Cross Country Ski Duo Bring Sibling Power To Winter Olympics
By Tom Banse
Athletes headed to next month's Winter Olympics in Russia can be expected to leverage any advantage that nature or nurture provides: Experience... a bigger body... a higher tolerance for pain. A few skiers, snowboarders and skaters could bring another advantage to the Games... a sibling teammate. The brother-sister cross country ski duo is from Washington's Methow Valley.
Last month, U.S. Nordic ski team member Erik Bjornsen took a day off from training to coach and inspire junior racers from his home valley... just like former champions once did for him.
The 22-year-old Bjornsen would normally have help from his big sister Sadie to lead this annual clinic. But she's on the World Cup ski racing circuit in Europe. So he demonstrates cross country racing techniques and finishing lunges by himself.
Erik Bjornsen talking to kids: "I like to think of myself as a kangaroo sometimes - bouncing off each foot in skiing..."
A class full of 8 to 13 year olds mimics his every move. Later, many tell me they want to follow in the Bjornsens' path. Emerson Worrell is in seventh grade.
Photo: Olympic hopeful Erik Bjornsen demonstrates racing technique at a kids ski clinic in Mazama, Wash. By Tom Banse.
Emerson Worrell: "I've always wanted to go to the Olympics as well, yeah."
TB: "Are you learning things that will help?"
Emerson: "Yeah. It's really cool."
Sadie Bjornsen remembers being even younger than Emerson when her Olympic dream took root. She's now 24 years old. Speaking from France via Skype, she recalls a welcome home parade after the Nagano Games for another local Olympic cross country skier.
Sadie Bjornsen: "I remember distinctly Laura McCabe riding in on a fire truck, the whole valley lining the streets and clapping. That was the moment. It was like, 'This is so neat.' It's such an honor. I knew I was going to be an Olympian."
The Bjornsen kids eventually grew up outside Mazama, Washington with former Olympic skiers as neighbors on two sides. An enviable (120 mile) Nordic trail system starts practically at their doorstep.
Mary Bjornsen is the mother in this close-knit family. She says all three of her kids had an athletic upbringing with constant friendly competition.
Mary Bjornsen: "I can remember people wondering when Erik was going to start beating Sadie. It took a while actually. Sadie was fast."
Sadie Bjornsen: "Everything was a competition from running to the car, the first one there. Or balancing at (their dad's) job site on a beam as long as you could."
Photo: Brother and sister and U.S. Nordic Ski Team teammates Sadie and Erik Bjornsen. By Robert Whitney
Erik and Sadie tried to make the Olympic team four years ago but came up short. They've kept spurring each other on to this day. During the off-season, the Bjornsen duo live together and train at Alaska Pacific University, where both are students. Erik says he and his sister both really want to go to the Olympics together.
Erik Bjornsen: "It would just be nice. I think I can post better results when she is around cheering for me. I feel more comfortable just on the road with her. If I ever have any problems there is someone I can go to."
Sadie Bjornsen: "As a sibling you always have a little more of an open connection. It's easy to get feedback from a sibling and not be threatened. Erik has been awesome for that because he has encouragement when I need it and also a reminder when I need it."
U.S. Ski Team coaches and officials will wait until practically the last moment to finalize their Olympic squad. They want to have as many of this winter's race results as possible to evaluate rankings and get a feel for who's just plain hot. Sadie has secured a spot on the Nordic team based on her good season to date. For Erik, the next two weeks will be the clincher.
How rare would it be to send siblings to the Winter Games? Neighbor and ex-Olympic Nordic skier Leslie Thompson Hall says it happens more often than you might think.
Leslie Hall: "You know, certainly once someone is involved in a sport it is easy to have another kid in the family join the sport too. To have two exceptional athletes is not that unusual."
Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Mahre in skiing and Eric and Beth Heiden in speedskating are earlier examples of sibling success at the Winter Games (1980 and 1984 Olympics). This year, two sibling pairs have secured spots on the U.S. men's and women's ice hockey teams. In the wider field of hopefuls, there could be at least four more in sports ranging from snowboarding to freestyle moguls.
U.S. Nordic Ski Team roster bios:
2014 U.S. National Cross Country Championships: