Olympic Bits: Reflecting on my time as an Olympic cross country ski technician

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In honor of the 2018 Winter Olympics now going on in PyeongChang, South Korea, we present this Olympic Bits feature by Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown, who served as a cross country wax technician at three Olympics and 14 World Championships.

Ski service

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes? I can only answer from personal experience, but a typical day for a cross-country ski technician will be pretty much like this — though this was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Up about 5:30. We need to be in the wax cabin no later than 7 a.m., and Olympic transportation is often irregular, so best to play it careful. As soon as we get the cabin open, it’s time to check the weather: temperature, whether it’s snowed during the night, humidity, grooming reports. Start taking temp/humidity readings very half hour, to dial in any trends. We’ll run a few “confirmation tests” to make sure we have the skis dialed in.

On “classic days” (the traditional striding style, as opposed to skating), another team of coaches will be out testing kick wax as soon as it’s light. The goal is to have all warm-up skis ready when the athletes arrive, generally two hours before the race, and all race skis dialed in no later than half an hour before start, but preferably much earlier.

If nothing has changed, there’s no need to re-wax the skis (which were prepared last night), so we can get the test skis ready for testing around 10 a.m., or whatever actual race time is (it’s important to test skis at the same time as tomorrow’s race, so conditions will be similar). Testing involves running a fairly large number of matched skis through a timing system — one set of skis for structure (texture of the base) and one set for wax. On a good day, we might make around 90-100 test runs while the day’s race is going on.  Other coaches are out on the course giving split times (time out of first, place in the race, etc.), or feeding the athletes (in longer races). During the  FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, in 1993, there were around 450,000 spectators at the relay and the noise was so great that coaches had to write split times on a board for the skiers to read!

By the time the race is over, we’re all hungry and it’s time for a break and some food – after a de-briefing from the athletes about their skis. We start again after lunch, getting skis ready for tomorrow — this will take until evening, often going on into the night. Skis need to be cleaned, and usually multiple layers of “wax” are applied, depending on conditions, each layer with a different function. The athletes know their skis and hand us two pairs to prepare (remember, this was “back then”): one for warmup, one for the race. The cost of ski “wax” (now often fluorocarbon powders) is high, and our staff consists of two or three of us, so we need to keep the numbers down.

Bed comes early. Some coaches are available at all hours. I used to make it a rule that after 8 p.m. I was on my own time, unless there was an emergency — at the Olympics the work goes on for two weeks or more, and it is important to recharge the batteries and get enough rest so you can be flexible and creative tomorrow.

If conditions change unexpectedly, we go into emergency mode: As many coaches as can be spared are called in, and we form a production line. All skis are re-waxed in about 30 minutes with the extra help. Now back to testing, and the cycle repeats.

That was an average day at the Olympics, as the service crew saw it 20 years ago. When I was in charge, I had one or two assistants. Now the big teams have 30 or more coaches and technicians, and handle as many as 700 or 800 pairs of skis. For a look “inside the fence” see:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONYQCpf3A-s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_VhcfPyooU

~ ~ ~ ~

Team LGBT

Here’s one for the Edmonds Diversity Commission. For the first time ever, Team USA has three out LGBT Olympians: Brittany Bowe (speed skating), Adam Rippon (figure skating) and Gus Kenworthy (slopestyle and halfpipe).

So far, Bowe came in 5th in long track speed skating, Rippon has collected a bronze in team figure skating (Eric Radford, out Canadian figure skater, took gold) and Kenworthy, who has not competed as of this writing, has collected six consecutive American Freestyle titles and won silver in the 2014 Olympics.

Counting all countries, out LGBT Olympians have earned four medals, which ties Team LGBT with Team USA. In recent history, 47 percent of out athletes have won a medal.

But perhaps the best note to close on is from an interview with Adam Rippon: “I was recently asked in an interview what it’s like to be a gay athlete in sports. I said that it’s exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eyebrows.”

Here’s hoping the Diversity Committee can help encourage an atmosphere in Edmonds where young LGBT athletes – or anyone! – can safely be themselves! With or without better eyebrows!

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago

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