By Ryan Sederquist, special to Nordic Insights
Imagine if football color commentator Chris Collinsworth’s nauseating praise for Aaron Rodgers were replaced with the task of describing David Norris.
“Here’s a guy,” he would begin, using his worn signature phrase before pausing to repeat himself.
“Here’s a guy who didn’t even have an active FIS license at the start of the season, spent the whole day prior to the U.S. nationals 20-kilometer mass start testing skis for his junior athletes and then hopped in the senior race… and took second.”
Before Al Michaels would be able to add anything, Collinsworth would continue: “I mean… here’s a guy whose tune-up races for these world championships included winning the Alley Loop wearing a squirrel-tail costume and dominating the Birkie — only to use his prize money to buy a plane ticket to come here… and face the magnificent Johannes Klæbo.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Even underneath the glow of Jessie Diggins’s absolutely legendary performance in the individual start freestyle, one can’t help but wonder if Norris’s narrative is perhaps, right this second, the most interesting in American skiing.
Master blaster makes the Grand Master faster
After missing out on an Olympic team nomination last winter, the financial burden of chasing a self-supported 58th-career World Cup start in the 2022/2023 season as an athlete not on the U.S. Ski Team was hardly alluring to David Norris.
“After last year, I was like, you know, I’ve said yes to every World Cup start and every opportunity in Europe, and I just got to a point where I was tired trying to raise money to represent the U.S. year after year,” the 32-year-old said during a brief layover at the Washington, D.C. airport en route to Planica.
“There’s no support from the U.S. ski team to race in Europe all these years and the community has made it possible and I’m really grateful for all that, but I got to this point where you know, I’m uncomfortable asking people for money all the time and maybe there’s someone younger who could use those same resources.”
Norris landed in D.C. from Minneapolis, flying fresh off a two-minute and 20-second victory at the Birkie — the only original target ski race of his season. He employed a tactic he’s debated using in the past: an early breakaway.
“Often I kind of half plan to be more aggressive and brave with my racing, but for one reason or another I sit in the pack and I tend to regret those decisions,” he said.
His partner, Australian Olympian Jessica Yeaton, gave him the final oomph.
At his Thursday on-course shakeout, he said to Yeaton, “You know I think I can go early.”
“And she was like, ‘Dude stop talking about it and finally do it!’” Norris recalled. “And that’s really what motivated me to pull it off this year.”
“I was pretty much tired of him regretting not going for it every other year, and I was super confident he had the fitness this year,” Yeaton said.
“I am really proud of him for believing in himself and making that move — I’m not kidding when I say I was completely inspired during my race when I turned around and saw him coming,” she continued. “I was like, ‘Wow, if he can do that, I can try to do something special too right now.'”
Norris and Yeaton moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, this fall. Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC) U20/U18/U16 head coach Josh Smullin — who, like Norris, coincidentally lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a kid — remembers getting a call from Norris in the summer.
“He had just driven through Steamboat for some reason and thought, ‘Oh this is a sweet place to live,’” Smullin said. “We did what we could to get him here. Jess was finishing PT school and they were looking for a place where she could get a job and they’d be happy.”
Suffice it to say, they’ve been living their best life, racking up powder days as Steamboat Springs enjoys one of its snowiest winters in recent memory. Norris envisioned staying in shape enjoying the run/ski/bike mecca’s numerous outdoor offerings while coaching high-level junior athletes alongside Smullin.
Yeaton said their lifestyle has “made a great balance of happiness but also keeps him in shape.”
“We both love training — it’s never felt like a burden for either of us to put in the work,” she said. “It’s everything else … the fundraising, sacrificing powder days for rest, etc. that has been tough.”
Norris’s agreement with the club included the freedom to race the Birkie and a few races at U.S. Nationals. Skiing, however, was a secondary pursuit. Norris really hoped to mesh ski racing with a few European professional trail-running races on behalf of On Running, but a heel fracture from a spring bike accident derailed that agenda.
Instead of competing at Zegama-Aizkorri race in Spain on May 22, he was reduced to the stair-climber and other uphill-only activities throughout the summer and would only rollerski three times before starting his coaching duties in September.
“Not that life hasn’t been groovy, but not being able to run and having my heel hurt with literally every activity I do this summer has sucked a lot,” he posted on his blog in October.
But his schedule — he can train by himself in the morning, operate his consulting/bookkeeping company on his own time, then hop in for afternoon sessions with SSWSC — his love of exercise, and his need to explore the trails around his new home all resulted in a high-volume fall. Without the pressure of being sharp for the Ruka opener, Norris felt free to pile on hours once the snow fell, too.
“Without that stress of (early-season) racing, I’m certain my volume is massive this year,” he said, noting that although he’s “not logging it well,” he remains aware of week-to-week necessities. His staple is a 55-65 minute threshold workout and he taps into his L4 doing intervals with SSWSC stars Trey Jones and Grey Barbier, a member of the winning relay team at the recent U18 Nordic Nations Cup.
“I think the way to learn is just to follow somebody good,” Smullin said. “Especially with those guys, he’s been a big influence.”
“Every once in a while, he lays down the law, but not all the time,” the coach continued. “He would sit in the group and these guys on our team would ski right with him and beat him.”
Smullin said Norris’s presence has been a missing piece of the pipeline puzzle in Steamboat. Unlike Stratton Mountain School or Sun Valley, clubs whose pro athletes shepherd the juniors — and everyone mingles together — SSWSC has only young athletes.
“I think it’s just an important thing for kids, especially really good ones, to see how people are who make the next step… and be around that 24-7,” said Smullin, whose athletes spent a week living with Yeaton and Norris at Nationals, allowing everyone to observe how top athletes conduct themselves.
“This group gets to see who they are in their everyday lives, outside of kicking ass in skiing. And that’s actually like the really important stuff to learn. It’s motivational for all the kids and us and the club — everything that he’s done in this short time.”
“He loves working with the kids,” Yeaton added. “I’ve always known he would be an incredible coach, and it’s awesome to see how much of an impact he’s already made on the next generation.”
Even with a physiologically sound overall vision, courtesy of his time spent racing at APU, Montana State University, and for the U.S. Ski Team, Norris said right now, he doesn’t have a strict training plan.
“It’s kind of just been like, make it fun, try not to say no to cool opportunities or invitations to do good adventures… but still get an interval set in,” he said, admitting a slightly master-blaster approach to intensity levels. Occasionally, modalities are dictated by weather.
“Jess and I, we go to bed and we’re like, ‘It’s going to be a powder day tomorrow morning,’ and we’re getting our backcountry skis ready,” Norris said. “And backcountry skiing, I think I’m always mid-zone two, just kind of skinning hard.”
Yeaton said one day they woke up at 5:30 a.m. to start skinning to the top of a mountain for an “epic powder day.” Norris was at practice by 8 a.m. to drive the kids to a 15-kilometer classic race. He spent the day waxing skis, then raced himself. When he got home, he did a ski and strength workout with Yeaton, too.
“To him, this wasn’t a tough day,” she said.
“It was a perfect day — despite being like five hours of exercise. I ask him if it’s too much, and he always says the same thing: no way! He truly enjoys it, and I think the lack of structure in a way has made him fitter than ever.”
As could be expected, Norris wasn’t visualizing Planica during any of those sessions.
“I kind of figured if I was working and training, I knew I could probably prepare really well for one race this season, and that was going to be the Birkie,” he said “And just the way things have gone, I’ve been able to jump in a couple more races than I anticipated and they’ve gone really well.”
Even last April, when he started ordering skis for the following season, he told Rossignol his focus was maybe the Boulder Mountain Tour and the Birkie.
“I only ordered one classic ski for the year because I didn’t think I was going to classic race this winter,” he laughed. “It’s kind of a pleasant surprise to be doing the 50km classic in Planica.”
From Steamboat to Slovenia
As Ski and Snowboard Club Vail director Dan Weiland informed me of Norris’s ascension to the official roster while the two of us took in the Colorado High School state ski meet two weeks ago in Frisco, I couldn’t help but feel like I was being set up for some Chuck Norris joke. After all, two weeks prior, David Norris came up behind me at a loppet in Crested Butte, and now you’re saying he earned a spot on the world championship team by churning out some stunning performances… while simultaneously working as a wax tech?
Insert amended Chuck Norris joke: “David Norris doesn’t wax skis….he stares at them until they become fast.”
So how did this actually go down? It kind of started in Sun Valley.
Norris joined Ski and Snowboard Club Vail coach Eric Pepper in supporting a few Vail and Steamboat Springs skiers at the Period 1 SuperTour in Sun Valley in early December. At the time, Norris’s FIS license was inactive.
“So maybe that can tell you where his head was at,” Smullin answered in regards to whether or not Norris may have been plotting a World Cup return all along. The answer is, obviously not.
The 32-year-old proceeded to place second in the 15-kilometer classic mass start in Sun Valley. Shortly after, his email inbox was peppered with messages from U.S. national coaches, requesting that he update his license. (Having Norris’s low FIS points in the field would make the race be “better” and more advantageous to all other racers.) Norris finally did — the night before the U.S. Nationals 20-kilometer classic mass start in Michigan in January — since prize money at U.S. Nationals only goes to podium finishers with active FIS licenses. Norris wound up second overall in that event and in the 10-kilometer individual start skate… all while coaching and prepping skis.
“They did their best the night before the 20km to send me home early,” Norris said regarding Pepper, Weiland, and Smullin, all of whom deserve credit for ensuring Norris’s skis had world-class speed, too.
“It was almost amusing. I’d get a dry shirt on after the race, be in the wax cabin trying to have a snack or something, and Dan was like, ‘What are you doing, get back out there, man!’ Like almost grinning and laughing about it,” Norris chuckled.
“But also, there were skis that needed to be tested, so I actually was hopping back on snow and my cooldown was to try and keep up with Josh on the test track.”
Chris Grover, USST Program Director, stated in an email this week that officially, Norris was named to the American team for Planica via selection method No. 4, which draws on the highest performing domestic athletes from the SuperTour series and U.S. Nationals. Johnny Hagenbuch was the distance leader from domestic racing, and Norris was ranked second on that list.
“We wanted more distance athletes on the team so this was an easy choice to name the top two men on that list,” stated Grover, who said he knew Norris was coaching but was not aware of how much or little he was training.
“However, it’s never surprising to see that an athlete of David’s ability is still in amazing shape and still capable of top results so close to retirement,” Grover continued. “He’s been at it for a lot of years, he knows his body, and has a ton of experience.”
Norris will also compete in the 50-kilometer mass start skate race in Holmenkollen on March 11. Unlike many athletes, it’s pretty difficult to decipher a discipline specialty for the Alaskan.
“Traditionally I’ve been pretty equal in both,” Norris said. “My only concern in the classic is just that my heel’s been bugging me more in classic boots, so I kind of have to nurse that, but it should be good.”
“David has had excellent results in both skating and classic,” Grover added of Norris, who finished 16th in the 2021 World Championships 50km classic and 20th in the 2019 50km skate.
“What he brings to the table is experience skiing in the marathons and managing his energy output and fueling over long distances, etc., which many of the younger skiers haven’t developed yet,” Grover said.
Even though he’s been on the short end of the team nomination stick throughout his career, Norris didn’t expect any awkward moments when he lands in Slovenia.
“A side of me was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ When I really put everything into making the Olympics, I come up short, and then I’m not even trying to make world champs and I pull it off kind of thing… a little bit of irony, but it’s also just a bigger team quota,” Norris said.
“I’ve never had anything against any of the athletes. We’re just all good friends and I’m so stoked to hang out with them and really love them.”
“I was psyched when David was named to the team,” said Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate Scott Patterson, who placed 19th in the skiathlon in Planica earlier these championships, 15th in the 15km individual start, and will also start for the U.S. in Sunday’s mass start.
“Over the years he has been one of my consistent training buddies, friends on the World Cup, and overall, good person to hang out with.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time rooming together on the World Cup and just training in Anchorage,” Patterson continued.
“Also this year has been a little different without David or my sister [now-retired skier Caitlin Patterson, long affiliated with Craftsbury] on the World Cup so I was excited for him to come over even just as someone to go on slightly adventurous afternoon runs or skis in-between races.”
Rosie Brennan, another longtime APU teammate, said this week she’s also excited to have David join the squad.
“It’s great that someone can perform at nationals and be able to fill in the holes we have from those racing World Cup,” she said. “Especially on the men’s side, we have much more specialization, so having someone who specializes in longer races is really beneficial for the whole team.”
Considering his age — 32 — and roundabout journey, one might view Norris as the guys team’s version of Brennan.
“I believe it’s always a win–win situation to have people taking their own journeys. It shows there is no right way and really gives the younger athlete a chance to think about what’s right for them instead of just doing what everyone else is doing,” Brennan said when asked about the comparison.
“Of course racing at this level does take a lot of training, dedication, and a strong mind, but within that, there are still so many options. Generally, when people take their own approach, they learn more, find more happiness and joy in racing, and will often find better racing as a result.”
When David Norris breaks a pole in a race, he doesn’t ask for a new one….now the race is fair….ok, that was my last attempt at Chuck Norris humor….
From costumes to Klæbo
While Norris has demonstrated some world-class fitness, it’s hard to move past the fact that his last race experiences did in fact involve weaving through costumed citizen racers at the Alley Loop and sprinting through Main Street in a small Wisconsin town — and the next time he pulls on his lycra suit, he’ll do so alongside the greatest skiers on the planet.
Patterson, another wily distance veteran who always seems to pull off tremendous races at global championships, admitted this week that he’s “a little concerned for David shifting from domestic racing to the World Cup scene.”
“The plus is that he does have a lot of experience over here and has done it before, but it is definitely a different scene,” Patterson said, adding that Norris won’t have the benefit of skiing at the front of a small, controlled pack in the “forgiving” SuperTour scene.
“Over here on the World Cup and at world champs, it’s fast and furious, close-contact racing with a lot of other skiers who can challenge, push, and regularly crush the field,” Patterson noted.
Before he committed to Planica, Norris reached out to Patterson to ask about the course, wondering if it suited his strengths enough to warrant a visit. Patterson’s reply included general comments regarding the gradual uphills and spicy, sharp downhills. He also noted the arrangement of the venue, which places several of those climbs back-to-back with minimal recovery. Plus, the sharp downhill corners and other features provide working downhills.
“Both David and I key in on challenging features, so this is something we were enthusiastically anticipating,” Patterson said.
“I think it’s a bit of the nature of being a more endurance-oriented skier willing to fight hard that the harder the course the better.”
The two longtime Rossignol athletes also talked skis. Don’t worry — even though Norris only ordered one new pair of planks, he said some of his best bases are from the 2019 season, anyway.
On that note, Smullin believes the biggest obstacle, particularly since it’s a classic race, will be working with an unfamiliar wax tech to dial in those skis.
“For a 50km classic, you can’t be competitive if you don’t nail the skis,” he said.
Bottom line, on Sunday, Patterson and Norris will both be hoping for conditions that test aerobic capacity and guts.
“I think I’ve trained well for the grind. I’ve probably done what I shouldn’t do, where a lot of the year I did L2, L3 — that middle ground that they tell you not to do,” laughed Norris. He’d love equalizing snow conditions coupled with a consistently hard pace from the gun, both of which will allow him to express his strength on the long, gradual striding sections.
“The slower the conditions — not the slower the race — the better,” Smullin added.
“Tough training builds tough people and I think David and I epitomize that. It may be a bit of an APU thing to really embrace the grit and grind of big volume and hard training,” Patterson stated. (Notably, three out of four men starting tomorrow’s race are current or former APU athletes; the fourth Alaskan in the bunch, Gus Schumacher, trains just down the road with Alaska Winter Stars.)
“That, plus sometimes some non-optimal conditions in Alaska really breed the determination,” Patterson said. “Our APU coach, Erik Flora, always likes to bring up the moniker of ‘championship day,’ which basically means being ready for anything, even awful conditions, and still going out and laying it all down.”
One particular championship skier, the great Swede Johan Olsson, is someone Smullin and Norris have talked about a lot lately.
“He wasn’t known for doing all the World Cups. He would show up at the championships and kick butt,” Smullin said.
“His approach of doing very high-level training in one place when everyone else was following the circus around and traveling from one place to another doing all these races — I think there was something to learn that could be applied to his situation.”
When asked about where he feels his fitness is truly at, Norris said it’s somewhat of a question mark.
“I don’t have these gauges,” he said. “When you’re racing weekend after weekend against certain fields, you get either reassurance that you are fit, or you get beaten down. I just haven’t had either of those, really.” He also lacks World Cup markers in daily practice.
“It’s fun to be around (the SSWSC athletes) and give them real-time technique advice during the set, but it’s also really different than doing a four-by-four with Hunter [Wonders] and Scott up in Alaska when we’re training together,” Norris said.
“I think it’s been really positive. The change in my training — I could stress about it — but what I’ve figured out is that maybe change is also a new stimulus and that’s something I needed.”
Even if Norris has some doubts, those close to him believe in his championship pedigree.
“David had very strong results in the Oberstdorf world championships, so I think he has proven his ability in the distance events and it’s clear he has been training and is feeling fit,” stated Brennan.
“He showed up at the Birkie and did a very dominant move and nobody there had a chance,” added Smullin.
“He’s obviously going to be going against a different level at worlds, but he put forth an effort that was a very hard, long effort, which is presumably what the Norwegians and Iivo Niskanen are going to do: put out a very hard pace that’s just going to be a survival of the fittest.”
If that’s how it plays out, Norris might have a good chance. And if he’s in the thick of things, Chad Salmela or Kikkan Randall better be ready with:
“Now…here’s a guy……”
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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.