Nordic Skiers Band Together to Create Youth Ski Team in Ironwood/Hurley

Mar 15, 2019

The Ironwood/Hurley area can get up to 200 inches of annual snowfall, in part due to their close proximity to Lake Superior.

This makes for great skiing, but it was only recently that a youth-based cross country ski program began in the area, named for the Finnish concept Sisu, that has to do with resilience.

Last week, they wrapped up the season with 25 youth participants. Larry Lapachin continues our We Live Up Here series with the story.

In last year’s Winter Olympics, Americans were at the edge of their seats watching the dramatic finish of the women’s cross country team sprint. Analyst Chad Salmela and play-by-play announcer Steve Schlange covered the race. Their coverage of the race was both emotional and possibly the best called event in that year’s Olympics. At the end of the race, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the first ever US gold metal in cross country skiing. It also catapulted the sport into the national spotlight. 

Around the same time this duo were given their gold medals, a youth-based cross country ski program called the SISU Endurance Team began in the Ironwood, Michigan/Hurley, Wisconsin area. Like the recent gold medalists, Diggins and Randall, the program is not only sparking interest and inspiring the next generation of skiers, but also changing the culture of the area, as well.

Neil Klemme, from the University of Wisconsin-Extension Office is the 4-H Youth Development Coordinator. It was his idea that was the catalyst in developing the SISU Endurance Team program. He describes the program as “an 8-week cycle of skiing, each Sunday they came out for 2 hours and got lessons on turning and stopping and downhills and uphills; the basics of xc skiing.”

For Neil, starting the SISU Endurance Team made perfect sense. First of all, the area is receives nearly 200 inches of annual snowfall, most as lake effect snow, compliments of Lake Superior. According to Neil, “I was shocked to see we get all this snow but we don’t have a ski program.”

And the second reason is the group of talented skiers in the area. So while Neil handles the logistics of the program and writes grants to offset operational costs, those talented skiers become dedicated coaches for the children. “I realized that I think when we first started meeting and I went, wow, these are some amazing skiers sitting around this table right here,” said Neil, “these kids are going to get to learn from some of the best in our area.”

Many cross country skiers in the Ironwood area see the value of a snowy landscape that can last for about 5 months. One skier is Jackie Powers, the coach coordinator for the SISU Endurance Team. Here, she describes her love of the snowy winters, “I’m from the Chicago area and I moved up here because of cross country skiing and because of the great snows and great winters that we have twelve years ago”

One challenge that Jackie faced was getting local townspeople to accept and embrace cross country skiing. “When we got here, we wanted to volunteer to help with the local ski club, only to find out there wasn’t a local ski club,” she explained. Sitting in the chalet at ABR Nordic Ski Trails in Ironwood, she continued, “Here’s 70 kilometers of skiing, known as one of the best places to ski in the entire Midwest and people that live here don’t even know it exists. There was a really disconnect between the locals that live here and the out of towners who travel here.”

A long term goal was changing the public perception of cross country skiing in the Ironwood area. “We really wanted to change the culture in the Ironwood area,” she said, “and develop cross country skiing as a more mainstream sport.”

Another coach, Will Andresen, who skied in the Ironwood area for Northern Michigan University cross country ski team, shares a similar experience. He describes what skiing was like when he moved to the area over 25 years ago. “I was pretty much skiing out there on my own for the first few years and I was really surprised by that,” Will said, “and really excited to see how the sport has really changed, the culture of the sport here in the Ironwood, Hurley area has really changed that there’s a lot more skiers of all generations and all abilities.”

And now, when Will ponders the future of cross country skiing in the area, he’s expresses optimism. “I’m happy to see the next round of coaches actually, my kids generation out there,” Will said.

And it’s these coaches who are developing a cross country skiing tradition in the area. It’s their passion and determination that may, one day soon, help establish a racing team. Once again, SISU Endurance Team founder, Neil Klemme explains,”That’s where I’d like to see it in 5 years. Is that we have a middle school and high school race team even a couple kids that enter races here and there that would be great.”

It’s a late Sunday afternoon at ABR Nordic Ski Trails, and the coaches and kids are skiing toward the chalet. Their lessons are over. Life-long sports, like cross country skiing, will have a lasting effect on the children’s future. Maybe they will compete in high school or college, or eventually become coaches themselves. Or maybe they’ll ski in the regional races, like the SISU Endurance race or the popular Birkiebiener in Hayward. Or maybe, just maybe, one skier might re-create the magic of Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins.   

  

Larry Lapachin covers stories about Lake Superior for WXPR's We Live Up Here series. He's based in Rhinelander, WI, and Ironwood, MI. This story was written by Larry Lapachin and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: The Yards by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.