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A rare pair: Isak and Margo Nightingale succeed on both the Nordic trail and the Alpine hill

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 01/24/22, 2:45PM CST


The Mounds Park Academy siblings compete well in each of the skiing divisions offered by the Minnesota State High School League.

Clockwise from top left: Margo Nightingale (photo by Christopher Schmidt, Studio 13 Xmatic Technical Services), Isak Nightingale (Bruce Adelsman, skinnyski.com), Isak (Jordana Torgeson Photography), Margo (Trent Johnson Photography).

In their combined sixth winter of high school skiing, Mounds Park Academy siblings Isak and Margo Nightingale haven’t met anyone else like themselves — varsity competitors in both Alpine and Nordic racing.

The Nightingales are two of the state’s most decorated skiers. They have reached the state meets in Biwabik a combined 11 times.

In Minnesota high school skiing, they do it all, and they do it well.

“I get a lot of congratulations and also a lot of shocked reactions,” said Isak, a senior this season who placed 12th in Nordic and 14th in Alpine at the state meet last year. “People wonder how I have time for both.”

Margo, runner-up at the Nordic state meet as a sophomore last year, receives similar feedback.

“My friends in each sport don’t understand how I do it,” she said. “But there are parts of both sports I love.”

The siblings’ unusual skiing pursuits began when Mike Nightingale, a Nordic skier, introduced Isak to the sport. Isak has a photograph showing him, at age 2, on skis in the driveway, with his dad to his left and his grandmother to his right.

Mike skied with Isak at Como Park in St. Paul, home to a modest Alpine hill for beginners. Mike asked Isak to try the hill, an offer the youth refused until around 7. Once he tried it, he loved it.

“I cried because the tow rope started hurting my arms because I kept going so much,” Isak said.

Margo grew up emulating her older brother’s every athletic pursuit. Those included skiing, snowboarding, hockey, mountain biking, cross-country running and track and field.

Around 13, Isak started making plans to pursue athletics at the collegiate level. He figured skiing was his best chance. About that same time, Margo, who said she was once “obsessed with hockey,” felt her love shift to skiing.

The process
Participating in both skiing events at the varsity level requires training seven days per week. Saturdays and Sundays are spent Nordic skiing at United States Ski and Snowboard Association events. Workouts last anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Nightingales hit the hills for Alpine practices Mondays and Fridays. And Wednesdays, they shorten their Nordic workouts to leave time for Alpine meets.

The training time imbalance is necessary, the siblings said, because each sport demands a different focus.

“Nordic is a lot about power and endurance,” Isak said. “It’s 600-700 hours per year. Running. Lifting weights. Alpine is more mental, how well you can focus for those 30 seconds.”

A packed schedule requires an understanding coach. The siblings credit Mounds Park Academy Alpine coach Mike Zajac for allowing them to spend more time on the trails than the hills.

“He plays a huge part in this by allowing it to happen,” Margo said. “We can’t fully commit to Alpine practices, but him being flexible has made this possible.”
Zajac said: “They are a lot like me in that, when I’m told no, I don’t believe that’s the answer. It just means you haven’t figured out how to make it a yes. It’s been watching them grow, and the way they juggle their schedules and always show up with smiles on their faces.”

Zajac doesn’t make the Nightingales choose. Circumstances did last year, when the Class 1A, Section 4 Alpine and Nordic girls’ events were held on the same day and time. A frustrated and disappointed Margo chose Nordic.

The combination works
Most often, the Nightingales enjoy the ways in which each sport complements the other. Alpine skiing gives the siblings more comfort maneuvering on the downhill portions of a Nordic race.

“You see a lot of Nordic skiers snowplow down hills, and they lose more speed,” Margo said. “For Alpine races, you’re better at the start because Nordic skiing gives you better skate pushes.”

Managing the two sports requires packing the proper equipment. Alpine means heavier skis and shorter poles. Nordic requires two types of skis, one for classic races, one for skate races. A few times, all the gear didn’t make it into the family car.

“I’ve borrowed Nordic poles from my friends before,” Margo said.

The Nightingales provide for each other in ways their friends cannot.

“It’s nice to have her; it doesn’t feel like you’re traveling alone,” Isak said.

Said Margo: “It’s just been a dream to have him alongside me. When I’m tired and maybe don’t feel like training, I see him and I know it’s possible.”

Next season, Isak will compete in Nordic skiing at Colby College in Maine. For Margo, the selection process for a college Nordic skiing program continues. She has made one skiing-related decision, however.

“Wherever I go,” Margo said, “I want to be close to an Alpine hill.”

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