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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

From knickers to spandex

March 6, 2009


Nordic Ski Team members pushing it in 1977 (left) and current member Jon Ertl skating at the Mora Vasaloppet

Though the Nordic Ski Team has seen fashions change in 70 years, the love of the sport is timeless

By Katherine Himes

Spring is tantalizingly close, but for the University of Minnesota Nordic Ski Team, there's still just enough time for pulling on the spandex and clicking into the skating skis to make the best of winter's last hurrah.

The team celebrates its 70th birthday this month, one of the U's 25 sport clubs and 600-700 student organizations.

Pre-war beginning

In January 1939, 13 men and one woman created the University of Minnesota Ski Club, complete with a constitution and approval by the Senate Committee on Student Affairs. The group held weekly business meetings and outings to local ski areas every Sunday. Skiers participated in both alpine and Nordic competitions, and membership blossomed from 50 in the first year to 175 by the end of the second year.

Club officers organized meets with the University of Wisconsin Hoofers (a group that still exists), a dance, events during Sno Week—a popular University of Minnesota winter tradition—ski-themed movies open to the entire campus, club race championships, and entry into the National Ski Association. In its infancy, the club achieved tremendous success, earning the Central United States Intercollegiate Ski Union trophy for combined (alpine and Nordic) team championships in 1941 and 1942.

Post-war years

The Ski Club went on hiatus from 1943 to 1945 due to World War II, as many members enlisted in the armed forces. Following the war, the club continued to grow, and in 1958 it petitioned for varsity status. Though the University denied the request, skiers formed and participated in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Ski Conference with such schools as the University of Wisconsin, Macalester College, and Carleton College.

Travel to practices was challenging, and, unlike today, students did not have use of a University vehicle. Instead, they went, with skis, on the streetcar, mostly to Como Park in St. Paul.

A letter from outgoing club adviser Hans Hopf encouraged the team to "set up a fairly rigorous training schedule and get someone from within your Club to enforce this schedule so that your team can really train and become a good representative from the University." That year, 1958, forestry freshman Carl Bohlin won the national title by a landslide.

Team trips were frequent: typically every weekend, and, in keeping with the era, adult chaperones accompanied the skiers. By the mid-1950s, the club had established the tradition of traveling to Aspen early in the season. The club orchestrated all of these events with an operating budget of $900. By the early 1970s, the Club had become so popular that membership topped out at 500 students.

Shift to Nordic

Sometime in the 1970s, the club shifted its focus exclusively to Nordic skiing. This decision paid off in 1985, 1986, and 1987, when the female skiers won back-to-back-to-back national championships, competing against varsity-level teams from across the country. In 1985 two University of Minnesota skiers were undefeated in regular season races: Terri Pauls and Lori Mommsen. Race distances changed from several miles to 10 and 15 kilometers.

In those days, Nordic skiing was still exclusively classical—the diagonal method where you get your push from the bottom of your skis. About 20 years ago, skate—or freestyle—skiing blasted into the sport, introducing an added measure of grace and speed and attracting a new generation of skiers who pushed from the edges of their shorter skis. Skiers in the club learn both techniques.

The team today

The Nordic Ski Team continues to be led by student officers, but it now competes in local "citizen" races held in Minnesota and Wisconsin, rather than collegiate competitions. Major competitions include the City of Lakes Loppet, a race held in late January in Minneapolis, the Mora Vasaloppet, the Bemidji Finlandia, and the largest and most notable ski race in the United States, the American Birkebeiner. Again, race distances changed, rising to a range between 25 and 50 kilometers.

The University attracts top skiers who can win these major competitions. Bjorn Batdorf claimed the City of Lakes Loppet Title in the 35K Freestyle, besting the times of over 800 other skiers. Dave Anderson won the Bemidji Finlandia classic race, and Matt Liebsch, a club alumnus, won both the Mora Vasaloppet and the American Birkebeiner. In addition, other skiers won age group awards in competition.

The team still holds an annual trip at the start of the season, but rather than heading to Aspen, they travel to northern Wisconsin and ski at Telemark Resort and on the Birkebeiner Trail. Over 28 skiers attended this year's trip. The club still holds daily practices, but skiers drive to nearby parks in University vans, and don't have to worry about carrying their skis on the streetcar.

According to president Joe Mitchell, "The Nordic Ski Team thrived this year. We enjoyed extremely high levels of participation, excellent race results, and good team bonding. We hope to build off this success and be even bigger, faster, and stronger next year."