Looking Back on the First Year of the Trail to Gold Fellowship


By Leslie Hall and Nancy Fiddler

The following article was received earlier this week from two women who have leadership roles with the Trail to Gold Fellowship. The fellowship, a joint project of the National Nordic Foundation, the Women Ski Coaches Association, and the U.S. Ski Team, works to put women ski coaches and techs in internship positions on the World Cup. The fellowship was initially funded by the eponymous book.

The fellowship recently wrapped up its first full season of placing interns on the World Cup with the U.S. Ski Team. Five different women each spent roughly two weeks on the World Cup: Naomi Kiekintveld, Annika Martell, Liz Stephen, Caitlin Gregg, and Lizzie Larkins.

Leslie Hall and Nancy Fiddler, late 1980s/early 1990s Winter Olympians whose stories are among those included in the Trail to Gold book, shared this update on those women’s experience and the program’s first year. —Ed.

National Team coach Kristen Bourne (left) and Caitlin Gregg (right) in the teal bibs with women coaches from Norway and Sweden. (photo: courtesy Caitlin Gregg)

The 2022/2023 World Cup season has ended and with it the first season of the Trail to Gold Fellowship, where women coaches and technicians were offered the opportunity to intern with the U.S. Ski Team during two-week stints. Five coaches were chosen to take advantage of this program after an application process that was undertaken by 32 enthusiastic women from across the U.S. It was heartening for the selection committee to see such depth of experience from coaches at all levels of the sport. Way to go to these aspiring women ski professionals!!

With two extra on-course support bibs available exclusively to women coaches or technicians, the ideal scenario would spread out the internships over the season. Naomi Kiekintveld from APU and South High School in Anchorage took the lead, heading to Ruka and Lillehammer for early-season World Cups. Annika Martell, from Williams College, followed for the Beitostølen and Davos events. Liz Stephen, of the Park City junior program, jumped in for the Tour de Ski. Caitlin Gregg, from Team Birkie, went to Livigno and Les Rousses, and finally Lizzie Larkins, from Montana State University, was at Drammen, Falun, and Lahti to finish off the season. Additionally, Sam Benzing attended the final World Cups as a coach supported by a separate grant from the Women’s Sport Foundation. 

Feedback from the interns was unanimously positive! Several of them used the phrase “well-oiled machine” to describe the U.S. Ski Team’s World Cup program. They all strongly recommend that women coaches take advantage of this opportunity. All felt welcome and included by the World Cup staff and athletes. 

Naomi Kiekintveld (left) and Kristen Bourne at work in the wax truck. (photo: courtesy Naomi Kiekintveld)

To give the interns a full experience on the World Cup, they spent time in the wax truck as well as providing on-course support and athlete support on training days. Creating fast race skis is just one part of the work that ski techs and coaches do while serving U.S. Ski Team athletes.

Naomi noted, “I learned a lot, a lot about good team culture, and good work relationships” as well as some great wax room tips and techniques. Liz, too, was impressed by the organization and communication, writing: “I am constantly working on being a more organized leader, and being a part of all the team meetings, tech meetings and staff meetings was a lesson in how important planning and communication of those plans is. The Team is incredibly good at talking through schedules, being open to suggestions, being adaptable to changes on the fly, and communicating these changes so as to make sure no one is confused or left out. This all plays a role in the inclusion factor of the Team.”

Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen in Italy. (photo: Matt Whitcomb)

Liz commented on another great point: “Another thing that I was really impressed with was how the both the staff and techs took the time after most races, especially races where something didn’t go exactly as they wanted it to, and debriefed in a non-confrontational or blaming way what may have contributed to the plan going awry. The ability to talk about a mistake in an open and honest way without placing blame on an individual is hard to do, and I was constantly impressed by the Team’s ability to do this. Being able to talk about mistakes or shortcomings is the key to improvement, but without the proper methods it can make people feel blamed or be intimidated to have the meeting at all. These are both things that I want to implement and improve on with our team and staff.”

Annika felt she learned the most on the tech side of things and commented, “ I brought back some new waxing techniques (glideouts), technician hacks (paint brush to clean off your workstation), and added to my experience arsenal of wax problem solving (don’t be afraid to try something crazy!).”

[Read more: Annika Martell: From Williams to the World Cup, via the Trail to Gold Fellowship]

Caitlin said, “A highlight of my experience was how incorporated I was in every part of supporting the Team. From driving vans to testing wax, giving splits, waxing skis, and attending Team Captains Meetings, I was a part of the entire process and learned something new every day.” 

Lizzie noted the following takeaways:

  • “Clear communication goes a long way when you are at the highest level with the endless logistics, different agendas, and various people in and out.” 
  • “Klister rolling is extremely satisfying and efficient.” 
  • “Trust the test and acknowledge there will be human error, so trust your team as well!”
  • “The US needs a female classic kick test fleet.” 
  • “The World Cup is overflowing with motivated, dedicated humans who are fully engulfed in the nordic world.” 
Lizzie Larkins and Kristen Bourne at the US Team wax truck. (photo: Torsten Brinkema)

From the athletes’ perspective, it was empowering to see women coaches in the wax truck and on the course. They also expressed that they enjoyed interacting with the coaches. 

Jessie Diggins shared the following impression of the new fellowship: “Having the Trail to Gold Fellowship this winter was an incredible experience, and from my perspective, I gained so much from having these women from different teams and different parts of the U.S. come over to help coach us and wax for us!

“All the fellows were able to help wax skis, coach the athletes and help with the team process on pre-race and race days, help us work through strategy and ski picking, and training on the days in between. For example, Annika Martell helped me do glide-outs and test my race skis in Beitostølen, and her help was huge for me when I was having trouble picking skis in the extreme cold! I’m extremely grateful for their time, energy and the positivity they brought to our team on the road.” 

There were a few suggestions on ways to improve the fellowship experience. Several of the interns weren’t sure what to expect and didn’t have a clear picture of how things would work on the World Cup. The wax truck/tech interaction can be intimidating for those new to the World Cup.

From left: Matt Whitcomb, Chris Grover, Kristen Bourne, and Annika Martell (photo: Matt Whitcomb)

U.S. Cross Country Program Director Chris Grover hopes to have a pre-season meeting with all the incoming interns next season to talk about some basic expectations and routines. A couple interns expressed that they went in feeling nervous and intimidated, but once they got into the swing of things they overcame their worries.

There is much excitement about the continuation and growth of this program. Some additional funding would allow some of the fellows to return to get more experience, as well as bringing a new group of women coaches to do the internship for the first time.

In the meantime, all involved recommend that women coaches continue to pursue opportunities such as regional REG and U16 camps and coaching at JNs. Finding opportunities to interact with the clubs that national team athletes are involved with can provide educational experience, as well.

Naomi works with APU, and being a former Alaskan racer, knew several of the athletes, which helped her feel comfortable in the World Cup setting. Annika is a volunteer with the Stratton program during the summer, showing up to help with workouts there, so she knew several of the athletes and had worked with U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb. Other opportunities include applying for the U18 trip or the World Junior/U23 trip. It is exciting that there are many women coaches involved at all levels, and with these great opportunities, more women may consider following a career path as a coach or ski technician.The current expectation is that fellowship applications for next winter will be accepted and reviewed by the National Nordic Foundation (NNF) at a TBD date this summer, and selection completed in the early fall. Applicants can check the NNF website for updates. [And also this news site.]

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