Alaska, a state mired in recession, got a bit of good news on Friday – it’s home to one at least business proving hugely successful in the cold, snowy north.
The Nordic Ski Center at Alaska Pacific University was this year responsible for producing just shy of half the skiers named to the U.S. Olympic Cross-Country Skiing Team.
Led by 35-year-old Anchorage reared Kikkan Randall, an already four-time Olympian, skiers from the APU University Elite Team filled nine of the 20 slots on the U.S. team. All told, almost half of the 22 members of that team are headed to the Olympics Feb. 9 through Feb. 25 in Pyeongchang, Korea.
One will, however, be competing for a different country. Jessica Yeaton, who was born in Australia and moved to Alaska at age 12, will ski for the country of her birth. Yeaton grew up in Alaska, went to school in Montana, and then moved back to Alaska to train under the tutelage of APU coach Erik Flora, who has turned a tiny, 49th state university into a something of a manufacturing plant for world-class Nordic skiers.
The poor stepsister to the large University of Alaska system, APU reports an enrollment of fewer than 750 students and is the days considering a transition from a small, liberal arts school into the nation’s 37th “tribal college,” which could provide access to federal funding.
A financially struggling institution, APU has only one athletic program – Nordic skiing. But it has been a monster of a success.
Along with the big group of cross-country skiers headed to the Olympics, APU has helped Alaska load the rosters for the U.S. national teams for the FIS Cross Country World Junior and U23 Championships in Switzerland later this month.
The U.S. Olympic Committee Coach of the Year in 2014, Flora has attributed APU’s success to both careful physiological conditioning and a psychological can-do attitude that started way back in 1988 with a then unknown Randall, a young woman possessed of big talent and even more determination.
Together she and Flora worked their way toward her first Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002. Along they way, the duo picked up a lot of company on the road to success.
“What people see is if they can do it, I can do it,” Flora told FasterSkier in 2014. “It kind of trickles through the group … to be out in the rain day after day … after a three-hour [workout] and knowing that you have to get up and do it all again the next day…”
That would be rain falling at the Thomas Training Center on Eagle Glacier, near a mile high in the Chugach Mountains above the ski-resort community of Girdwood just east of Anchorage. The ability to train almost year-round on snow there has been a definite plus for APU.
Jim Galanes, the APU ski coach before Flora, long pitched Eagle Glacier as “the best summer skiing in the world,” and it’s only got better with upgrades in the housing in recent years.
A top-notch training facility coupled with Flora’s now international renown as a coach attracts Nordic skiers to Alaska from all over the country, but Flora remains committed to fostering Alaska talent as well.
There are a whole gang of young Alaskans in his Olympic pipeline along with that gaggle of 2018 winter Olympians identified as “from” elsewhere, although many have been calling Alaska home for years.
While Alaskans in other businesses might be fleeing the state because of the economic downturn, skiing is one business that has the flow going the opposite direction.