worthwhile, but we shifted into something we’re not.
July surrendered to August and soon it was time to trade one ocean for another. Flying back to Alaska I felt a new resolve. Primed with an appetite for to getting back to the pursuit of moving athletes forward, I hit the ground running. Students magically returned to campus as quickly as they disappeared, our athletes amongst them. It’s a new season. Our focus returns to goals, planning, training, execution, best effort, and work ethic. I’m reminded it’s these fundamentals that consistently define the hallmark of our success. We will be who we are. We are Seawolves.
Jan. Being Jan. Summer 2023 – Austria.