Dorsey & Whitney Foundation, a long-time supporter of the sports of xc skiing and its communities (including SILENT SPORTS FOUNDATION for Team Strong Heart, and City of Lakes Loppet Foundation for City of Lakes Loppet ski events), donated its Premium Suites at the Minnesota Twins Game to sponsors and supporters of Matt Liebsch (Team Strong Heart skier) for his charity mission in pursuit of 2014 Winter Olympic Game.
My last racing trip of the ski season involved going to the site of the 2010 Olympics. Whistler was hosting Canadian Ski Nationals and it was my first time back since I raced the 2009 Pre-Olympic World Cups for Team USA.
I was excited to compete at Nationals because the race points could be low enough to help with qualification with Sochi.
The first few days involved testing skis and glide wax while also previewing the courses. My first race was a 10km skate on the Olympic Blue course. The track suited my style of skiing with some hard hills but also good flow and fun transitions. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong skis to race on and the course changed from frozen corn snow to soft wet in a matter of 30min. With the track closed hours before my start time, I was not able to make the best choice on what ski to use. It was doubly unfortunate because I had a great race body on the day. I couldn’t be down for too long because Whistler is a beautiful place and the sun was out everyday!
My next chance at a solid result came the last weekend of the competition week. The 50km skate would be a bruiser, 7 laps on the tough Olympic courses. Right before the start of the race the organizers decided to “salt” the track. This would keep the snow firmer for a longer period of time. The worry was that the snow would get too soft as afternoon temperatures approached 65F. I was blessed with good skis for the 50km and a good body; I finished 7th, 2nd American roughly 14 seconds behind the winner. This was excellent because I received a good FIS point race on the day… calculated based on the strength of the field and the time back from the winner.
I was fortunate enough to have Sven from Gear West come with me to Canadian Nationals. He did a great job waxing skis for me and giving me feeds in the 50km skate. Last time I did Canadian Nationals in 2009 I did not get great feed or wax support and it showed in my results. This time around Sven had everything covered for me.
Based on my results in the Birkie, Engadin and Canadian Nationals 50km, I should only need two more great results next fall and early winter to have a solid chance at making the Sochi team. Now I am back home for the spring and I am enjoying spending some down time from racing and training with my family.
Canadian Ski Nationals
This past week was my second trip to Switzerland for the famous Engadin Ski Marathon. Last year I did the race with the goal competing with the top European racers and I was blessed to have my lowest FIS score of my ski career. FIS points are used to calculate a skier’s world ranking and points are given based on the strength of the field and the time back from the winner. Now that I am within the qualification period for the Sochi Olympics I decided to travel back to Switzerland to try and collect another good point race from the Engadin Ski Marathon as FIS points are used in Olympic selection criteria.
I arrived in Europe Sunday before the Sunday race to get adjust to the time change and altitude of 6000ft. Our first day of skiing was a beautiful blue bird day but every day after was overcast with rain, sleet and snow. This year I was able to get into the Elite night sprints on Firday in the downtown of St. Mortiz Bad... it was great fun to race in front of a lot of spectators. I finished 25th in a strong field of elite and World Cup skiers… but no FIS points, the sprints where just for fun.
Sunday was the big day. The Engadin Ski Marathon is a mostly flat race with some good climbing in the middle. Since the first 10km are flat the main pack is huge with lots of crashing and ski poles breaking. The first hills are at about 15km and I was able to move towards the front of the race. As we began to climb through St. Mortiz the pace became so much faster than last year (we had same conditions as last year but the top race time was 3 minutes faster!). I was witnessing past Olympic and World Champ medalists being dropped by the fast pace. Luckily there was a feed zone at 20km and Clarke Sullivan (our team USA wax tech) gave me a feed bottle and the pace slowed and I was able to bridge back to the lead group. I needed to finish very close to the winner for good FIS points so I was relieved to regain contact with the leaders. Looking behind me revealed the damage from the high pace; the lead group was down to only 26 skiers and just a few kilometers before the main pack was at least 200 strong.
The remainder of the race was fairly uneventful. Someone tried a solo breakaway from 10km out but he was caught. The race came down to a pack sprint finish and I didn't have much left in the tank but managed to out sprint the Italian that won this year’s Birkie?! I finished 25th in a very competitive field… 15 seconds behind the winners time which means I had a good FIS point result!
After the race I had 24hrs of travel to get home… lots of planes, trains and automobiles. Now I am recovering and training up for my last set of races. Canadian Ski Nationals are the last week of March and I am looking forward to finishing the season on a high note.
Last year recap
Engadin Race website
Canadian Ski Nationals
This was arguably my best race season to date which is good news, especially considering the lack of snow we
had to train on in the Midwest. Although we did not receive much snowfall this winter, my goal from the
beginning of the training season was to find as much snow time as possible. This meant some travel and
lots of skiing on the manmade stuff.
My training season started in May, although we had such great snow last year that I skied all of March and
half of April in the Twin Cities. May involved a USST camp in Bend, OR followed by a multi-sport race in
Washington where I completed the XC leg of the Ski-to-Sea race. Other notable camps included a trip to the
Haig glacier in August and a USST dryland camp in Park City in October.
My race season started in West Yellowstone as Gear West kindly allowed me to miss our busiest sales week of
the year. I brought my entire family and we had a blast. Solid training, family time and a great race result
(6th place) after a big week of training.
Coming back to the Midwest was slightly disappointing because we had neither real snow nor manmade
options readily available. I was back on my roller skis and it was early December. Since it had not snowed,
things were slowing down at the shop compared to last year. I took the opportunity to try a new tapering
plan per the recommendation of my new coach, Jacob Beste. Gear West was on-board 100% and allowed
me to reduce my work schedule to accommodate the training and needed recovery. Once at Nationals,
I felt more prepared than ever before… only to get a nasty cold 2 days before the opening distance race.
Fortunately for me, the organizers moved the race back a day to allow more time to produce more manmade
snow. I was able to get enough vitamin C, zinc and sleep in my body to allow me to race the 15km skate.
Even with the cold, I was able to take 2nd place!
After Nationals I came home and it took over a week to get the sickness out of my lungs. Going into my next set of races, Tour de Twin Cities, I had no idea what to expect. Pleasantly, I raced extremely well and placed 1st
overall in the tour. It was so much fun racing at home in front of my family and friends.
Now, I had a tough choice. It was nearly February and the Twin Cities still did not have snow. I made a last
minute decision to head out to Sun Valley, ID to race the Boulder Mountain Tour on Saturday and try to make it
to Minneapolis City of Lakes Loppet on Sunday… if the race happened. It was a crazy weekend but I made it to both races, and managed to win both despite the airlines best efforts to keep me from getting back to Minneapolis in a timely manner. I landed at MSP 2hrs before the start of the City of Lakes Loppet, thankfully they decided to do a reverse wave order start.
After the double header, I had no races until the Birkie. My story can be found here but the short version
is that is I had a ton of fun and placed 2nd!
After the Birkie I was presented with an opportunity to race the Engadin Ski Mararthon in Switzerland. It would
be my first time racing in Europe and I wasf feeling well so I jumped at the opportunity. It was a very fun trip,
and a great way to wrap up a very successful ski season.
Now I am taking a little time off from structured training to enjoy family and let my body have a physical and
mental break. I will still try to rollerski a few times a week to keep in touch with my ski muscles. This May
I am again racing Ski-to-Sea for Boss Construction. I’m not sure if it marks the end of a season or the beginning
of the next one!
Thank you to all my family, friends and sponsors on a great year!
Gear West, The Fix Studio, Team Strong Heart, Team Birkie, Fischer, Swix, Casco, Swenor
This past week was my first time racing the Engadin Ski Marathon and my first time racing in Europe. What an incredible experience! I arrived at the Zurich airport Tuesday morning and without my checked ski bag. Sort of a nice deal since I didn’t have to haul my 50lb ski bag on 4 hours of train rides. From the Zurich airport I took a train with Clarke Sullivan and Caitlin Compton-Gregg to the Zurich main station, then Chur and then on the Rhaetain Railway up over the mountains and dropping into the Engadin Valley… so beautiful.
We stayed at the Hotel Bernina in the town of Samaden. My first day in Europe, I was kind of worthless. Jet lag and the altitude made a 30min ski feel like a marathon. But after resisting the urge to nap and a solid night’s sleep, I woke up Wednesday morning feeling great. Lars Flora, my roommate, Clarke Sullivan and I classic skied up Val Fex for a mountain side lunch of risotto, speck, cheese, cappuccinos, cola and beer. The mountain and sun were amazing!
The next few days we spent more time exploring the Engadin Valley. Everything is connected by bus, trains and a vast network of ski trails. On Friday, we began final course inspection and ski and wax testing; luckily, my ski bag finally arrived so I could do the race on my own gear.
Tony Wiederkehr, our trip organizer, sponsor and just super awesome guy, was given the task of being Team Captain. Tony was great at getting all the race details in order. We had great logistics for waxing, parking, feeds and everything.
The race itself was simply amazing and just a little crazy. Starting with thousands of other skiers all at the same time is a little interesting. We began on 10km of flat lake skiing into a head wind and soon no elite men wanted to lead. Instantly our group was swallowed by the hundreds of skis. I was stuck in about 500th place skiing behind the elite women and masters. So much traffic I could barely move or ski.
As we progressed, the wide trail on the lake, up to 10 lanes, would narrow to 1-2 lanes at points and then back wide again. Somehow I managed to move up by the time we hit the first uphill of the race. I made my way into 3rd position hoping that the race would break apart a little but it was not to be. I spent the remainder of the race skiing to close to the front since it was not relaxing to be in the scrum of the pack… I saw way to many crashes, broken poles and one guy shoot off into a river ravine!
The rest of the race went well but it was a very large group sprint finish at the end with lots of bike/team tactics. The race course is mostly flat/downhill and very fast snow this year so the top 25 finished within a close span. I was 25th place, 14seconds back. Other American men included Lars Flora, Billy Demong and Torin Koos... 35th, 38th, and 83rd. The American women that raced included Holly Brooks, Caitlin Compton, Evelyn Dong and Nicole DeYong; Holly finished 8th, 2:30 back and the rest of the women finished in the top 20. Cailtin was skiing near Holly when she fell with 10km to go. She hit her head and suffered a mild concussion. When I saw her last she was feeling a little better and recovering.
Switzerland and the Engadin Valley are an amazing place and great for skiing! Racing in Europe against deep and tough competition was a great experience for me. I felt good the entire race and had a lot of fun. I just wish the snow had been slower or a few more hills to let it become a little bit more of a fitness race instead of a tactics race. Overall, great experience!
Thank you to all my great sponsors that made this trip and this season possible!
Team Strong Heart, Team Biekie, Tony Wiederkehr, Gear West, The Fix Studio, Fischer, Swix, Casco Eyewear
The 2012 Birkie was one of the deepest and strongest fields in the history of the race. There were elite skiers from France, Switzerland, Finland, Russia, Latvia, Canada and Norway (I think something like 11 Norwegian elites); plus a multitude of strong American skiers. I was trying not to get nervous or catch “Birkie Fever” before the race as my best results always come when I am relaxed. This year it was hard not to get worked up with all the competition and also the fact I had not raced for 3 weeks… the Mora Vasaloppet was canceled this year due to no snow. I watched live results from the weekend before as the European competition skied very strongly in the Madison SuperTour races.
In the 2011 Birkie, the European racers skied very well and took all the podium spots and placed 5 in the top 6. This year, "Team America" had a plan. Brian Gregg and Tad Elliott both shared ideas on how we needed to have the Americans perform better this year. It was discussed that we did too much work at the front of the race last year and that we needed to break things apart before the finish because many of the Europeans have a strong finishing “kick.”
Race morning I was fortunate enough to ride to the start with Santi Ocariz. He was so pumped for the race and he was certain I was going to have a great race. Upon arriving at the start, I tested skis and did the shortest warm-up of my life - about 20 minutes. The snow at the start was slow due to a dusting overnight. I picked a pair of skis that was good, but I was banking on no new snow on the trail south of OO. When I left my cabin outside of Hayward at 6:00 am there was no new snow. I wanted fast skis late in the race.
The start of the race was anticlimactic this year after last years pole explosion. The group stayed together until we entered the woods at 7km. At the time, just like last year, the strong French skier blasted off the front. No one chased initially but a few kilometers later, the strong Canadian racer Graham Nishikawa, bridged to the Frenchman. I watched from 20th place as those two hooked up, trading leads and skiing quickly away from the group.
In past years I would have chased hard and wasted energy. Although both of the skiers off the front were very strong and I was not 100% sure they would come back. I guess I didn’t want to chase as I wasn’t feeling it at the time and I was waiting for faster snow later in the race (unknown to me it had snowed 1/4-1/2 inch of slow sharp crystals on the entire course after I had left Hayward in the morning). Tad Elliott had multiple trips to the back of the pack to ask me to help him chase down the break. I said each time, “No, don’t worry, it will come back.” I was really thinking to myself "… maybe 50/50." At OO Tad was freaking out as we were getting splits that the leaders were a minute up on the group. Again I thought, "wow, this is going to be hard to close." I was still not feeling it and said, “wait until after Gravel Pit road at 31 kilometers and then we will get them.”
On the way, Brian Gregg took a hard pull to reduce the gap. At 33km I gave Tad the nod and I pulled, he pulled, and I pulled once more and we closed the gap in less than 2 kilometers. Finally feeling good, I blasted past the escapees and tired to crack open the race. We were on a gradual downhill portion of the trail so I was unsuccessful in getting away.
As we approached Mosquito Brook road I knew there was only a few hard climbs left on the course, and I also knew attacks were coming. I took the pace up a notch as we climbed Mosquito Brook Hill. As I expected, Tad jumped very hard and I was prepared to jump in behind him. Brian Gregg jumped with Tad and was so close behind him I though they were sharing the same pair of skis! Way to cover the jump Brian! There was a small gap behind Brian and I tried to fit in someplace. That was not a great idea. I managed to place my pole between Lars Flora’s legs. My pole shattered instantly and I skied the rest of the climb with one pole as the entire group raced away.
As I skied along with one pole, it was bleeding time. I asked many spectators, with poles in the woods for a replacement. They did not understand my yells. At last I gave up on yelling and just skied off the trail and grabbed a pole from behind some spectators. I finally had a pole, although it was too tall, heavy, bendy and the strap would not work for me.
My good friend and former CXC teammate, Santi, asked if I wanted his pole. I said “No, I am okay, my Dad has a good pole for me 5km up the trail.” Santi was having a good race and I didn’t want him to ruin his chances at a good finish. We were maybe 30-45 seconds behind Tad.
5 kilometers later as we approached Highway 77 where my my Dad was waiting, I yelled for my spare race pole. He put his hands up in the air. I forgot my poles were with Swix at a different location. I was completely deflated. I thought my chances at the win, a podium, and even a top 6 (the Birkie pays out to the top 6) were over. Before I knew what was going on, skiing close to me ever since I broke my pole, Santi took off his race pole and was giving it to me. I don’t remember what he said, something along the lines of “Go get em” or “Go win this thing” or “Go catch those guys.” It didn’t matter, the mental, spiritual and physical boost (I had a pole I could ski hard on) was all that I needed.
I entered into some race gear not familiar to me… I was floating down the trail, almost out of body. I caught and passed most of the group as we climbed the last big hill on the Birkie Highway 77 climb. As we entered the fields by Wheeler Road I could see Tad up ahead… he had been out of my sight for a while. I was catching him quickly but I was also running out of gas. I sat up and let others pull. We were not making time on him so as we got on the lake I pulled very hard again.
Half way across the lake I was so close to Tad but again was feeling my chase efforts. I knew, if I continued to close the gap, I would have had zero left in the tank for the race up Main Street. Tad wouldn’t have had anything left as he had played his cards already. I knew Lars and Brian were in the group but also some Canadians and Europeans. A worst case scenario was playing out in my head… American catches American, both are tired, and non-American racers sprint down Main Street to take the podium spots.
I pulled up. I said to the others, “we gotta work together to close to Tad.” No one had the energy to chase down the rest of the gap. I think everyone knew it was about conserving what little energy we had left for one more push up Main Street. I went to the back of the chase group with mixed emotions. I was bummed. My chances at a 2nd American Birkebeiner title were over, but I was also thrilled my fellow racer, friend, training partner and American would win the race.
Somewhere along the last km of the lake, I started to feel good again, both physically and mentally. I told myself, I don’t want to make this a few hundred meter sprint, so I swung wide and jumped very hard with 1 kilometer to go. I knew with the strong headwind, if I could get a gap it might stick. I had a few second gap but as I hit the soft snow on the beach and Main Street my glutes started to cramp. I just keep my head down and pushed as hard as I could. As I skied closer to the line I was almost certain that racers were going to come pouring by me. To my surprise, I held on to wrap up 2nd place! Once I finished I heard from my wife that my great friend, training partner and fellow Minneapolis resident, Brian Gregg, had finished 3rd, out-sprinting a Canadian and Norwegian. I could believe it; the Americans had swept the podium!
Cross-Country Skier Matt Liebsch: Matt Liebsch gives it his all as he trains for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
By Adrienne Richter
Published in the March 2012 Issue of Lake Minnetonka Magazine
"In some ways, Orono’s Matt Liebsch is just like many other young adults his age—energetic, overscheduled, and trying to balance a hectic work schedule with the thrills of an 8-year marriage and the spills of fathering two busy toddlers. But when you throw in thetiny detail that Liebsch is also training for a spot on the US Nordic Ski Team for the 2014 Winter Olympics, suddenly, his life doesn’t seem so average after all.
In fact, Liebsch’s skiing career has been unusual from the get go. Instead of growing up with a ski pole in each hand—as most elite-level Nordic competitors seem to—Liebsch spent his adolescence concentrating on hockey and soccer. However, after a scheduling conflict snuffed out his skating dreams, Liebsch was left with an athletic void to fill—one that Brad Rosch, Osseo’s then-Nordic ski coach, was quick to recognize.
“[I saw] in Matt a drive that I see in few athletes,” recalls Rosch, “and I was impressed with his hard work and positive attitude [in other areas of interest].” It was no surprise, then, that these admirable characteristics transitioned seamlessly into Liebsch’s subsequent Nordic skiing career—propelling him to All Conference standing as a sophomore and the Minnesota state competition by the end of his high school career.
Unlike many of his peers, Liebsch decided to continue skiing competitively after graduation, and over the next several years—through informal practice with the University of Minnesota’s club team and dedicated, higher-level training with Piotr Bednarski of GO! Training—Liebsch dialed in on the technical aspects and subtle nuances of the sport, and began to fully realize his athletic potential. “I started getting faster because I was understanding the sport more completely,” explains Liebsch, “how the skis worked, how to wax, how to train, when to sleep, when to eat, how to recover—it all just came together.”
As Liebsch’s speed and form continued to improve, others around him began to recognize his developing potential, as well—including CXC, the regional governing body and Olympic development program for cross country skiers across the Midwest. In 2006, Liebsch signed on with the CXC Elite Team, training under Brian Fish, and positioning himself as an irrefutable contender for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Over the next couple years, Liebsch repeatedly proved his skiing prowess, scooping up first place finishes at the Mora Vasaloppet and the American Birkebeiner in 2009 (the latter being the largest cross country ski marathon in North America), placing third in the 2009 U.S. Nationals, and placing second of the U.S. men and 29th overall in Canada’s Canmore World Cup distance races in 2010.
Despite his obvious talent—as evidenced by a fantastic array of awards—Liebsch’s late start and status as a relative “unknown” in the sport still dogged his Olympic aspirations. “Since I didn’t have that formal training right away, I never really got in the U.S. ski team pipeline,” explains Liebsch. “And since I wasn’t in their system, I [realized that I] have to put myself in a position where they’re forced to recognize me. I can’t be [on the cusp]; I have to be the obvious choice.”
And according to Liebsch, being the “obvious choice” for the 2014 Olympics means nothing less than asserting himself as the top distance skier in the country—a lofty goal—but something Liebsch feels is definitely possible “with the right support structure.”
Topping that list of support essentials are the blessings of his wife and children. “Family is always first,” Liebsch notes sagely, “but there is definitely some sacrifice [with this training regimen], and they’ve already been through this once.” By tailoring his work-out schedule around important family events, spending more time with his kids during “recovery” days, and keeping his travel schedule “concise and focused,” however, Liebsch hopes to minimize any negative impact that his Olympic aspirations may have on his family. He also works hard to keep his training close to home whenever possible—practicing at Baker and Elm Creek parks through the Three Rivers Park District, and competing in local races, like those hosted by Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis and Battle Creek in St. Paul.
Financial support is Liebsch’s next biggest hurdle, but luckily, he has found a workplace that pays for his passion. After spending a year working part-time at Gear West, a local Nordic skiing and running outfitter in Long Lake, Liebsch was recently promoted to a full-time position as their director of race services. Though his training schedule does obviously cut into work availability, Jan Guenther, co-owner of Gear West, is quick to point out the benefits of their symbiotic arrangement.
“[Matt] brings new life, new knowledge and cutting-edge information [to Gear West],” she effuses, “and he gains a lot of that from being out in the ski world and on top of what’s happening in the racing circuit—so with that,” she continues, “comes an excitement for us to work with him, to make sure that he continues to be able to reach his goals [outside the store].”
And not only does Gear West support Liebsch through flexible employment, they are also one of Liebsch’s major sponsors—along with family-owned Fischer skis, Team Strong Heart, Swenor Rollerskis, Swix poles, Casco eyewear, and Minneapolis’ The Fix Studio—and have been instrumental in the financial aspect of keeping Liebsch’s Olympic dreams afloat.
Once he’s out there on those skis, however, it will be Liebsch’s own electrifying passion and steely determination that will determine how far he goes, and whether our community will be afforded the opportunity to cheer for the hometown hero in the 2014 Olympics.
But regardless of the outcome, concludes Rosch, Liebsch has been—and will continued being—“an inspiration to the entire Minnesota skiing community.”