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‘Trail to Gold’ Recounts Stories of Female Nordic Pioneers
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Betsy Youngman, who is among those featured in “Trail to Gold,” spends winters teaching Nordic skiing at Galena Lodge and Sun Valley Nordic.
   
Thursday, December 30, 2021
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins electrified the world by taking America’s first Olympic gold for cross country skiing in 2018. But, they acknowledge, they didn’t do it alone.

They stood on the shoulders of a cadre of women who blazed the trail to gold for those who came after them—several of them with ties to Sun Valley.

The stories of Randall, Diggins and 51 other female Nordic skiers who competed at the Winter Olympics between 1972 and 2018 is told in the new book “Trail to Gold,” which is on sale at The Elephant’s Perch and Galena Lodge. Proceeds from book sales are being donated to organizations that foster development of female Nordic coaches.

 
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Alison Owen Bradley was named to the Sun Valley Winter Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
 

The Beijing Olympics set to take place in February 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the year U.S. female Nordic skiers first toed the starting line in the Winter Games—that year in Sapporo, Japan. They got their chance 48 years after men began competing in cross-country skiing at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Women from other countries had begun competing in Nordic skiing at the Olympics in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the United States sent a female team in what’s universally acknowledged as one of the hardest, if not the hardest, endurance sports.

The book tells the stories of the 53 skiers and the challenges of competing against the best in the world, including their struggles with overtraining and eating disorders.

It tells how the first women’s team to cross the pond in 1968 to compete in Europe didn’t have uniforms—they had to borrow blue knickers from some of the smaller men on the U.S. men’s team to have some sort of matching outfits.

 
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Kikkan Randall and her teammates have held a couple Fast and Female events in Sun Valley to encourage young girls to take up Nordic skiing.
 

It tells of their struggle to get funding when a season of World Cup racing could run between $20,000 to $50,000 per skier. It tells of the frustration of competing against Europeans who were taking performance enhancing drugs. And it tells of the year before the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, when the U.S. Ski Team cut the women’s program altogether.

It tells of Kikkan Randall’s determination to put together a women’s relay team after watching Canadians Beckie Scott and Sara Renner earn a silver medal in the team sprint and how her determination culminated in relay gold at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

And it talks about the power of glitter, striped socks, hair dye and dance videos to create the powerful, cohesive team that could have an impact on the world stage.

"We saw big success when we began training as a team under Kikkan Randall, encouraging one another with positivity, doing teamwork to make someone better," said Betsy Youngman, who wrote one chapter and edited others.

Youngman said the project had its genesis in the former Olympians being tasked to mentor young athletes on the ski team and development teams.

"My protege was Jessie Diggins and we had a series of conversations and it was fun getting to know her and see what her struggles are. It got me excited about the young people currently racing. And it also fun to learn what the older skiers had become and what they're doing now."

Among those with Sun Valley ties who are featured in the book:

  • Alison Owen Kiesel Bradley, who describes how she tried for personal records of jumping rope without a miss as a young girl because she was “going to the Olympics someday and I’m getting ready.” Fortunately, she said, her parents didn’t make a big deal of the fact that she was the only female on a team of eight boys when she qualified for the Pacific Northwest team or that she was the only girl competing in in the 1966 junior nationals.

    Bradley served on America’s first female Nordic Olympic team before returning to Sun Valley to coach. She and her husband now have a small farm where they raise Irish Dexter cattle and honey bees.

  • Nancy Fiddler, who was on the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams, came late to the world’s elite ski racing having started skiing in college. Her World Cup career started when she was 31 and she won 14 U.S. National Championship titles.

    She recounts how she was inspired by stories of Martha Rockwell, who was on the first U.S. women’s Olympic cross-country ski team, and how she trained by running 10 miles in the Vermont mountains carrying a backpack full of rocks.

  • Betsy Youngman, who was on the 1988 and 1992 Olympic team, actually was on the national cycling team training for the 1984 Olympics before she was dropped because she refused to take performance-enhancing hormone injections. She recounts how she used funding from Blue Cross to travel and train for the ski team, staying in inexpensive hotels, eating out of a hot pot and driving her VW Rabbit from place to place. She now coaches in Sun Valley’s VAMPS and DONS program.
  • Morgan Arritola, who started cross country skiing at 16 after her family moved to Sun Valley. She trained with the Sun Valley Ski Education’s Gold Team, founded in 2006 to provide a European model of training for American skiers, and competed at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. She is now coaching junior Nordic skiers in Aspen.
  • Laura Wilson Todd, of Hailey, who describes how she learned to skate ski while rehabbing a broken leg, competing in the 1994 and 1998 Olympics and teaching in Sun Valley’s VAMPS program.
  • Tessa Benoit Westbrook, who trained for six months in Sun Valley leading up to 2002 Olympics.
  • Sue Long Wemyss, who stayed with Kate and Bob Rosso while training in Sun Valley and went on to compete at the 1984 Olympics.

Betsy Youngman wrote the chapter about the rise of club programs in North America, including her own participation on the Fischer/Salomon team. She also secured sponsorships for herself and her teammates from the Bonne Bell Cosmetics Company team, which allowed her to take leave from teaching school to train full time.

“It was interesting to me to see how many top US skiers have trained or raced in Sun Valley,” she said. “We have some awesome trails here, and some of the best coaches too!”

Youngman said she hopes young people will read the stories and be inspired.

"They'll know there are going to be hard times and there are going to be fun times. It's a journey."

DID YOU KNOW?

Alison Owen Bradley will be inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in March in Sun Valley.


 

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