Nordic Ski: A Family

by Marisa MacDonald, Sports Reporter
photos contributed by Margot Madison

Approaching the final turn, cross-country skiers strain their muscles for one last push, and for some, giving up feels likely.

However, with one look at the huge crowd cheering their names, it’s easy to push through to the finish line knowing that there are teammates waiting on the other side.

That community is the best part about Nordic Ski, junior Oona Helenius said.

“This is so cliche, but people get surprised about how supportive it is,” she said. “While you’re skiing, whenever you pass someone, you always cheer each other on, no matter what. That’s a community that you just want to come back to.”

The team has recently seen a dramatic increase in membership, doubling in size in merely two years. Captain junior Ben Modiano said that this could be due to the quick-to-learn nature of the sport—many who join have little to no cross-country skiing experience.

Modiano said that three days a week, the team travels to a ski track in Weston for practices and races, where experienced skiers help teach the inexperienced skiers the basics.

On Nordic Ski, the decision to race and at which level is entirely up to the skier. Junior Sylvie Nguyen said this allowed her to compete in her first race just two weeks after learning to ski.

Sophomore Gabe Lieberman said he began participating in more competitive varsity races a few weeks into the season, a stressful choice that the team made easy.

“I was having a tough time deciding what I wanted to do because I felt nervous about the varsity race,” he said. “But a lot of my other teammates were really supportive of me and made sure that I knew that I would do well and that they would be helpful either way.”

Captain junior Mariel Shapiro said that rather than encouraging her teammates to reach a set mileage or exact time, she emphasizes dedication and effort, especially during dryland endurance training, a pre-season workout that combines running, core and weight training.

“Some people love running, and some don’t. We just try and ask everyone to do what they can and give us what they have, and people usually do and get better,” she said.

The team’s judgment-free environment rooted in its diversity of skill levels allows for students at every point in their athletic journey to feel respected, Nguyen said.

“Even though I don’t like running, Mariel made it fun,” she said. “[She] let us know when she didn’t want to run and then we could feel comfortable telling her the same.”

There’s truly a space for everyone: for full-time runners, Nordic offers a break from intense running seasons, integrating that same heavy cardio and endurance into different types of workouts to prevent overexertion injuries.

Helenius said that Nordic’s relaxed atmosphere was the selling point for her and many of her track teammates. Last year, she tried Nordic during the Fall II season and returned this year, foregoing her indoor track season.

“I needed something to do after school and one of my friends just suggested, ‘Hey, let’s join a sports team,’ and so we joined Nordic,” she said. “It’s nice to take a little bit of a break for injury prevention, but it was mainly the team dynamic since I found that the team was so captivating.”

Junior Abby Kutin previously competed on the indoor track team, and she said that the constant positive environment sets Nordic Ski apart from other teams.

“It doesn’t have the same cutthroat competitiveness that I’m used to. Everybody’s really happy and always wants to cheer me on,” she said.

Helenius said that it’s the races that stand out to her, when the entire team is proud of each other for finishing, no matter the places.

“Everyone just congratulates each other after every single race. If someone races better than you, you really feel happy for the other person. There are no harsh feelings ever,” she said.

No one embodies this Nordic ski spirit more than its leader, coach Jeff Riklin, who joined the team 12 years ago without much knowledge on how to coach or compete in the sport, and who eventually built the team into what it is today.

By ensuring that every person on the team understands that they are valued members, regardless of their race times or league standing, Riklin said that his priority will always be for his athletes to have fun skiing and being with each other while developing confidence in themselves.

“People say to me, ‘Riklin, you don’t put any pressure on us. All you really want us to do is ski and have fun,’ and I think that’s why people come out,” he said.

Kutin said that Riklin’s dedication to connecting with each and every skier completes the team.

“[He] makes sure that he knows something personal about everyone,” she said. “While I’m racing, he always tells me that I should be smiling and having a good time because that’s what’s most important.”

Riklin said that his favorite moment from his Nordic coaching career occurred last season, on a random weeknight at the end of practice.

“We were skiing down the moguls and scoring each other on our [jump] scores,” he said. “One of the other coaches from another school came up to me and said, ‘Riklin, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘We’re going down moguls and we’re having fun.’ She goes, ‘That’s skiing practice? That’s what’s important to you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what’s important to me.’ Because that’s what we’re all about.”