Nordic Skiing at Whitman: 2001 to present

Tucker Grinnan, Sports Reporter

Over the years Nordic skiing has meant a lot of different things to different people at Whitman, but it has remained a way to get outside and experience beautiful places with amazing people.

When Ethan Townsend took over as head coach in 2001, the team trained regularly around Walla Walla in the fall and then up in the Blue Mountains once there was snow. They’ve participated in the NCAA Rocky mountain Ski Association competition but had yet to reach what would become the peak of the program as a varsity sport.

“We weren’t able to go, within the current constraints and resources, to that full collegiate schedule, where we would race regular collegiate team races every weekend for six weekends or five weekends,” Townsend said. “It wasn’t feasible, within our budget then, to travel on regular basis via air.”

This changed when Townsend pitched the argument to the athletic director at the time, and subsequently the president of the college, that the club needed more funding to reach its potential. His request was granted and soon the team was traveling all over the West, seeking elite-level competition from New Mexico to Montana in a bid to qualify individuals for the NCAA national championships.

By the time Nathan Alsobrook took over as head coach in 2005, multiple Whitman athletes had qualified for NCAA nationals, including Laura Valaas, class of 2006, who garnered all-American honors in 2005 and 2006, finishing 4th at nationals in the latter year. It was clear the program was developing a culture of dedication and success.

“I think in general the athletes really enjoyed the whole process of traveling around the west, seeing all these beautiful different places, racing hard against elite competition and still being able to be successful at a really rigorous academic institution,” Alsobrook said. “That was the main goal of the program, can we compete, be credible competitors and reach our potential at this elite collegiate ski level, and yet still be able to have that quality academic experience.”

Illustration by Allyson Kim.

However, the days of Nordic Skiing at Whitman as a varsity sport were numbered. Citing financial reasons, the program was downgraded to a club sport in 2009. The decision was devastating for many involved in the team, but not entirely unexpected as Alsobrook noted.

“It was sort of a looming threat when I was there, and there were definitely discussions about the fit, and whether or not it was something that worked for Whitman, between the missed class days and the costs,” Alsobrook said.

In the years since the decision, Nordic Skiing has managed to stick around, albeit in a different capacity. The team still cross-trains during the fall, races during the spring and completes their annual training trip to West Yellowstone every thanksgiving. However, as Emma Griffith, a current captain of the club, notes, the goals of the team have changed to be more about staying active and having fun with friends.

“I think a lot of people join because they did sports in high school and they want a group of people to work out with and hang out with, and a way to stay active even though they’re not playing sports anymore,” Griffith said. “It’s a lot less about being competitive and more about just enjoying our time outside in the winter skiing.”