The T2 team, a program for elite cross-country skiers, was formed last year. The goal of the program was not only to help the team members achieve success throughout the world, but to inspire young skiers in the community, according to materials from the program.
The team began with six members last year, but have added two new ones this season in Annie Pokorny, who joined the team from Middlebury College, and Simi Hamilton who is on the U.S. Ski Team B-Team. The team also includes Olympian Andy Newell, Sophie Caldwell, Skyler Davis, Jessie Diggins, Eric Packer and Erika Flowers.
The races that begin around Nov. 20 are the ones that really start to matter in the qualification process for the Olympics and T2 Team coach Gus Kaeding said there are many ways to qualify depending on where skiers are racing - whether it's in Europe or the United States.
"Basically what we've been instructed is that they're going to be taking the skiers who are skiing the fastest closest to the Olympics. So, doing well at U.S. Nationals, which is just about month out from the Olympics, is going to be paramount," said Kaeding.
Qualifying for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia ends just after the U.S. National Championships on Jan. 12 and Kaeding said he expects that the team will not be named until about a week later.
For some members of the team though, Sochi is not necessarily their target destination.
"This is my first year as a full time athlete and the skiing has been the easy part. It's been finding support to continue skiing [that] has been a challenge for me," said Pokorny. "Going to the Olympics is not one of my main goals, but going to Europe is and a ticket to Europe costs a lot of money. Lodging in Europe costs a lot of money and all summer and fall it's just been trying to get enough to make it there."
The team is supported by the T2 Foundation - which along with some other sponsors such as r.k. Miles - provides them with some funding, but there is also a lot of individual fundraising involved to be able to be able to compete throughout the season. According to Kaeding, the cost is somewhere between $150-$175 a day while the athletes are traveling and some of the places they ski are more expensive than others. For members of the U.S. Ski Team B-Team the cost for the season is about $25,000, according to SMS T2 Program Director Sverre Caldwell. For the members of the team like Pokorny, Packer, Davis, and Flowers, the expenses are more in the $15,000 range Caldwell said.
To help raise funds for the season, Sophie Caldwell said the team holds a skiathon every year in which they ski 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) and they ask people to pledge certain amounts of money. For Sophie Caldwell, the skiathon is where she receives the bulk of her financial support.
Kaeding said a typical day for the athletes involves waking up at 7 a.m., maybe going jogging, and then having breakfast before showing up at the school at 9 a.m. to train. In an interview last Thursday, Kaeding said that the team's morning practice - which included a half hour warm up on roller skis, three 15 minute intervals going at just below how fast they would race and about a half hour cool down - was representative of what the athletes go through on a daily basis with the exception of their off day on Monday.
Some of the time after lunch is used in various ways, whether it be conducting interviews, flexing skis or other "housekeeping" things, Kaeding said. In the afternoon though, the members of the team work out again, either with each other or independently, which usually entails a 90 minute run. Coming into this year each of the athletes had their own goals for improvement.
"I've been working a lot on building strength and power because I noticed last year just the girls on the World Cup are a lot stronger. Last year I got a lot stronger, but I still got behind them. So, that's one of my bigger goal this year," said Sophie Caldwell. "The other thing for me was I sat down with Gus in the spring and decided that one of my personal goals was just to get tougher mentally and whether that's doing one more interval or not giving up when I start to get tired and I think that also goes hand in hand with strength."
Pokorny's goal was to improve technically, which she said she has since she began focusing on since she began skiing full time this year. Like Sophie Caldwell, Flowers said that she has been focusing on strength training this year as well.
"I've never been a super bulky, strong person, but I think that's always been one of my bigger weaknesses. So, I spent a lot of time this spring and summer trying to build strength and hopefully I'm stronger now. I feel stronger," Flowers said. "And also short skis. That's something we do a lot to practice sprinting and I've never been that great at it, but over the past year I think I've gotten better and hopefully that will translate onto snow."
Last Thursday, Kaeding said by this point in the year the athletes had not only built up the volume in terms of total time for their amount of training, but that they had also built in the most intense training like races and intervals. In a week or two though, Kaeding said that would begin decreasing the amount of total volume of training, instead focusing on some of the more intense training. As a result, he said the athletes would feel "a little fresher" before their first race later this month.
There are two different kinds of races, sprints - which is about 1.5 kilometers (.9 miles) for both men and women - and there are long distance races. In the distance races, the men will typically compete in a 10K (6.2 miles) or a 15K (9.3 miles) and the women usually compete in a 10K or a 5K (3.1 miles).
"Those are kind of the primary distances. There will be a few races we do this year where the men do a 30 (18.6 miles) kilometer and women do a 15 kilometer, but you won't see as many of those until the later part of the season, February and after," said Kaeding. "There's also a 50 (31 miles) kilometer and a 30 kilometer for men and women and we won't have one of those until March."
One of the difficulties of the sport, according to both Davis and Packer is the constant the travel from location to location over a five month span. "When the winter comes you kind of have to get used to being uncomfortable because you're at a different venue every weekend sometimes," said Davis. "Especially in Europe you're on planes, trains, like everything. So I guess the big thing for Packer and I it really took me a couple of years to really get used to that; to try to make other places feel like home."
Packer said that trying to make every place feel like home was important and that the team was a major factor in that because they travels together a lot.
"We train together all year round so we're like a family and because of that we're able to make everywhere we go kind of a home and feel like home and that allows us to stay fresh on the road and perform at our best when it really counts," said Packer.
Beginning last year, Kaeding said he really stressed the importance of function as a team, which he said was unusual because cross-country skiing is an individual sport. Kaeding said that they have put together a team that is friendly, respects each other, and for the most part gets along well - something he as well as some of the other members of the team feel has been an important part of their success.
"We just came back from a month on the road training with a lot of different teams and I think we all came out of it much more grateful for each other because we saw how these other teams interacted," said Pokorny. "They were teammates and they were great teammates and would do everything to make each other better in a workout, but weren't necessarily friends afterwards and I think that by being friends with each other we are also making each other better skiers during the workout because I want Erika to win the race as much as I want myself to win the race."
The members of the team are not simply good teammates though. Many members of the team conveyed that there are close personal ties as well.
"I think we refer to it as a family a lot, which is a great way to think about it," said Flowers. "I think for the most part we really appreciate what everyone else brings to the table both in training and outside of training and the fact that we still want to hang out after we're done with the workout says a lot too."