November 20, 2016
Olympian-Level Dedication in the Methow Valley
By Dutch Franz
Photos at right: Leslie Hall (left-Photo by Rachel Weymuller) and Laura McCabe (right-Photo by Sean McCabe), Methow Valley Junior Nordic Team coaches.
Linda Kimbrell was a visionary 25 years ago when she started a cross-country ski program for high school-age kids in Winthrop, a small town located on the northeastern slope of the Washington Cascades.
The program was a natural extension for Kimbrell who owned Winthrop Mountain Sports which served the region’s Nordic community.
The early program was small, but included dedicated teenage skiers who served as the foundation to build a larger program. The program eventually evolved into the Methow Valley Junior Nordic Team.
The next generation of Nordic skiing enthusiasts and future Olympic champions from the Methow Valley quietly established a thriving junior ski program as well as a non-profit educational program for both youth and adults to learn about participating and competing in Nordic skiing and Biathlon sports.
The Methow Valley Junior Nordic Team, a branch of the non-profit, today instills the love of Nordic skiing while preparing young athletes to compete at the national and international level.
In 1995, Olympic Nordic skier Laura McCabe (’94, ’98) took over the team and a year later her friend and fellow Olympian, Leslie Hall (’88, ’92, ’94), came to town to help coach.
The two brought a love for Nordic skiing and an appreciation of the benefits of hard work and dedication. McCabe expanded the program to include younger children and a school outreach program to get kids on skis a few times a week during the school year.
The current owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, Rita Kenny, remembers the early years of the team in the mid-1990s and the dramatic growth the team experienced under McCabe in the early 2000s.
Kenny recalls moments in those years when she worried about not having enough rental skies for the growing team and school programs. Somehow Kenny always found the gear and was ready to provide equipment for the team each ski season.
Hall took over as Director of the Methow Valley Nordic Ski Team in 2012. Now the team has between 75 –125 junior skiers ranging in age from 6 –18. The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, featured three alumni — siblings Erik and Sadie Bjornsen and Brian Gregg — from the Methow Valley program.
It Takes a Community
Hall and McCabe agree that the success and growth of the program would not have been possible without the support of the families, volunteer coaches, and supportive community in the Methow Valley.
Hall says that both the Methow Trail Association and the local high school, Liberty Bell, have been instrumental to the program’s growth and success by allowing the team to train on the extensive trail system in the valley.
Community support and sponsorship have permitted the organization to offer scholarships to team members to offset expenses. Kenny says the team and community are committed to finding ways to support any child interested in participating and giving all kids the opportunity to join programs.
“With the fires the last few seasons the families lost a lot,” says Kenny. “People don’t always realize what that can do to a community, especially at the kid level. One thing that is great about this community is if something needs to be done we find out about it, and we do something to help.”
With the community busy supporting all aspects of ski-team life, the coaches are busy teaching skills and making sure the sport stays fun. McCabe says that it is important for children to get a chance to move and play in the snow. She says the team is a great opportunity to play with friends and enjoy the natural environment of the valley.
Learning Critical Life Skills
Kenny says the kids get excited as they become better and learn to ski faster. The team is also unique in that it gives families a chance to play and participate together.
Younger participants often join the team because they see their older siblings doing it and they want to be part of the fun. While fun may be one of the main ingredients of the team, teaching valuable life skills is also part of the program.
Hall stresses that kids don’t have to compete, but are encouraged to participate. The season runs from November to early March. Practices for younger kids are once a week and serve as an introduction to the program and basic Nordic skiing skills. Older and more serious members of the team practice three times a week and weekends.
McCabe says that the team and the competition help kids learn about many different aspects of life; the team atmosphere is important for personality development and for the children to learn how to interact with peers and those in charge. The team teaches commitment, the benefits of hard work, and how to deal with success and failure, all critical life skills to McCabe.
“Stepping up to the starting line makes you face your fears, work hard and go for it,” says McCabe. “Whatever the outcome, it was a success.”
The Future Looks Bright
According to Hall, the team’s future looks promising as it continues to grow and become more competitive. She would like to see a club championship in the Pacific Northwest and the growth of the sport in the region.
As she prepares for the start of a new season, Hall is focused on setting reasonable goals for the team and helping members compete and be successful at the Cross Country Junior National Championships next March in Lake Placid, New York.
Hall says that about 400 kids complete in the junior championships, with about 30 coming from the Pacific Northwest. Despite the small number of participants from the region, the Methow Valley team has had success at the national championships.
“I feel like we are in a really good place right now,” says McCabe. Leslie (Hall) is a great director and very detail-oriented. We also have great coaches with a lot of experience. We are small in numbers but independent and sturdy. “It requires a lot of desire, but if you stick with it you can be successful on a national stage.”
Dutch Franz is a Seattle-based journalist and outdoor adventurer who finds inspiration in the North Cascades. He has written extensively on the abundant climbing, hiking and skiing found in the region.