ANCHORAGE — Youth ski development in this country takes a number of different forms. Sometimes it looks like the time trial at an REG camp, the nation’s best junior athletes relentlessly pushing up a hill in a quest to take three seconds off their time from last year. Sometimes it looks like one-third of the Beijing Olympics men’s squad playing sharks and minnows in the snow with fifth-graders. Sunday afternoon at Kincaid Park was very much the latter, as Gus Schumacher led local kids in the first, but not the last, Gustravaganza youth ski camp. The future looks fast. It also looks like a lot of fun.
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“Gustravaganza, aka a day ski camp,” the flyer said. “Games! Snacks! Prizes! Ages 8–16, anyone welcome!” A couple dozen Anchorage kids deemed this worth showing up for. Sunday noon found Schumacher standing outside the Kincaid wax bunker, eliciting camper names, schools and grades, and desires for the day.
“I want to play games,” said the first kid polled. “I want to play games,” said the second kid. “I want to play games,” said the third.
“I want to work on technique,” said the fourth kid. It so happened that the driven 10-year-old who wanted to work on technique, and doggedly kept after it even after falling down several times in thin snow conditions, was named Gus. Sometimes you can’t script these things.
First, though, it was time for games. Capture the flag was by common acclaim the first activity chosen. Gus (the World Cup athlete) counted off the kids into teams, and took the buff off his neck to form one of the flags. Roughly half the kids there were on foot and the other half on skis, scooting around on roughly an inch of windblown snow atop the Kincaid soccer field.
Joyful chaos ensued. JC Schoonmaker was tagged by an 8-year-old and had to do five pushups. Gus Schumacher chased around a 10-year-old who skied like, well, a 10-year-old, then was chased back by a 16-year-old with Junior Nationals starts to her name and impeccable technique. A third of the University of Alaska Anchorage ski team was on hand to lend support and help corral kids.
Capture the flag led to sharks and minnows led to more of the same: a remarkably seamless blending of a wide range of ages and ability levels, all having fun in the snow. The sun was shining. The wind was blowing lightly for Kincaid. A kilometer away, just down the hill from the soccer field, the still-unfrozen Pacific Ocean gleamed an azure blue, with the white shapes of Mount Susitna and the Tordrillo Range rising behind it. A trained eye could, technically speaking, identify any number of skills that the kids were developing while they chased each other around, but really they were all just having fun.
Eventually it was time to choose what to do next, technique or snacks. A surprisingly large number of kids chose “technique,” so Schumacher stayed outside with them while the rest went inside the bunker with Schoonmaker and the UAA athletes for granola bars and fruit snacks.
On snow, Schumacher found himself with four Junior Nordic–level elementary school kids and three more advanced high school athletes, with a thin, grassy snowpack to work with. He acquitted himself ably with the mixed group and early-season conditions, talking about technique cues with some and working on more basic “here’s what V1 is and here’s how to do it” skills with others. (Spoiler alert: “Set your feet wider apart when skiing V1 up a hill” is applicable to pretty much everyone, no matter their ability level.)
Schumacher has (so far) made 36 World Cup starts, four World Championships starts, and three Olympic starts, and has a best individual World Cup finish of eighth. He famously won an individual gold medal at World Juniors in March 2020. He was the 25th-ranked male distance skier on the World Cup at the end of the 2020/2021 season. The 25th-ranked player in the NBA last season, according to one ranking, was Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Gobert is currently in the second year of a five-year, $205 million contract. He was probably not conducting summer clinics in his hometown during the offseason, or giving away his training gear.
Back on snow, Schumacher spoke at length with the high-schoolers about the minutiae of skate technique. His coaching was an amalgam of his take on Jan Buron, his longtime coach with Alaska Winter Stars; his own understanding and insights; and more recent observations from his time on the World Cup. “That’s how Sophia Laukli skis, and she’s a good skier,” he approvingly noted in response to one tentative observation from a youth athlete.
At one point Schumacher told a trio of teenagers, “If you ever see me while I’m out skiing, and I’m not actively doing intervals, feel free to flag me down and we can talk about technique.” He clearly meant it.
Meanwhile, young Gus was lapping through, undeterred by falling on the hard ground and dicey snow conditions.
Eventually, it was time to go back inside the bunker. The snacks crew had been putting in some serious work on the SkiErg with the UAA athletes, crowding around and cheering each other on to higher and higher numbers.
“158, 160, 165!” exulted JC Schoonmaker in response to one 10-year-old’s efforts, cheering as the wattage numbers grew ever higher. The kids were rapt. The SkiErg was like catnip.
With the group reassembled, chairs were gathered round and Gus walked through a brief slideshow of his previous season, projected from his iPhone onto the cold concrete of the meter-thick bunker wall. (It is literally a bunker. Kincaid Park was used as a missile storage facility during the Cold War; presentations and bib pickups and wedding receptions now take place inside a converted bunker whose walls still bear the stenciled insignia, “Explosive load limit: 10 Nike–Hercules Rounds.”)
“How many people here like to race?” Gus asked to introduce this session.
Most kids there raised their hand. After a moment, Gus did, too.
“Of course you do!,” one kid joyously shrieked.
As the slideshow progressed, a shot of a Beijing toilet with a humorous sign on it brought down the house. A picture identified as being of “Luke” (i.e., U.S. Ski Team athlete Luke Jager, Schumacher’s friend since boyhood) was roundly pronounced to be of Luke Skywalker. The photos of sledding were received more enthusiastically than the photos of skiing. In short, the kids were, well, kids. They also seemed to be having a great time.
A question and answer session followed. In part: “Were there really robots delivering food at the Olympics?” (yes, probably, but Gus didn’t see them).
“Why do you need so many skis?” (because different skis work well in different types of conditions).
“My brother does what you do with skis, but with shoes. He has so many pairs of shoes.” [This wasn’t actually a question.]
“What’s your favorite place you’ve been?” (Italy, among overseas destinations, but Gus likes Alaska more the more he travels).
“Are Fischer universal skis just combis?” (the longtime Rossignol athlete could not speak to this one).
In between the madness, Gus also managed to impart some more serious lessons. “Small goals are far more achievable than big goals,” he said when talking about racing. “Think about how you can ski well, rather than how to beat someone.”
The presentation wrapped up with a lowkey trivia contest. Gus gave away easily a thousand dollars’ worth of his old U.S. Ski Team–branded gear for correct answers, then invited anyone still empty-handed to come up and help themselves from what was left.
A poster signing session followed, for both Gus and JC. The athletes posed for photos with anyone who wanted them. The last camp participant to approach, Brendan Broyles, was a person experiencing intellectual disability. Gus greeted him warmly, and it wasn’t an act; he was a member of the Service High School Partners club while in high school, and has continued his work with the group, which “pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities through unified sports,” even after graduating. Gus Schumacher is an easy person to root for.
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The inaugural camp went “pretty well,” Schumacher said in a brief in-person interview as the bunker emptied out and kids went about their day. “For my first one, it definitely wasn’t the highest production quality, but I had fun, and I think most people had fun. I hope no one felt too overlooked or anything.”
Schumacher explained that he organized the camp because there had been a relative dearth of chances to interact with local high-level skiers in an informal environment since Kikkan Randall retired, in 2018. And even before that, Randall’s efforts had understandably focused on the organization she helped found, Fast and Female. “And I always wanted to go to Fast and Female,” Schumacher noted, “and I never could.”
He explained, “I felt like it would be nice to get something off the ground again, where Alaska’s fast skiers can just show themselves as who they are to local youth. Because otherwise you can come off as pretty cold, I think, just skiing around and doing your workouts all the time, when people see you but never actually interact with you. … Just thinking of myself as a kid, I would want to meet, plainly, myself. I think there’s definitely some kids in here who really wanted to be here of their own accord, and that’s cool.”
Schumacher turned to, well, Randall for logistical help with this first camp, as well as the ski club she now runs, Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.
“I needed to figure out how to rent out a bunker,” Schumacher notes. “I needed a lot of help from Kikkan and NSAA. NSAA was very helpful in organizing the bunker, getting me insurance, and Kikkan talked me through how she did Fast and Female. And that was a little separate, but it was nice to know kind of what the run of show was; that was really helpful. But I think in the future I’ll be able to do it better for myself, and know what I’m dealing with.”
In addition to Randall and NSAA, Schumacher was sure to thank the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) skiers who came out to help: Tuva Granoeien, Nicole Mah, Derek Deuling, Jan Ronner, Peter Hinds, Ari Endestad, and JC Schoonmaker (alumnus).
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Bottom line, did people have fun at Gustravaganza?
Here’s Gus Schumacher, 22, currently a part-time student at UAA: “I did have fun. I had fun with the games, and I think the kids had a good time.”
And here’s Sophie Kimball, 11, currently a full-time student at Turnagain Elementary: Camp was fun because “We learned a lot and we played games, and the people were nice.” The most fun thing that happened was, “When we played the games, it was super fun, because nobody was really competitive, but it was fun.”
Final words on this one go to Kimball: What do you think about Gus Schumacher? “He’s great.”
— Gavin Kentch