Editor’s Note: The following piece was submitted by Israeli athlete Warren Samberg. It describes his experience competing in the men’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate qualifying race at 2023 World Championships in Planica last month.
By way of background, the qualifying race was held on February 22, the first day of competition at this year’s World Championships; the more visible classic sprints were held a day later. The top several finishers in the 10km qualification race earned start rights for the men’s 15km interval-start skate race held a week later and won by Simen Hegstad Krüger. (A 5km race for women was held the same day, advancing the top finishers onto the women’s 10km race won by Jessie Diggins.) In this piece, Samberg speaks to his experience in the February 22nd race, and to the larger issues faced by athletes from less traditional ski nations in their attempt to qualify for starts at World Championships or the Olympics.
By Warren Samberg
In 2018, I made the decision to pursue my childhood Olympic dream and attempt to become the first Israeli athlete to cross-country ski at the Winter Olympics. As a Jewish athlete, it was a perfect fit to support Israel while at the same time trying to advance my love for skiing to the highest level of sport.
My early years were spent alpine skiing, but at 18 I quickly found a passion in Nordic after my first lesson at Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. Thirty years later, in 2021, I qualified for the Oberstdorf World Championships despite many race cancellations due to Covid in the qualification period. It was a solid result for me, but not quite good enough to satisfy the new Olympic qualification rule for the Beijing Winter Olympics stating that developing ski nations now had effectively only ONE opportunity to achieve an Olympic quota slot. For most developing ski nations, that opportunity was at 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf. I decided to continue along the journey and qualify once again to race in Planica, Slovenia, to gain more international experience.
On February 22 of this year, a diverse group of athletes from around the world converged at the Planica Nordic Centre in Slovenia for the first event of the 2023 World Championships. Once again, many of the same nations were represented, along with a few new ones like Panama and Saudi Arabia!
Background and qualification standards
The diversity of this group is paramount in order for the sport to grow well beyond the traditional powerhouse ski nations that we are accustomed to watching and reading about. I am thankful that the World Championships has set a qualification standard allowing so many nations to be represented at a major event. I am hoping that FIS and the IOC implement something similar for the next Winter Olympics (OWG), as diversity and inclusion is even more of a priority in the Olympic world, which we are reminded of in the motto, “faster, higher, stronger — together.”
Prior to 2018, the OWG qualification system allowed athletes multiple opportunities around the world to achieve qualifying marks, which witnessed an increase in participating nations for both men and women. The more restrictive qualification system for Beijing 2022 unfortunately witnessed a reversal of that positive trend.
The group of athletes in the qualification event at this year’s world champs were not just diverse geographically, but range in age from 17 to 53. A few are professional or sponsored athletes, but many are like myself with the responsibility of a family and a career. Athletes from developing nations also face the challenge of not having regular access to snow and mountainous regions, resulting in a need to cross-train. This lack of snow requires travel, often without corporate funds or aid from ski associations.
Personally, my day starts with school dropoff, ski training, and then a full day working as an architect. There is no time for junk mileage in ski training! Every workout has a purpose to fit into a limited schedule.
Now back to the race! It was a warm and sunny day surrounded by the beauty of the Julian Alps. The spring-like conditions would make an already challenging course much more difficult and technical as we maneuvered around tight downhill turns deep in slush. We had to ski two loops and the hills seemed relentless, especially trying to navigate through wet snow. I felt the altitude as well but pushed through to the finish. It was not a day for PRs, but nonetheless another learning experience on a new course. Every venue has its own set of challenges that will further an athlete’s skill level and strategy for race execution.
While I will always remember aspects of the course and finish position, the real highlights and beauty of the World Championships are more about being a flagbearer for your country and the camaraderie of fellow athletes from around the world. These friendships are valued as we share similar lifestyles and athletic goals, transcending politics, religion, and geography. We are stronger together!
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About the author:
Warren Samberg is a nordic skier who has represented Israel at, so far, the last two world championships, Oberstdorf in 2021 and Planica in 2023. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is an architect for his day job. You can find his architecture firm here, and his Instagram page here.
Samberg is currently the only Israeli cross-country athlete in the FIS database with an active license. He turned 50 yesterday. Samberg is currently ranked a respectable 26th in the world, in the FIS database, among active male athletes born in 1973 or earlier. The ageless Anders Aukland is first on this list.