Nordic ski lesson a reminder of Olympic dreams

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

The view from a cross-country ski trail at Soldier Hollow.

Amy Donaldson

MIDWAY — As we glided toward the stadium where world champions won Olympic glory just a decade ago, I felt exhilarated.

What I didn't know as I pointed out to fellow skiers the biathlon targets, the competition center and the charter school is that my Nordic ski trip to Soldier Hollow might never have happened were it not for the vision of local ski enthusiasts and U.S. Ski officials.

But before I recount the story of how Soldier Hollow came to be a world-renowned Nordic Ski center, it's important to understand how I came to be skate skiing at the Midway resort last week.

My affinity for attempting activities at which I am not talented is well documented. So when my friend and fellow outdoor writer Lori Lee suggested we join in Ski Utah's trip to Soldier Hollow I only asked one question:

"It's cool if we're no good, right?"

Lee assured me that beginners were welcome and, in fact, expected for this excursion.

My first cross-country ski experience was less than satisfying.

As a high school student in Anchorage, Alaska, I let my sister talk me into giving the sport a try. Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe my first day in Nordic gear. Some of the details are now hazy, but one thing stands out in my mind, crystal clear: Attempting a kick turn nearly finished me.

I'd been shown a variety of ways to turn on cross-country skis. The kick turn, my teacher said, was most useful in deeper snow when a skier preferred to return the way she came.

That was me. Not only am I athletically average, I am also directionally challenged. So rather than get lost in the foothills around my high school, I opted to throw down a kick turn and go back to the school the way I came.

Getting far enough away from the school that I didn't feel like this entire proposition was a complete waste of time was agonizing. I couldn't move more than three or four kicks before I tipped over. I started wondering if there was something wrong with my equilibrium.

As I fought off frustration, fatigue and the pitfalls of inadequate winter clothing, I thought almost constantly about giving up. For some reason, getting to my feet made me feel like a pregnant penguin. I grunted, groaned and basically pole vaulted back to my feet over and over.

I was breathing hard when I decided I had skied a respectable distance from the school. I swung my leg into the air and my ski caught on the deeper snow. When it became stuck (at a 90-degree angle to my other ski), I fell onto my back.

This scenario repeated itself until I laid in the snow, crying, wondering if freezing to death really was as painful as it sounded.

Last Wednesday, the small group assembled briefly before being fitted for skate skis. The Nordic boots were so comfortable and the skis were unbelievably light. I could kick turn all day long in these babies! We went outside for a quick lesson with Diana Burnett, who started working at Soldier Hollow a few years ago. It was enrolling one of her children at the charter school that began her trip into Nordic skiing.

Now she teaches lessons, offers tours, rents equipment and, of course, keeps the more than 25 kilometers of trail in good working condition.

"It's so peaceful and quiet," she said of skiing through the hills that frame the town of Midway in the Heber Valley. And then she grins as she says sarcastically, "First thing in the morning, when the snow is sparkling and fresh, it's so difficult to go get first tracks."

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