It would be accurate to say that the lack of snow this winter had little influence on the career of a local skier. Geoff Ash, a senior at Duluth East High School, just completed his final year of cross country skiing with a third place finish in the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Nordic skiing state championship. But that isn’t the end of his career.
Ash has his eyes set on a future with the College of Saint Scholastica Ski team.
If you were to ask him a couple years ago what his future held, he probably would not have been able to give an answer.
Nordic, or cross country skiing, is not a new sport. According to "History of Nordic Skiing," an article by Cecilia Harsch, the remains of Norwegian skis from over 4,500 years ago have been discovered. They were primarily used for transportation and work. Skis made out of wood would be strapped onto the person’s feet to move through the snow quickly.
A will to honor the past and a passion for the sport has led to the beginning of one of the world’s largest ski events, the American Birkebeiner.
According to the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation website, the race draws more than 8,000 skiers from around the world each year to participate in the 50 kilometer Birkebeiner, the 23 kilometer Kortelopet, and shorter distances for younger or less-experienced skiers.
The “Birkie,” as it is commonly called, is the re-creation of a famous quest by two Norwegian skiers, called Birkebeiners because of the birch wood attached to their legs, to bring the infant Prince Haakon to safety during a civil war.
Skiing in the race honors the journey the Birkebeiners completed but it does more than that. It allows thousands of skiers of any age or experience level to come together and celebrate their passion for the sport.
Cross-country skiing has recently spurred some interest in the high school community. Training programs such as the Lake Superior XC Club have been formed in order to provide intense off-season training for serious athletes.
Ash was the only athlete to complete the full, six to seven month program with James Kyes, a former member of the coaching staff at the College of St. Scholastica and the Midwest Junior National Team in the Central Cross Country Ski Association.
Although it would appear that Ash has been a dedicated skier for years, skiing has not always been his main focus. He was formerly a competitive speed skater.
“It was hard to do both because they are both winter sports,” Ash said. “First few years, I was not that good; I was on the JV ski team. Skiing was something I just did and really started liking it. When I started liking it, I started to put it as a priority.”
In tenth grade the decision had been made to pursue skiing.
As a five year member of the Duluth East Ski Team, Ash quickly made tremendous strides in his skiing.
During the off-season, Kyes focused on making Ash a stronger athlete.
“Last summer was the first year I really started training hard,” Ash said. “Kyes really knows what he is talking about.”
The coach and athlete pair worked hard during the summer, adding biking and strength training to a demanding workout regimen.
“We would run a lot and roller ski. Roller skiing compromised 50 percent of our training,” Ash said.
Even though the high school season has come to an end, Ash has registered for the 23 kilometer Kortelopet the weekend of Feb. 25 in Cable, Wis., which gives him little time to recover from the long high school season.
“I wanted to switch into the full Birkie, but I missed the deadline. I’ll probably take the week off to recover,” Ash said.
Although this is his first Kortelopet, Ash remains calm and keeps racing in perspective like any professional athlete.
“Racing is racing. My parents have had me competing my whole life,” Ash said. “Every race to me is another race, more weight with some obviously, but I don’t freak out.”
The high school league ski races are no more than 5 kilometers, with a sprint division being slightly over a kilometer. This would make the Kortelopet much longer than any race Ash has competed in recently and more stressful with the lack of snow this winter.
After racing the Birkebeiner, Ash will begin preparing for his career as a St. Scholastica skier. Although excited about being part of a reputable program, he keeps his skiing in perspective.
“Right now I’m training for inline skating and I’m going to ski in the winter. But it isn’t going to be a priority as it was the last few years. I’ll be on the developmental team, maybe on varsity,” Ash said. “If I’m on varsity, that’s cool.”
While keeping his abilities in perspective, Ash is excited about skiing his first Kortelopet and his future with the College of St. Scholastica ski team, all while remaining calm and demonstrating the mentality of an experienced skier.
“Every race to me is another race.”