Zak Ketterson, the Captain America of the U.S. Ski Team, isn’t just a pipeline poster child — he’s gunning to be a consistent podium contender
By Ryan Sederquist, special to Nordic Insights
When Ben Ogden and Gus Schumacher were asked prior to the Ruka World Cup opener which U.S. athlete they thought was poised for a breakout year, they both pointed to the same man.
“I think Zak Ketterson is really in a good place to come into some great racing,” Schumacher stated. “He’s always been one that did everything in training very well, and his results at the end of the year last year show he’s ready to start reaping the benefits of being methodical.”
Demonstrating how Ketterson’s precise and relentless work ethic is common knowledge in nordic circles, Ogden understatedly opined, “Zak is extremely dialed in training.”
The 25-year-old Minnesotan’s mystique as the physical Nordic prototype — it’s easy to imagine him as the determined skier, solitarily locked in the Pioneer Midwest garage, grinding out another sweat-drenched, perpetually uphill interval on the rollerski treadmill — has caused at least one World Cup broadcaster (me) to recently (10 minutes ago) bestow a unique moniker upon the U.S. Ski Team’s fresh face: Captain America.
Unlike Batman, he’s the hero America needs and deserves… or however that quote goes… like Steve Rogers, he’s the ripped guy wearing red, white, and blue, except he didn’t take a super-soldier serum to get there.
“He puts in the level of work necessary to achieve success at this level,” Ogden continued. “I think we can expect great things from him this season.”
Ketterson’s distance finishes — 31st, 32nd, 26th, 45th, and 38th — in the Scandinavian segment of Period 1 of this World Cup season are right in the no man’s land that American fans have habitually whined about over the last decade. Remaining in the rut isn’t part of the plan for the Northern Michigan University alumnus.
The Team Birkie/USST athlete knows, however, that the gap from 45th place to consistent podium threat isn’t closed merely via great grinds, fast waxes, impeccable technique… or even another dozen skate-to-failure tests. The real difference between “Who?” and “HERE COMES DIGGINS!” is, well, knowing when to sneeze.
“I feel like for sure in SuperTour or a college race, you don’t have to think that critically about your performances a lot of the time because you can just go out there, ski really hard, and you’re going to usually win or at least have a good day. But here, you can sniff at the wrong time and you lose 10 spots,” Ketterson said during an hour-long conversation on the Seder-Skier Podcast earlier this week.
“It’s something that’s really impressive to me — how the best guys are consistently so good. They have to be so dialed in in so many different areas and it’s pretty impressive that their level is that high and they have the experience to be so consistently dialed.”
Pipeline persistence and patient practice
Ketterson is a pipeline poster child, having sculpted his professional career from high school state champion (he was third as a 9th grader and won as a 10th and 12th grader) to NCAA All-American and SuperTour dominator. The latter attribute is how he earned his first World Cup starts en route to being the only American male, out of six starters, to finish the 2021/2022 Tour de Ski. Thus, he’s the kind of guy who knows (six-pack aside) that his physiological Rome won’t be built in a day. Neither will his Klæbo-esque pack sense and course-recon abilities.
“I think it’s a really cool part of the sport,” he said of skiing’s tactical side.
“It’s not just about who has the highest VO2Max or who’s the strongest. There are all these other avenues to get extra time. There are so many aspects of the sport to work on to get faster in a race, and I think that’s why you see guys like Klaebo, who have really perfected this side of the sport,” he continued.
“They can win so consistently because they’re so advanced — compared to everyone else who is just like, ‘oh I’m going to be the fittest guy out there.’ So I think it’s really daunting but I do like it about the sport.”
His commitment to a long-term vision and step-by-step discipline, and his belief that an American can rise, “at their own pace” to be the best in the world, fuels him to shore up the mental minutiae he feels are required for breaking up the Norwegian stranglehold on any given event’s top 10.
“I wouldn’t say I’m that type of skier yet, but I’m trying to transition from a ‘go hard and hope for the best’ to a more intelligent, almost like Formula One — like, ‘how am I going to do all these little things’ type of skier, because I think that’s how you have to be if you want to get the most out of your body.”
Through three weekends, he feels the big three – fitness, technique and skis — are on par with the world’s best. In his mind, it’s the little things — like choosing the right line, even pacing, competitive savvy, and racing acumen — that have been the difference. They’re elements he never needed to address during his more-or-less dominating run of the high school, club, NCAA, and SuperTour circuits.
“That’s the stuff I’ve been really trying to play catch up on and learn … I feel like my entire U.S. career up until maybe a few years ago has been reinforced by this (idea that) you don’t have to put (in) as much thought,” he continued.
“As long as I show up fit, with good technique and good skis, I’ll do well and I don’t have to think that much about the little stuff.”
The developmental leg up for Scandinavian countries exists, according to Ketterson, in their cutthroat, high-level club scene, which forces athletes to improve the cerebral side of the sport as much as their raw fitness and technique.
“It’s really impressive to me — and I don’t know if it’s just that they have so much experience racing in Norway at these really competitive domestic circuits, but it feels like these best guys are just like such good skiers in every aspect of the sport,” he said.
“You come here and you’re like: I’m fit, I have good technique, I’m good, you know, but there’s all these other factors that have such a big impact on your result. That’s like the things that the best guys are so good at. And it’s probably second nature for them at this point.”
At the pre-season Norwegian opener in Beitostølen in late November, Ketterson broke in his new Rossignol skis (he was a Madshus-sponsored skier last season) in an environment saturated in by such a reality. He placed 78th in the 10-kilometer classic, albeit after breaking a pole, and 44th in the 10-kilometer freestyle the following day.
Because those races serve as essentially the tryouts for the Norwegian World Cup team, they are two of the calendar’s most fiercely competitive contests.
“When all those guys are really going for it, like, those races can feel more competitive than a World Cup in a way,” said Ketterson, who by virtue of his relationship with Norwegian skier Julie Ensrud has more experience racing in the country than many Americans.
“When they get to be in that environment week after week for their entire careers, you see how they become such good skiers. Being in mass starts, neck-to-neck with really good skiers, it’s not a surprise to me that they develop such advanced skiing skills.”
In the next breath, he contrasted that with junior “super-talents” in the U.S. — “guys who can win without thinking” — humbly (but maybe also inaccurately) disassociating himself from the category.
“I don’t think you ever develop those sort of critical, high-level skiing tactics and skills that these guys are forced to develop,” he said.
His time surrounded by Norwegian teammates while in college at NMU was his introduction to those more mental aspects of cross-country skiing.
“Hearing how they approach races …You know, I’m much fitter than this guy, my technique is just as good, how did he just beat me in this 10km race? And you start to pay attention to how, ‘oh, he skis this race much differently than me.’”
Though having just 19 career World Cup starts (through last weekend in Beitostølen) inherently presents constant tests for young skiers like Ketterson, one universal challenge this season revolves around the change in race distances.
“I think the 10km has been a big adjustment for a lot of guys,” Ketterson remarked. “I feel like it becomes this delicate balance of going hard enough the entire time because you just don’t have that much time to mess around, but also, a 10km is absolutely long enough that if you blow up, you’re going to ruin your race.”
In Lillehammer, Ketterson sat in 56th place after clocking 3:39.7 for the opening 1.6 kilometers of the course. By halfway, he’d moved up to 38th en route to a 26th-place finish; his split for one segment in the second half of the race ranked 14th overall.
In Beitostølen (the December World Cup race, not the November season opener), the opposite occurred. One-third of the way through the race, Ketterson was in third-place overall. Within less than two kilometers, he fell to 16th, then plummeted to 38th over the second half of the race.
“The fact that I raced there for the second time last weekend and still paced the race so badly is not super impressive,” he reflected introspectively. “You’d think, well, he’s already skied this course once, he should have a better grasp on how to do it.”
“For me, it’s been trying to find that perfect balance of going hard enough but not too hard, where I feel like in a 15km you could really just settle into a nice pace,” he continued.
“It felt more relaxed because you had more time to work with. And I think the other side of it is just the margins have been so tight in these 10k’s. A few seconds in either direction can be 5-10 spots.”
After racing in Beitostølen Ketterson arrived in Davos, where he’s rooming with Schumacher, and enjoyed an easy skate ski around the course on Tuesday. He’s trained in the Swiss paradise before but never raced at the venue.
“For sure one of the goals this week is going to be doing some intervals on the course and trying to feel how it flows and stuff like that,” he said. Racing on the biggest stage has illuminated the need for detailed course recon.
“It’s one of those things that I think the best guys — it’s so ingrained that they do that,” he said.
“In the U.S., I think a lot of times a top skier could go to a sort of lower-level race and win without looking at the course because you just know your skis and fitness and all these other things are going to be enough that you could ski the course pretty stupid and just still, you know, have an overall average speed that’s going to be enough.”
At Davos’s altitude, pacing is more critical. The winners will fine-tune specific points where V2 switches to V1 or a final push transitions to a tuck, too.
“They get pretty detailed with it because when the margins are such that one to two seconds means five spots, every single inch of the course really matters,” Ketterson aptly noted.
“It’s on the forefront of your mind — how you’re going to ski this course as smart as possible. Because you can’t just be fit and go out and hammer and expect it to be enough.”
Training for tomorrow
If the superhero persona is accurate, one might expect Ketterson’s training regimen to be chock full of six-hour sessions and sets of 30 pull-ups. But against this backdrop, Ketterson consistently abides by a surprisingly reasonable principle: the most important part of today’s workout is being able to perform tomorrow’s.
“I don’t feel like I ever go into a massive hole, even in a really big training block — I’m never just shattered,” he said.
“Some people would say I’m leaving something on the table, like I could train harder. But at the same time, I feel like I’m able to really avoid injury and illness and just have this big-picture consistency that makes me fitter year over year….It’s more just simple stuff, day after day, month after month. After five years you look back and you’re like, ‘I’m much fitter now.’”
That’s not to say Ketterson is soft. True to his stoic training reputation, he stated, “I never let (a) mental not-wanting-to-do-it be a reason for not (training).”
Sheer willpower, however, isn’t his key secret. “The best approach for me has been patience and (thinking) big picture,” he said.
“It takes a lot of patience in this sport to know that maybe you could have trained more or done this harder and gotten short-term better results, but I think that by always thinking about that I do want to be in this sport for a long time and hopefully my lifetime peak is when I’m 30 — not when I’m 20,” he continued.
“And for that reason, I didn’t feel such urgency when I was 18 or 19 to be the best in a matter of the next few years. I never had this massive jump of training volume from year to year.”
The gradual, made-in-America, stepwise improvement, coupled with his genuine affability, makes Ketterson an easy athlete to cheer for. His goal for this season is to race in as many World Cups as possible. If he can keep his World Cup distance ranking within the top-40 (he’s currently 39th heading into Sunday’s distance race, slightly behind fellow Americans Hunter Wonders in 32nd and Schumacher in 34th), he said he has a good chance to start another Tour de Ski.
From there, continued starts depend upon the most recent results — an objective-based reality well-suited for a guy who’s earned everything he’s received in the sport.
“It’s a good problem to have, I guess, that the U.S. guys have been skiing so much better than in previous years,” said Ketterson, who will race Sunday’s 20k freestyle interval start.
“We have a lot of distance guys that are doing well in the criteria to make the Tour De Ski. It’s good healthy competition with the guys team and the level is just a lot higher than in previous years. So, I have some work to do maybe on Sunday.”
But Ketterson’s mission of continuing to elevate the American men’s team stretches beyond just this weekend, and draws on a “why” deeper than just World Cup rankings, domestic criteria, or even podium placements.
“I think it’s so cool to pick something in your life — like whatever it is… skiing… it could be really any hobby or sport or anything… and just decide, I want to try and reach my potential in this thing,” he said.
“That’s what really motivated me year after year. I just want to see what that limit is.”
About the author: Ryan Sederquist lives, trains and invents oatmeal recipes in Leadville, Colorado, with his wife, Christie; daughter, Novi; and puppy, Ajee. His main gig is sports reporting for the Vail Daily — where he rarely misses an opportunity to refer to Pete Maravich or wax poetic, skinny-ski-related metaphors — but in his spare time, he hosts the Seder-Skier Podcast, which he unverifiably claims is the fastest-growing Nordic ski–specific show in all of Lake County, Colorado.
You can find his website here, and his podcast here or here. The most recent episode, from December 15, features a long interview with Zak Ketterson that expands on the topics discussed in this article. Of note, Sederquist will be calling Sunday’s distance race for Ski and Snowboard Live. Tune in to see if he manages to namedrop “Captain America” when Ketterson gets screen time.
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