When there is no snow to be found, cross country skiers often turn to bike riding, running, swimming and strength training to keep in shape. But roller skiing is really the best option.
For skiers in this part of the country, however, it can also be the toughest kind of offseason training to come by.
Roller ski races, in particular, are more common on the East Coast, where ski clubs are clustered close together, and in Europe. In this region, Utah — home of the U.S. Ski Team headquarters in Park City — is the likeliest of possible hosts.
For the first time ever on Saturday, Bozeman put on its own series of roller ski races as the Bridger Ski Foundation attempts to create more of an avenue for the sport to thrive in the Intermountain West.
“A lot of people don’t realize we have an Olympic development program here in Bozeman,” said Andy Newell, the BSF Nordic Pro Team coach. “So that was the goal of this race, to help showcase the Pro Team and kind of help people understand what we’re doing with this Olympic development team.”
The races attracted competitors from Bozeman and Montana at large, along with the nearest skiing hubs — Park City; Jackson, Wyoming; and Sun Valley, Idaho. Newell and BSF purposefully held the event on the same weekend as the Jim Bridger Trail Run — occurring Sunday morning in Sypes Canyon — because the running race is such a big fundraising and marketing tool for the Pro Team. With more exposure and more sponsors, they hope to make the roller ski races an annual event with larger fields and more prize money.
“It’s awesome that we’re able to have a first race here,” said BSF Nordic Pro Team member Finn O’Connell, “and hopefully we got some good footage that we can get out to the public and hopefully bring out a bigger crowd and more competitors (in the future).”
O’Connell, 24, took second place in the Open Men’s race Saturday, completing the eight-lap, 12-kilometer course on streets south of the Montana State campus just behind teammate Logan Diekmann.
“They’re two of our top BSF pro skiers so it was really cool to see them have a good race today,” said Newell, who is a four-time Olympian himself.
Both skiers plunged through the finish line and immediately found some shade along Opportunity Way to catch their breath. While roller skiing presents the most similar training option for Nordic skiing, contending with the heat makes it much more difficult. Diekmann, 25, a 2015 Bozeman High graduate, said it’s valuable experience, though.
“Coming away with a win on a course that is unlike anything we do in the winter is pretty cool,” he said. “It gets very tactical when it’s flat and super fast with a lot of turns, which is fun.”
The roller ski races themselves are rare on this side of the country, but BSF members are plenty familiar with the concept.
“Roller skiing is definitely the biggest thing we do,” O’Connell said of the summer training. “Almost six mornings a week we’re out here for two or three hours.”
It was convenient, the skiers said, to get this type of offseason training and racing atmosphere without having to travel.
“It’s really cool to have people coming here to do the race. It’s super special,” said Mariah Bredal, 24, another member of the Nordic Pro Team who placed second in the Open Women’s race. “It’s super good cross-training for cross country skiing. It’s practically the same. If you roller ski in the summer, you’ll definitely be faster in the winter than if you just ran or biked. You’re practicing practically all the same motions.”
The Open Women’s race was won by Nina Seemann, a Dartmouth College skier who is training with BSF for the summer.
Natalie Nicholas, the winner of the U18 women’s 6k race, took advantage of the day as a cross-training opportunity also. A rising junior cross country runner at Bozeman High, Nicholas cross country skis in the winter as a separate hobby that happens to also keep her conditioning at a high level.
“They really complement each other. They’re both endurance sports,” she said. “I think it’s really helpful for me both mentally and physically that I get to change up my training multiple times a year. I ski in the winter, I run in the fall. And both of them — different teams, different atmospheres — I think it’s healthy for me as an athlete and a person to do both, and I really enjoy both, so it’s pretty fun.”
O’Connell, who is originally from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and skied for four years at Vermont, was named in May to the U.S. Cross Country Ski B Team for the 2022-23 season. That honor came on the heels of a strong 2021-22 season in which he placed fourth in the SuperTour standings, in part by posting nine top-10 finishes. It is a designation that comes with plenty of advantages that could advance his career.
“It’s the biggest achievement you could get to be named to the U.S. Ski Team,” he said. “We get some good funding, World Cups are covered, we get sweet training camps. … We have nutritionists, doctors, all the support we could get.”
O’Connell has been skiing ever since he can remember, so to earn a spot on the team was extremely gratifying.
“It’s validating and shows that the hard work is paying off,” he said. “It’s paid off each year whether I can really see it or not. But now to get the US Ski Team nomination and title, that really validates everything.”
Newell said it’s that kind of growth and opportunity that BSF is trying to foster with its programming, but especially with the Nordic Pro Team he leads. Part of that effort includes several days of early roller ski training sessions throughout the summer.
“People around Bozeman probably see us on the roads all the time,” Newell said. “And we really appreciate them being patient with us and giving us some space and realizing we’re out here training these Olympic athletes, and I think that’s something this town should be proud of. We’ve received a ton of support from the community having these athletes in town training.”