Nordic skier Zak Ketterson of Bloomington Jefferson and biathlete Amanda Kautzer of Benilde-St. Margaret's qualified for U.S. national teams competing in Europe. Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii * Richard.Tsong-Taatarii@startribune.com
After a recent Nordic ski racing meet, Zak Ketterson, one of America’s great hopes for Nordic skiing glory on a large scale, sat in a ski chalet at Elm Creek Park Reserve with his Bloomington Jefferson teammates. His racing day over — he won by nearly two minutes — and he was haggling with his mom about typical motherly issues: Staying warm, avoiding illness, should he wear a hat.
Meanwhile, Amanda Kautzer’s race day was over as well, but her gregarious personality kept her from finding shelter as she chatted up Benilde-St. Margaret’s teammates, friends, opponents and other well-wishers.
Other than Ketterson’s modest U.S. Ski Team jacket, there was little to indicate that either skier is on the verge of an intercontinental winter to remember.
Ketterson won the 2014 boys’ Nordic skiing individual state championship as a sophomore. Now a senior, he’s set his sights on winning another state title before he jets off to Europe to ski in the FIS World Junior Ski Championships in Rasnov, Romania, in late February. He qualified in early January at the U.S. Nationals in Houghton, Mich.
“I definitely want to ski as many high school races as I can,” Ketterson said. “I’d like to win another state championship before I go.”
Kautzer is a relative latecomer to Nordic skiing, having not taken up the sport until seventh grade (“I was playing basketball before that,” she said. “What was I thinking?”). She won’t get the chance to pursue a state high school championship. As a skier, she’s shown tremendous improvement in a relatively short amount of time, but she hasn’t reached Ketterson’s elite level.
Kautzer’s talents lie in her ability to multi-task. She become one of the country’s brightest hopes as a junior biathlete. She will compete in the biathlon, which combines Nordic skiing and rifle marksmanship, at the Youth/Junior World Biathlon Championships, also in Romania, in late January. She plans to stay in Europe to train until she begins competition in the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, in February.
“It’s bittersweet, because I would like the chance to ski in the state meet,” Kautzer said. “But I’m beyond excited for this opportunity.”
Quality over quantity
December was cruel to local cross-country skiers, with warm temperatures and a lack of snow making racing and training impossible outside of a few local courses that made snow. At the same time Minnesotan Jessie Diggins was on the verge of making U.S. history. Already counted among the best cross-country skiers the state has ever produced, Diggins had reached elite status on the World Cup circuit. That lofty level was justified when she became just the fourth American woman in history to win a World Cup race when she finished first in a 5K Freestyle race in Italy in early January.
“You look at her doing great things and it gets you fired up to race,” Kautzer said. “It makes you want to work hard to get better. Someone has to be the next Diggins.”
While Minnesota doesn’t have the broad support for Nordic skiing that is second-nature to the Scandinavian countries, Ketterson said that the cupboard here is far from bare.
“I’d say the venues here are on par with most of what you see over there,” Ketterson said. “Of course, skiing is a much bigger part of their culture. There are a lot more skiers, especially elite skiers. But we’re not too far behind.”
Much of the credit for the development and growth of local Nordic skiing can be traced to the Loppet Nordic Racing club. The club, which is based at Theodore Wirth Park, has turned out most of the area’s top skiers.
“There are a lot of pretty darn good [Nordic skiing] clubs,” said Piotr Bednarski, head coach of the Loppet team. “But the kids who are having success here are largely due to what’s happening with [Loppet]. The club has really gone after getting more kids skiing at a younger age.”
How good has Loppet been in developing skiers? In addition to Ketterson, five other college-age Minnesotans will joining him in Romania. Ian Torchia, Leo Hipp, Vivian Hett, Sarah Bezdicek and Nicole Schneider are all former Minnesota high school stars who still train with Loppet.
“Loppet is like my second family,” Kautzer said.
While both Ketterson and Kautzer compete on an international stage, their expectations are far different. Ketterson is looking to leave a memorable impression. He trained for two weeks in Norway last summer with some of that country’s top junior skiers and didn’t feel overwhelmed.
“I was pretty much the top skier there of the non-Norwegian guys,” he said. “But I haven’t raced their top guys yet. I’m super-excited to go over there to see how I stack up. I think a lot of those guys know who I am. Now, I’m going to try to make a name for myself.”
Kautzer knows she’s still developing her skills and has taken a broader perspective.
“I really looking forward to experiencing the culture, for sure,’’ she said. “It’s so different than how it is in the U.S. They watch skiing like we watch football. But also the differences in what foods they eat and how they talk and how they dress. This is an amazing opportunity.”