Coach Scott Johnston, second from left, proudly stands with the trio of elite Nordic skiers he is working with as the Methow Olympic Development Project. From left, Caitlin Gregg, Johnston, Brian Gregg and Sam Naney.
Elite skiers of the Methow
Scott Johnston doesn’t take a penny for the hours he puts into coaching and training athletes. “I think of it as a gift,” he told Grist, “a way of giving back. I’m lucky enough to have the wherewithal to do this."
A mechanical engineer by training, Johnston’s approach is to tailor workouts to each individual so that even if they are training as a group, they all are working on different things. “I enjoy their company and like helping them meet their goals,” Johnston said of the trio of professional Nordic skiers now under his tutelage.
A former All-American swimmer and professional Nordic skier who competed in several World Cups for the U.S. Ski Team, Johnston moved to the Methow Valley in 2001 with his wife, Midge Cross. Both continue to be active in the local ski scene.
But this is an extraordinary year for Johnston. He’s been working with three elite Nordic skiers as part of the Methow Olympic Development Project, which is mostly funded out of his own pocket. He’s been training 28-year-old Sam Naney since 2008. Brian Gregg, also 28, joined him in May. And Brian’s wife, Caitlin Gregg, 32, moved to Mazama in August. All three are on a 24-day racing circuit that started Nov. 23. They will return to the Methow Valley to “address training stuff,” as Johnston puts it, before their next burst of competition.
“I think they’re flourishing under the kind of training we’re doing here,” Johnston said last month. “It’s different from anything else in the country.” The athletes agree.
Returning Home to Train
The MOD group gears up for their last dryland workout together before the racing season starts - a roller ski from Winthrop's Barn to Falls Creek on the frosty morning of Nov. 10. Less than two weeks later all three were competing at the first SuperTour event in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Brian Gregg told Grist that when he saw how Naney was improving with Johnston’s coaching, he decided to return to Mazama this year to see if Johnston could help him reach the next level of excellence. “Personally, I think he’s the best technical coach in the country,” Gregg said recently. In part, he credits Johnston’s engineering background, but also his integration of training techniques used in swimming and running.
Gregg, who was three years old when his parents moved from Colorado to Mazama in 1987, joined the Methow Valley Nordic Team in fourth grade. "Skiing was just what you did," he said. At age 15, on an Outward Bound trip where he had to sit and think for 72 hours, he decided he wanted to be a Nordic racer and ski in the Olympics. He has been ranked with the top Nordic skiers in the country for the last six seasons. Last winter he took 3rd place in the 50km American Birkebeiner, one of the longest races held in North America and named after a race that originated in Norway.
"Shooting for the Moon"
Caitlin and Brian Gregg are both focused on being among the world's best Nordic skiers, which means a household with two exhausted athletes, lots of dirty dishes and twice the amount of stinking clothes, says Caitlin.
Caitlin Compton Gregg, a former biathlete and Nordic skier who competed in the 2010 Olympics, took a four-month break earlier this year to do some soul-searching. She said she started alpine skiing at age two, although her parents first took her to a ski area when she was six weeks old. "It's one of those things that's always been part of my life," she said. But did she have the passion to work toward the 2014 Olympics while continuing to postpone a career?
The Greggs are self-supporting and professional skiing is not exactly a lucrative pursuit.They are buying a modest house in the Midwest but have little time or money for fix-it projects. Unlike their friends who have started families, the Greggs are focused on training, traveling to races and working to pay the bills.
Caitlin took classes toward a degree in physical therapy during her break. She did some coaching and continued working for In The Arena, which employs 12 to 15 elite athletes from across the country to mentor and teach underprivileged kids. (Both Greggs are employed by In The Arena.) She also entered a bike, a ski and a foot race that made her realize "... how much I missed skiing and racing and training,” she said.
“Hearing Brian talk about his experience with Scott ... Hearing what Scott was willing to put in it ... And it was working [for Brian],” she made the move to Mazama in mid-August. Her attitude on arrival was “Let’s go for the 2014 games... My goals are still really high for this year, but we’re shooting for the moon here [the 2014 Olympics].” Gregg said she arrived "totally out of shape" -- by her standards -- but came with “a good resume.”
A New York native who grew up in Vermont, Gregg was on the 2008 world championship biathlon team and on the 2010 Olympics U.S. Nordic ski team. She finished last season in 3rd place in the SuperTour overall standings. She also took 2nd place in the American Birkebeiner and was on the podium twice at U.S. National races.
As her pre-season training was ending, Gregg had high praise for Johnston. “He brings an incredible amount of passion for each athlete,” she said. “One week [of training] here is worth many weeks anywhere else in the world.”
All the skiers Johnston is working with agree that to be "24-hour” athletes, as the Greggs call themselves, takes the discipline to work out for up to four hours a day, rest and recover, get enough sleep and eat healthy foods. It also takes support and understanding from family, friends, and the entire community.
“The Methow Valley is a very close community,” said Brian Gregg, alluding to the support the couple receives here. “Mark [Waechter] at Nordic Ultratune is one of the best stone grinders in the world,” he said of the local man who prepares skis for elite racers from everywhere. Pete Dickinson saw Caitlin on Sundays at Winthrop Physical Therapy when a hamstring was bothersome, he added. “We are so grateful,” Caitlin said. “It’s been really great to have a hometown feel.”
Caitlin said she and Brian are known as “work horses” on the competitive circuit – the tougher the race course, the better they do. Both felt they had trained hard for years but had hit a ceiling in terms of their achievement. Caitlin said her goal was to be ready for the first set of races and “gain momentum through the season.” (As of Dec. 3, Gregg is in 7th place in the national SuperTour standings and has been named to the U.S. Ski Team going to the Dec. 7-9 World Cup races in Quebec City, Canada.)
One of Brian’s training goals this year is to become a better all-event competitor by increasing his “ability to ski comfortably at speed and on the flat.” He brought home the importance of that goal by explaining that four-tenths of a second can mean a $3,000 difference in prize money. And a difference of 10 seconds in last year’s grueling “Birke,” which he finished in third place, meant the difference between “$7,500 for the first place finisher and zero for eighth place,” he said. (As of Dec. 3, Gregg is in 19th place in the national SuperTour standings.)
Sam Naney's Quest
For valley native Sam Naney, who started training with Johnston in 2008, this year’s goal is “to get the whole package.” He said he’s had ups and downs in his professional ski career, but remains committed to seeing how far he can go. (As of Dec. 3, he was in 20th place in the national SuperTour standings.) “I’ve never been consistently successful,” he said. “I’ve had great successes and setbacks.”
Sam Naney said he worked to gain more "speed and power" during his training season. Naney also lives in a household of two high achieving athletes. His wife, Alison, is an elite distance runner.
Naney, a lifelong skier, said that when he was a student at Liberty Bell High School, Nordic skiing was considered “a geek sport.” But he admired the skiers and found they "work harder than most.” As a small boy he tagged along on the Methow Valley Nordic Team's races until he was old enough to join. He skied competively through his years at Dartmouth College before moving back to the valley to work with Johnston to develop his Nordic skiing career.
"I really enjoy being athletic," Naney said recently, adding that he approaches workouts thinking, "What can I do to make myself stronger and fitter?" He said, "athletic competition teaches you, better than anything else, about yourself." Part of the allure is "the challenge of it," he said, "knowing I can't do it at this level forever."
From April to November, “I can’t work like any respectable, responsible 28-year-old would be doing,” Naney said of his lifestyle. So he does temporary work. He was head coach for the junior high track team this year and summer coach for the Methow Valley Nordic Team. He also found time to continue his online education. In the last year he’s completed two semesters of chemistry and taken classes in anatomy, physiology and physics to help prepare for his post-professional ski career.
Naney said he is grateful for the support of the Methow Valley Nordic Club, the private donors who help support the Methow Olympic Development Project, the local business people who support local skiers, his professional sponsors, and his wife for her support and contribution to the family finances. Naney and Alison Hanks, a massage therapist and ultra-runner, married last summer.
“There are all these disparate ways to get to the world championships,” Naney said as his pre-season training was ending. “It either happens or it doesn’t... It’s almost a bittersweet thing. You can keep fighting for these goals. Some people never make it.”
Johnston, obviously proud of his uber-skiing trio, said, “These guys raise the visibility of the valley. When I first started traveling to big races with Sadie and Erik [Bjornsen], the announcers couldn’t pronounce Methow Valley. Now everybody knows who we are.”