AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Through NANANordic, some Alaska Olympic athletes will be headed to rural villages on return from Sochi

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Olympic skier Erik Bjornsen is one of several Olympians who will be headed to schools in Alaska's Northwest Arctic upon returning from Sochi, as part of NANANordic's program. US Ski Team

Olympic fever might stretch on for a few months after the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi are complete -- after the medals are handed out, contingents have returned to their homes and flags are folded and put away for a couple of years.

But a group from U.S. Olympic team will ride the wave of Olympic competition for a little longer and take to the Northwest Arctic Borough to share their stories and skills through the NANANordic cross-country ski program.

Olympic skier Erik Bjornsen and Olympic biathletes Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker and Sara Studebaker have all been to the Arctic region with NANANordic in the past. And at least a few of them are planning to return this spring.

“It brings me a lot of joy to see the kids’ faces light up when they walk into the school and see you,” said Bjornsen, of Anchorage, via email on his way to Sochi.

Bjornsen said he plans to bring some of his Olympic gear to the villages he visits this spring to give away to the young skiers in the program.

Being a healthy, happy role model for the kids in the NANA region is important to Bjornsen, he said.

“I think the most important part was for the kids to have a new and healthy activity that they could do outside,” he added.

Bjornsen was in Selawik last spring and while he’d love to catch up with all the people he met there, he said, he’s looking forward to meeting new folks in the other regional communities.

Making her Olympic debut this week in Sochi, biathlete Susan Dunklee is also looking forward to heading back to Alaska to share her stories and expertise with students.

“I think my favorite part of my NANANordic experience (last year) was showing up in the school cafeteria each morning and being mobbed by smiling kids,” Dunklee wrote in an email from Italy, where she did her last pre-Olympic training. “I got to share my love for skis, snow and outdoor adventuring; in return the students shared their unflagging enthusiasm, basketball, caribou stew, and endless hugs.”

But the fact that the visiting members of Team USA are elite athletes at the top of their game and the height of their careers is perhaps secondary to the fact that they have a passion for their disciplines and simply want to share it, said NANANordic coach Lars Flora.

“We don’t really promote it,” said Flora of the Olympians being Olympians. “But it helps them understand the whole sport. It’s a sport that they can enjoy as recreation but they can also go further to an international level.”

Meeting and learning from elite athletes gives young ski enthusiasts the chance to solidify the fundamentals, but also gives the chance to learn what it takes to progress to a top level. Many in the program are following the athletes' progress in Sochi and the fact they have actually met and been taught by a few makes the experience that much more special.

Flora will be in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region later this month, with the Olympians making the trip to the NANA region in April.

Over the years, Flora said, interest in the program has grown, and not just among students; adults in the rural communities have also been eager to get involved and volunteer. And coaches spend not just a day or two in the communities, but up to five days, which really gives them a chance to get to know all involved.

“It’s good opportunity for people in the communities to get to know each other,” Flora said. “And for high school skiers to spend a week with an Olympic skier is very valuable.”

“I hope our visits give them the confidence to pursue something they are passionate about,” said Dunklee.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.