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Johnny Hagenbuch on a Mission-Go, Johnny, Go, Go, Go
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Monday, December 27, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Johnny Hagenbuch won the 2019 Boulder Mountain Tour three months before he graduated from Sun Valley Community School. At 17 he became the youngest to be named to the U.S. Ski Team.

And he made American skiing history as part of a relay team that won the United States’ first Nordic gold medal in U.S. Men’s Junior World competition in Finland. It was a feat he repeated the following year.

Now 20, John Steel Hagenbuch has his sights on the next step—securing a spot on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team’s Olympic squad with the 2022 Olympics just 38 days away.

Hagenbuch will compete against hundreds of American ski racers Jan. 4-7 at the U.S. National Championships at Soldier Hollow in Heber Utah.

“My goal is to make the Olympic team,” said Hagenbuch, his face beneath his tousled brown hair tan from hours of training. “If I ski mostly perfect, it’s something I can do.”

Hagenbuch was 4 when his family moved from San Francisco to a home filled with fine art and books along the Big Wood River near Ketchum. His parents, both in the financial world, could work remotely. And they chose to do it in Sun Valley where they’d been bringing their five children to ski and bike for years.

Johnny, the youngest, tried every sport there was to try, including alpine skiing and ice hockey. Introduced to cross country skiing at 11, he quickly fell in love with it because his friends were in the program with him.

But, as he began to win races, he began focusing on the competitive aspects of the sport.

“It started with having fun outside—building jumps, playing games. As I got older, my competitive nature took over,” said Hagenbuch, who stands 6-foot-1 in his skate ski boots. “I liked it when I started doing well in middle school. But I also enjoy the training, the racing, the shared community experience and meeting new people.”

As a sophomore, Hagenbuch earned a trip to Finland to the under-18 Scandinavian championships.

“In Scandinavia cross-country skiing is huge. There’s a lot of money put into athletes there. And there are a lot of trails. In Finland, for instance, there are trails from village to village and you start and end ski races in stadiums where crowds can watch. The trails are so wide six people can ski abreast. The Harriman Trail where we do the Boulder Mountain Tour is, by contrast, fairly narrow. Two people skiing abreast is tight.”

The intensity of competition is also much higher in Europe—even more intense than a national race in the United States, said Hagenbuch.

“Nordic skiing is the national sport in Norway, which means tens and hundreds of those talented skiers would be the best skiers there are in the United States,” he said.

The goal of Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Gold Team is to replicate the dedication and lifestyle that Scandinavians apply to their training, Hagenbuch said. He, for instance, dedicated himself to a thousand hours of training from May 2021 to April 2022.

An average day during might encompass two hours rollerskiing 50 kilometers in the morning followed by running for a half-hour or biking for an hour and a half in the afternoon. In between, he lifts heavy weights for explosivity.

There’s also spring camp in Bend, Ore.; fall camp in Park City, training on glacier near Canmore, Alberta, and summer camp in Alaska.

He accommodates it with a diet of 6,000 calories on big days. He eschews red meat out of concern for the environment, preferring salad bowls, instead. And breakfast always entails overnight oatmeal with Greek yogurt and raisins.

“The summer’s where we get strong for the winter season. Last year I rollerskied more than I skied,” he said.

Hagenbuch thought the Boulder Mountain Tour was daunting when he first skied it at 12, accompanied by his mother. He decided to do it at the spur of the moment when he returned from competition in Finland in 2019, jet lag and all, and took third. The next year he won it—a feat followed a short time later by a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship.

With the COVID pandemic keeping colleges virtual last year, Hagenbuch decided to take a gap year to focus on ski racing. And, with even ski teams preaching physical distancing, he could often be seen easily classic skiing his way up the steep hills at Lake Creek or skate skiing from SNRA to Galena Lodge.

“You get in rhythm and the hours pass quickly,” he said.

It was an odd-feeling year, he said, as most ski races were cancelled and there was no opportunity to test his skills against ski racers in Europe.

But he skied the virtual Boulder Mountain Tour. And then the 19-year-old fought off two other skiers to win the prestigious 45k American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin in 1 hour 54 minutes. The next day he took second in the 43K American Birkebeiner Classic during a blizzard.

“It was my first time on that course. It was mass start, which was fun because the group stays together the entire race. I broke away with eight kilometers left and cruised to the finish line,” he said. “It’s always hard doing 45K races back-to-back. But, at some point, you get used to trying hard.”

When snow was slow to appear this year, Hagenbuch hung out for four weeks at Canmore, where he skied a 2.5-kilometer loop made of manmade snow the Canadians had stored in a pile under wood chips.

“Fortunately, we’re able to accomplish a lot of our training in the off-season whereas alpine skiers need to ski,” he said.

Hagenbuch was the top U23 skier in the 2021 Gitchi Gami Games in Cable, Wis., in mid-December, finishing fourth in the men’s Classic 15-kilometer race.

If he doesn’t make the Olympic team, he will have the opportunity to compete in World Cup races.  He plans to start spring quarter at Dartmouth College where he wants to study biochemical engineering, perhaps to become a genetics researcher.

He envisions pursuing studies during spring and fall quarters and focusing on skiing in summer and winter.

“My life right now is skiing,” he said. “You don’t get that long of a life as a ski racer so you’d better enjoy it. And, no there’s no secret ingredient or special recipe to success. It’s just showing up and doing it every day.”

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