The National Nordic Foundation made headlines earlier this season when it announced plans to use proceeds from sales of the Trail to Gold book to help send multiple female coaches to the World Cup. A public application period followed; five coaches were ultimately selected; each will spend around two weeks in Europe this season.
Several of the names in the NNF press release were relatively well known to American ski fans. Caitlin Gregg and Liz Stephen, for example, are former U.S. Ski Team members, with a World Championships medal and World Cup podiums, respectively, on their race résumés. And Lizzie Larkins has previously teched for the national team in Europe.
So what about the two relative unknowns on the list, Annika Martell and Naomi Kiekintveld? Nordic Insights sat down with Martell to learn about the transition from collegiate coaching to World Cup support, and about what she hopes to gain from the experience. Read on for more.
(Disclosure: Kiekintveld is dating Morgan Hartley, who oversees web design and ad sales for this website; she is a friend, and I occasionally train with her on weekends. Kiekintveld has no other formal association with Nordic Insights.)
Path to coaching
Annika Martell, 24, grew up in Eagan, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul. She trained with Loppet Nordic Racing and skied on her high school team at Eastview. She skied in college, for Colby, where she was a team captain for two years.
After graduating amidst the Covid maelstrom that was spring 2020, Martell coached for first U.S. Biathlon in Lake Placid, New York, and then Ford Sayre Ski Club in Hanover, Hampshire. She ended up at Williams College, in northwestern Massachusetts, in October 2021. She is currently the Assistant Coach of Nordic Skiing for the Ephs, entering her second season in this role.
Oh, and in less than a month she will be on the World Cup.
This is an impressive CV, but coaching was less a fait accompli for Martell than the convergence of several interests.
“Did I always think I would be coaching? I didn’t,” Martell candidly stated in a late-October phone interview from her office at Williams.
Martell had graduated from Colby with a degree in Environmental Science and Economics and had done research with professors, building a strong résumé in the process. She thought that an initial post-graduate job “unrelated to skiing” was most likely, although she did hope to end up with some sort of collegiate coaching role at some point. That was probably “going to be a for-fun thing,” she mused.
But Martell had enjoyed her time in school as a volunteer coach for the Bill Koch League (youth ski program) at Quarry Road Ski Club, née Central Maine Ski Club. And she had enjoyed what she describes as “a really great relationship” with both her head coach at Colby, Tracey Cote, and the assistant coach, Jackson Bloch. “And both of them, I think, encouraged me in a lot of ways,” Martell notes.
And then there was the coaching internship with U.S. Biathlon, and the the time with Ford Sayre, and then the Williams position was open…
“I think [the move to coaching] sort of has happened in a really beautiful way since” graduating, Martell now notes. “And I have had a lot of encouragement from coaches who have coached me who have seen, maybe, skills that are really valuable or useful in coaching throughout my time, and have encouraged me to continue down that coaching path.”
Notably, the head nordic coach at Colby, at least for the last 26 years and counting, is a woman, Tracey Cote. This is still a relative rarity in the NCAA coaching ranks, particularly for a position that involves coaching men as well as women.
Martell was asked a follow-up question via email about how she might quantify or parse the value of having a female coach.
She wrote, “I think the greatest value of having a female coach at the level of athlete that I’m coaching specifically, is it gives athletes a diverse and unique perspective (definitely if they haven’t had a female coach before, but even if they have). Specifically, it gives female athletes someone that they can relate to and who empathizes with them in a way that male coaches may not and it displays to athletes that women have the ability and capability to be strong leaders.”
Theory and practice
So how does one learn how to be a coach, anyway? That is, much like “what is the value of a female coach,” less a throwaway interview question than a graduate-level seminar topic; the answer likely involves a complicated mix of theory and practice, nature and nurture, logos and praxis. Not necessarily topics covered on the L100 coaching exam. Nonetheless, here’s Martell’s game answer to a not-simple question, quoted at some length because there’s no easy answer:
“I think there’s a lot of different things that come along with being a coach,” Martell said. “And in some ways, it’s a different title for being a leader. And … I have, throughout my time in high school and also in college, had a lot of opportunities to lead groups of people and be mentored in those roles.
“So I think that is kind of the precursor to me learning to be a coach on a much broader scale. And then specifically related to skiing, I think … I was not necessarily always the most gifted athlete, I guess I should say most gifted skier, naturally. I grew up playing a lot of ball sports, and stepped into skiing later than many other people that I would go on to compete against throughout high school and college.
“And so coming into that, I think that there were a lot of things that I needed to learn in order to catch up, but also to try and find the things that would make me better. So throughout my time developing, I was always really focused on trying to glean as much as I could from any coach that I interacted with, and getting all sorts of different technique cues from all sorts of different people. I was always trying to iterate and improve in those ways. And I think that has helped me as a coach now to know, There’s this many different coaches who have said this about doublepoling. And I’ve learned everybody’s different cues.
“Because I was never really satisfied with where I was, and always wanting to continue to improve and looking at it and saying, Okay, technique is a place where I can get better, and then that can translate even further to the weight room. Or in different training elements, you know, what’s something that I can adjust and tweak, and let’s talk to the coaches that I have had, about how I could get better. …
“So that’s one other thing that I’ll say about learning to be a coach. It is I think a very humbling experience too, of always recognizing that you can adapt to the people around you and what they need. And so learning to be a coach is sort of learning to adapt and adjust on the fly.”
Moving to Europe
Learning on the fly will be the dominant theme next month, when Martell joins the European-based World Cup team for two weeks, spanning the third and fourth weekends of the 2022/2023 World Cup season.
There will be three races in Beitostølen, Norway, then two races in Davos, Switzerland. Martell will be on the road for two weeks, with stops in Beitostølen, Oslo, Zurich, and Davos before returning home.
Martell envisions filling a range of roles to support the team during her European stint. The first weekend, in Beitostølen, will have relatively ample staffing, so she will serve in more of a floater role. She anticipates “working with techs and coaches, kind of having various duties throughout the week as needed, perhaps also just to get the experience of shadowing different roles there.”
By the next weekend in Davos, by contrast, “there will be fewer members of the staff,” Martell notes. Some people will be “heading back to the States a little bit earlier for the holidays. And so there I’ll be kind of more specifically a point person for coaching duties, or so I’ve been told so far. And pulled in as necessary on any teching or preparing of individual athletes’ skis.”
The trip is clearly an amazing opportunity with ample potential for growth. But, much as with the above question about the specifics of learning how to coach, it may be difficult to quantify just what skills or lessons Martell will take from it. So she is asked, more broadly, what her process goals are for this trip, and how she will know if it has been a success.
“I think I have the goals of just continuing to work with a wide variety of athletes,” Martell says. “I have found more than anything in my coaching so far that I learned a lot from working with other coaches. And I also learned a heck of a lot from working with different athletes. Because everybody has a different question that they’re asking, everybody has a different thing that they’re working on, or that they’re focused on, or that they are really good at, or want to get better at. And so my goal is just to continue to build relationships with those who will be there who I have met, and kind of create those new ones with new folks who I haven’t met yet. And continue to build a Rolodex of different race-day rituals, I guess I’ll say, or maybe race-day preparation that athletes do.
“And then I also am really looking forward to having the experience of being a part of support staff on the World Cup. I think I will feel like it’s a success if I can return and be able to understand a little bit of how it works and what it feels like to be at that level. Of course, it’s so complex, and so I’m not going to know everything from just two weeks, but it’s an experience I haven’t had the pleasure of having yet, so adding that to my experiences as a coach I think will just make it a success regardless.”
Martell also looks forward to the chance to support athletes in a more resource-rich environment than occurs at the collegiate level. On race morning for an NCAA race, Martell notes, she and Williams head coach Steve Monsulick are the only two coaches available for both the human-interaction side of coaching and the ski-preparation side of coaching.
“In a college environment,” Martell observes, “my head coach and I are working together to do our 10 men and our 10 women’s skis, and also are the people who are out on course taking splits, and also are the people who are going to be saying, you know, Let’s talk through your strategy, and how do you want to race this race? Or, Here’s how you should take the corner. All those things” fall on Martell and Monsulick on a Carnival race day, and no one else.
On the World Cup, by contrast, Martell anticipates there being more “people who are specifically designated as being the wax techs.”
She looks forward to observing the wax techs per se in an attempt to start to build her own understanding of, “What does my ideal waxing process look like? And what what works well for me now — if you don’t know what else is out there, so watching that, and learning from them is an additional piece that is a goal of mine. And that will be a success if I can take good notes and pay attention to the nuances that are going on in the truck,” as well as their “processes and how they stay organized and use the data and information that they are gathering.”
Women and World Cup coaching, or, you have to see it to be it
World Cup coaching in 2022 is not a post-gender utopia of equal rights and equal gender representation. This post from Susan Dunklee, for instance, calling out the widespread practice of posting female pin-up calendars on the walls of biathlon wax cabins, dates from last year.
A precise accounting of the gender breakdown of full-time World Cup–level wax techs or coaches is outside the scope of this article, but it is closer to a situation where one can simply list the names of the female coaches and techs that do exist, rather than engage in a complicated statistical analysis. Whatever the numerator of the women/men fraction is, it’s not a very large number.
There’s coach Kristen Bourne for the U.S., for example, and wax tech Valentina Vuerich, formerly for Slovenia and now for Norway. And Ingrid Vikman for Sweden. And, uh, certainly some more, but not too many others after that. Vuerich was described as “one of a very, very few ski servicewomen on the international scene” in a 2020 article in Daily Skier, for example, and a press release from U.S. Ski & Snowboard states that “only 25% of skiing and snowboarding coaches are women with even less representation at the elite level.” This recent roundup of nordic national teams is not comprehensive and is focused only on head coaches, but it appears that Bourne is one of only two female coaches listed in the article, alongside Vikman.
On the American side, on the one hand, the U.S. cross-country team has led the charge on a new initiative that makes additional course access bibs available to World Cup staff, a prized and limited resource — but reserves those bibs for women only. U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb said on a podcast earlier this fall that he would like to hire more women when the current crop of World Cup coaches retires. And the USSS press release quoted from above is in the service of an initiative that “aims to increase the number of women coaches at all levels of our sports.”
On the other hand, here is the current full-time World Cup staff for this country’s national team:
- Coaches: Chris Grover, Matt Whitcomb, Jason Cork, Kristen Bourne
- Service staff: Oleg Ragilo, Bjørn Heimdal, Tim Baucom, Eli Brown, Chris Hecker, Karel Kruuser
Kristen Bourne is the only woman on this list; the other nine names here are all men. (An additional three men and one woman, Development Team Coach Greta Anderson, round out the roster if you include USSS coaches and staff with a more domestic focus. That would bring the share of women on the national-team staff from 1 out of 10 up to 2 out of 14.)
Back to this article: Annika Martell is of course a woman, and at 24 years old is currently a relatively young coach in international sport. Martell is asked if she has experienced challenges that she thought were in some way attributable to her gender. Here’s her answer, which acknowledges the complicating role of her relative youth alongside more gendered assumptions that she has encountered.
“My short answer to that question is yes. But it’s also a little bit hard at times to separate if it’s related to being a woman in sport, or if it’s related to being so young in the ski coaching, specifically the collegiate ski coaching, world. There are definitely — at least in the Eastern collegiate circuit, just the number of women head coaches compared to men is smaller in number. And so is perhaps something I’ve experienced, there’s fewer women assistants as well.
“And so certainly, nothing has been quite as glaring as stories that I’ve heard, but there are times that surely there are kind of micro-comments about experience or understanding. Softer skills versus harder skills, I think, are things where I see it more, or how they experience it more. Like the waxing versus the social skill of talking to an athlete who’s upset about their race, those two things are sometimes gendered. And I’ve noticed that a little bit.”
World Cup racing starts two weeks from tomorrow, on November 25. Martell flies out to Oslo on December 4.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ida Sargent had been selected for a Trail to Gold fellowship. The reference should in fact have been to Liz Stephen. We regret the error.
— Gavin Kentch
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