Nordic skiing goes new school
At the opening night of the Vermont Ski Museum's newest exhibit, "Vermont's Nordic Traditions," the mezzanine was overflowing with Splitkein cross-country skis, worn leather boots and other memorabilia. Legendary Olympian Bill Koch, a Vermonter who pioneered the technique of skate-skiing, was in attendance, as were various Von Trapps, clad in worsted-wool vests and Norwegian sweaters. Over a couple of Long Trails and assorted canapes, two unidentified middle-aged men discussed sports.
"Windsurfing is dead," said one. "It's all about kitesurfing now."
That in-the-know comment was appropriate, considering what was on the agenda for the evening: a screening of American Skier, a film by Vermonter Andrew Newell. As some three-dozen people at the December premiere were about to discover, the film, and the movement behind it, are brand-spanking-new school. One of the world's best nordic sprinters and a member of the U.S. Ski Team, Newell shot the film last year while competing in World Cups and goofing off at various spots around his Shaftsbury home. It blows the snow off a centuries-old sport with footage of Newell doing back flips and various other tricks -- on cross-country skis.
Born in Bennington, Newell was the son of two avid cross-country skiers who clipped him into nordic skis when he was 3. At first, he wasn't so hot about the cold-weather pursuit. "My parents tell me I would complain when I was on the skis," Newell said during a phone interview last month from British Columbia, where he was training for this season's World Cup and the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games.
But by the time he was in kindergarten, Newell was racing at Prospect Mountain, a former alpine area that's now a nordic ski center. One day, in between competing and training, he decided his skis could do more than just go straight. "I started doing tricks at a really young age," said Newell, who also swam, wrestled and played basketball and baseball as a kid. "I was always more comfortable on cross-country skis. When I put on alpine skis they always felt really heavy and awkward."
In his spare time, Newell was pulling off moves that other kids were doing on snowboards, such as jumps and spins. But he kept his focus on classical and skate techniques, and decided in the eighth grade that he wanted to become a professional cross-country skier. "There were legends -- guys like Bill Koch and Tim Caldwell and Mike Gallagher," said Newell. "Those guys were all Vermonters back in the day and they skied in the Olympics in the '70s, so I heard those names and realized those guys were big-time cross-country skiers."
Newell enrolled in Stratton Mountain School, a hothouse for budding U.S. Ski and Snowboard team members. Though still on skinny skis, he and his teammates trained on downhill runs to boost their abilities. "We just started one day hitting the tabletops and the halfpipes," said Newell, referring to his tricks off the special snow features that ski areas build into their winter terrain parks. "In the springtime, when the mountain was closed, we'd practice on the big jumps -- that's when [my tricks] really progressed."
Meanwhile, at Northstar-at-Tahoe in California, a nordic instructor named Tor Brown was watching some local kids launch their own tricks on cross-country skis, and decided that he wanted to help them with this update on traditional nordic skiing. Just as Jake Burton fashioned the first snowboard prototype, Brown developed cross-country skis with twin tips. The curvature at each end, similar to that found on alpine twin tips, would make it easier for the kids to twist, spin and go fakie, or backward.
Eventually, the design landed in the offices of Fischer, an Austrian ski company with U.S. headquarters in New Hampshire. Last month, Fischer started rolling out the first-ever pair of twin-tip cross-country skis, together called the Jibskate. Lightweight but sturdy, and with rounded tips and tails, the Jibskate makes it easier for skiers to land jumps.
"Kids are really excited," said Andy Caniff, marketing coordinator for Fischer, who says he expects the Jibskate to retail for about $200 a pair. "We expect to see the same behavior that we do with skateboarding. We'd love to see kids build jumps at the parking lot of a grocery store, in a park, or at a place like the Burlington skate park."
Caniff's theory is that kids -- or anyone with enough guts to get big air on skinny skis -- can practice nordic "jibbing" (pulling tricks) in their backyards. Nordic centers, meanwhile, are building terrain parks to accommodate the new sport: Viking Nordic, in Londonderry, Vermont, and Sunday River, Maine, are two of the Northeast areas with special jumping features. Caniff expects many more to come on board soon.
"We haven't had anybody hurt," he said, adding that the company promotes wearing helmets while doing tricks with the Jibskate. "Without this product, the sub-20-year-olds would get bored with cross-country skiing."
Though cross-country enthusiasts will insist their sport is anything but boring, there's long been a ho-hum attitude toward nordic skiing in most areas of the United States, especially when it comes to spectators. "In Europe, half of a country will come out to watch a cross-country race," said Caniff, who concedes that watching a skier vanish into the woods during a 30K race can be tedious.
To add excitement to the sport at the elite level, competition organizers have added "sprint" distances of between 100 and 1200 meters to Olympic and World Cup races. Imagine the difference between watching a marathon and watching the 100-yard dash, and you get the picture. Last year Newell, who is sponsored by Fischer, held the 100-meter world record -- though an Australian eventually broke it. Last week, Newell's spot on the Olympic team was officially confirmed; he expects to compete in the sprint distance at Torino.
Newell adds that he hopes to build up endurance to compete in longer distances as well in the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games. One of the youngest members of the U.S. Ski Team at 22, Newell was selected while still a senior at Stratton Mountain School. He has postponed college for a few years.
In the meantime, he's educating the winter-sports world about his sport and where it's headed. Newell and a couple of friends were inspired to begin their filmmaking business shortly after the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships at Stratton in 2001. "I had my cross-country skis on, and I just came down really fast and hooked a back flip," said Newell. "At that point I realized that people were really excited about it." Encouraged to start filming his flips and jumps, Newell and company -- also known as the Vermont Militia -- released Generation X Ski in 2002. They followed it up with the new American Skier.This season, Newell keeps his digital video camera on hand to produce another film for 2006 -- provided the Sony doesn't smash to pieces. "I've banged myself up pretty good," he admitted. "A couple of years ago in New Zealand, I got off balance in the air and pretty much plummeted three stories and landed on my side. I was coughing up blood for a couple of days."
Can stunts like this turn off the traditional cross-country crowd? "There might be a tiny bit of negative reaction, but for the most part it's positive," insisted Newell. "There are coaches who don't want their kids going out and hitting the jumps instead of training, and I agree, but there's always time to have fun."
Back at the Vermont Ski Museum, just before Newell's film, officials showed Four Champions, a black-and-white film of international cross-country skiers shot in the early '50s. A sound glitch renders the film silent, so watching it was a little like watching paint dry.
Then American Skier began, with a blaring, heavy-metal beat and a scene of four guys smoking cigars and playing cards in a faux gangster clip. At first blush, it looked like a Beastie Boys video. "Smoking cigars!" someone from the audience said with a gasp. Soon, the film shifted to footage of motor sports and skiing action. In between racing snowmobiles, revving Jeeps through the mud, and tearing up the Vermont countryside on a motorcycle, Newell could be seen arcing a perfect back flip off a jump, wearing two tiny cross-country skis on his feet.
"Shocking, shocking," Koch said before ducking out of the screening early. "If this is what's happening to the sport, I'm not sure I want to encourage my kids anymore."