The rapidly approaching year of 2022, and the upcoming Beijing Olympics, will mark 50 years since women cross-country skiers first began competing in the Winter Games. With multiple World Cup podiums already achieved this season and strong chances for medals in February, the origins of the U.S. women’s program might not be at the forefront of one’s mind. We’ve become accustomed to seeing our women at the top of the results lists; with almost an assumption that they will be there each weekend.
How far women’s skiing has come, and how hard women have worked to bring the program to its current status was recently highlighted to me in Trail to Gold, The Journey of 53 Women Skiers, a collection of stories written by the 1972-2018 U.S. Olympic Women Cross-Country Skiers. This is a book that will be impactful in a unique way to each reader. As a relatively-young member of the nordic skiing community, I read it as a story of history, tenacity and teamwork.
The creation and publication of this book was a collaborative effort that originated when current U.S. cross-country head coach (then women’s team coach) Matt Whitcomb suggested that the 2013-14 national team women interview previous Olympians. While the idea of a book was floated at the time, the project stalled until 2018 when Alison (Owen) Bradley, a member of the first women’s Olympic team, and Kikkan Randall, five time Olympian and 2018 gold-medalist, brought the group of women together again. Through this partnership, USNOW was founded, the U.S. Nordic Olympic Women. Tying history to the present, the group began recognizing a current standout U.S. female skier with the annual Gold Rush Award, the first of which was awarded to Rosie Brennan at the Quebec City World Cup in 2019.
With the founding of USNOW came a renewed motivation for writing a book. 1984 Olympian, Sue (Long) Wemyss, headed a committee composed of eight former and current U.S. Olympians, and the book project began in earnest in May of 2020. With the interviews conducted in 2013-14 as a base, USNOW members contributed additional written recollections and photographs. These accounts were woven together by four of the 53 women Olympians to form chapters and provide a collective narrative. They write, “this book tells our stories as committed international competitors through five decades of history. In our own words, we reveal how the sport has developed, grown and changed. We hope you enjoy our journey.”
While the book is perhaps not a suspenseful page-turner, it is compelling, informative, and important, and should be a staple in any cross-country skiing household.
I consider myself to be close with three of the fifty three women Olympians; one of whom is my mother, the other my aunt, and the third a family friend and former coach. Growing up, I saw these women as role models and mentors. Not only to me, but to their communities as well. They are also all exceedingly humble and not likely to hold forth on the glory days of their Olympic careers. Thus, much of the history revealed in Trail to Gold was new to me.
While men competed in cross-country skiing at the very first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France in 1924, it was another 48 years before the first U.S. women raced. While women from other countries started competing in cross-country at the Olympics beginning in 1952, it wasn’t until 1972 that the U.S. sent a women’s team.
The book details the exceptional path these first five women took to be at that start line in Sapporo, Japan in 1972. Not only were these women blazing a path in the record books of nordic skiing but they were experiencing elements of world history first-hand as well. I was struck by an account from 1972 Olympian, Trina Hosmer, of the 1970 World Championships in the High Tatras, current-day Slovakia. The women flew into Prague, arriving the winter after the Russian army had driven tanks through the city and bombed some of the buildings. At this time, the country was called Czechoslovakia and was still under the rule of Russia and as Hosmer described, “very much an Iron Curtain country, which was quite intimidating for us, naive, first time international skiers.”
The rise of skating was another piece of history that stuck with me from Trail to Gold. Given the popularity and prevalence of the skate technique today, it’s difficult to imagine that it was only adopted as its own race category 35 years ago. For many of these Olympic women, they only competed in classic or they were racing as the transition came about. Sue (Long) Wemyss described how this new technique evolved over the 1984-85 season. She writes, “Most of us really didn’t know what we were doing; we were inventing skating techniques on the spot.”
Throughout the fifty years that U.S. women have raced at the Winter Olympics in nordic skiing, they have faced enormous obstacles in their quest to compete. As much as anything, Trail to Gold is a testament to the tenacity of these 53 women and the many others who weren’t named to an Olympic team. Over the course of its pages, the book lays out many of the challenges these women dealt with over the years. They include: lacking financial support, competing against doped athletes, a lack of club teams, inconsistent leadership and troubled team dynamics, to name a few.
The period following the 1998 Nagano Olympics was a particular slump for women’s cross-country skiing in the U.S. Many women were leaving the sport at the time, feeling unsupported and discouraged by the team culture. In fact, the year before the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, the U.S. ski team cut the women’s program altogether and did not even name a women’s cross-country team.
To anyone even remotely familiar with U.S. cross-country skiing, it will not come as a surprise that it was Kikkan Randall who helped lead women’s skiing out of this downturn. For a time, Randall was the only woman on the A-team, having to sit out most team sprints and relay events. In the book, she describes how her vision of a women’s team was inspired by the Canadian women at the time. In 2006, when the U.S. women were at a low point, Canadians Beckie Scott and Sara Renner earned a silver medal in the team sprint. Randall writes, “I was stirred by their transformation and envious of the team they had created.”
Twelve years later, when Randall and Jessie Diggins earned U.S. women’s cross-country skiing its first medal, gold in the team sprint, it seems safe to say that the U.S. women had also undergone a transformation. Throughout the pages of Trail to Gold lies an underlying theme of the importance of teamwork. But the book also makes it clear that this culture and dynamic was hard-fought.
From the historical first Olympic appearance in 1972, through the bumps and turns presented in the ensuing years, the teamwork that brought about that gold medal was fifty years in the making. As Diggins writes in her account of that night, “It’s taken years of every member of this team committing to the team goals, coming to training camps, and pushing each other through grueling training sessions,” and the cumulative pages of Trail to Gold support this statement.
The two-part layout of Trail to Gold, and it’s logical progression from the early trailblazers in the sport to life after retirement makes for easy reading. While part-one tells the story of the 53 women as a whole, part-two gives an individual introduction to each of the women. Through these profiles the reader learns more about these Olympians in their own words. This section provides an excellent reference point for anyone looking to delve deeper into the lives of these 53 unique women.
Through narratives, anecdotes and photographs, Trail to Gold effectively conveys an influential story of women’s Nordic skiing over the years. I urge everyone to read this book, to discover the story for yourself and find what it means for you. Regardless, it is an important book in the world of U.S. cross-country skiing and deserves a spot on the coffee tables and bookshelves of our ski community.
Trail to Gold is available from Pathway book distributor at this link. Additionally, personal bulk shipments have been sent to various locations around the country with the idea that the Olympic women will do book presentations, have copies to sell and attend some events. The NENSA Women’s XC Day on January 23rd is one such event where at least four of the women Olympians will be present for book signing.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.