With the Winter Olympics less than three months away, local athletes are competing in races that will determine whether they make Team USA. Ski racer Noah Hoffman is the top distance Nordic skier in the country. And, he’s preparing for upcoming races in Norway and Finland. The 24-year-old says he’s ready, after hundreds of hours of training this summer. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
One of the coaches for the U.S. Nordic Ski Team captured on video “dryland” practice earlier this year. The Nordic team uses roller skis to push up hills and glide.
When the snow falls, the athletes travel around the world training and competing on challenging courses. Hoffman says his Colorado childhood prepared him for such a grueling schedule.
"My parents had me alpine skiing early, I used to alpine ski at Loveland from the time I was two years old, but I didn’t start cross country skiing until seventh grade," he says.
His family moved to Aspen when he was a third grader and in middle school, he got into cross-country skiing.
"I did it purely for fun at the beginning. My friends and I would go out and build snow forts and build snowmen during practice and we’d hide until the coaches couldn’t find us, so I definitely wasn’t serious. I got serious after freshman year of high school."
The breakthrough performance that launched him to the world stage happened just out of high school, when he raced at the world junior championships. It was a memorable competition, starting with a last minute change.
"The venue had been moved, it was supposed to be in a different location in Italy, but there wasn’t snow. So, it was moved to a town called Mals, Italy. And, the venue wasn’t big enough to handle that size of race field," Hoffman says.
More than 100 racers zipped across a narrow bridge, a few at a time. That’s when Hoffman ran into trouble.
"I almost made it across the bridge when a skier fell on my skis and I tried to get free and I ripped the binding off my ski."
As the entire field of skiers zipped by, Hoffman’s coach grabbed a ski from a German coach nearby. Hoffman used that ski to finish the race. He placed 23rd overall.
This February, Hoffman had another career best. He took 15th place at the World Nordic Ski Championships in Italy. He raced the 15 kilometer course against the winner, Petter Northug of Norway, who collapsed and cried at the finish line.
Nordic skiers tend to push themselves to the limit. And, Hoffman’s no exception. He plans to enter three Olympic events: the 15 kilometer classic ski, the 50 kilometer skate ski race and a 30 kilometer ski-athon, which combines classic and skate skiing.
"His biggest strength is what we call the big engine, the big motor. He’s a hill climber. And, so his strength is the long distance races, the hillier and harder the course, the better it is for Noah," says John Callahan.
He's Noah Hoffman’s long-time coach. He’s worked with the distance skier for a decade, starting when Hoffman was training at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club in Aspen.
Now, he says he’s drawing up training plans for Hoffman and chats with him over the phone before races.
"He’ll tell me about what the course looks like. Some of the courses I may have skied and I can remember parts of them," Callahan says.
Callahan was an Olympian himself in 1992. But, he says the competition’s different now. Scandinavian countries dominated the world scene for years, now the United States has become a big player. He expects Hoffman to be part of the U.S. team that medals this Olympics.
"I think he has an excellent shot of making the team. Right now, going into the season, I think he’d be considered by most as the favorite from the U.S. to make the team. Barring any injury or illness, I can’t imagine he won’t be on the team."
Hoffman’s excited about the Olympic Games in Sochi. But, he’s already planning beyond that.
"If I make this Olympics, I’m really looking at it as a building block and an opportunity to get experience and my goal is to get a top ten. But, I want to come back in South Korea in four years and go out and win an Olympic race and win a gold medal!"
The cross country Olympic team will be announced shortly before the Games start on February 7th.