Alaska Olympian uses clinics to teach village kids how to ski

Anchorage Daily NewsMay 5, 2012 

Show-and-tell came to Northwest Alaska last month on skinny skis.

Two-time Olympian Lars Flora led a group of accomplished cross-country skiers into the region for week-long clinics at four schools, where the visitors taught kids how to ski and showed them, by example, how elite athletes keep their edge.

At Davis-Ramoth Memorial School in Selawik, assistant principal Susan Daniels saw how the athletes influenced the children.

"I remember one student who said, 'Skiers don't drink pop' and it was this ah-hah thing: 'They don't drink pop!' " she said. "It was much more than skiing. They noticed what they eat and drink, the whole lifestyle."

About 650 schoolchildren in Kotzebue, Kiana, Noorvik and Selawik participated in NANANordic, a program developed by Flora and sponsored by NANA Development Corporation.

Flora rounded up 17 skiers to join him at one or more of the villages, and everywhere they went, they bore gifts: new skis for each school.

"We had 70 pairs and left about 20 in each village," Flora said.

Flora, 33, said the project in some ways mirrors the RuralCAP Ski Go Club program founded by Jennifer Johnston, now an Anchorage Assemblywoman.

• "I knew Jennifer had run a ski program for several years up there and it was very similar to my proposal -- bring a group of coaches and skiers up there," he said. "That was discontinued a few years ago so this is kind of passing the torch."


NANANordic will go to other villages next year, with the goal of eventually visiting all 13 in the region.

Another goal, Flora said, is to create something sustainable, something that lasts even when the elite skiers leave.

Daniels said it looks like that is happening in Selawik.

One of the skiers joining Flora in Selawik was Charlie Renfro of Anchorage, who had made a previous trip to the region as part of Johnston's program. Back then he helped coach a boy named Delbert Mitchell, who is a young man now, still living in Selawik.

"He came to the school so excited -- 'Is Charlie still here? I remember when he was here six or seven years ago.' And they sat and talked as if no time had gone by," Daniels said in a phone interview last week.

"One kid came to me today and said, 'Is it OK for Delbert to take me skiing?' Lars was trying to find someone in the community to carry it on, so Delbert Mitchell will be taking kids out to ski a few at a time."


The first day in each village was Skiing 101, Flora said -- learning how to put on skis and pole straps. By the second day the kids were skiing and playing games on skis. By the third day they were ready to find a hill and catch air.

"We always had a group at the end skating around town, really psyched about skiing," Flora said. " 'How do I buy skis? Where do we buy skis?' They were psyched when they heard the schools got to keep the skis."

Though NANA was the primary sponsor, many contributed. The new skate skis came thanks to a discount from Fischer, one of Flora's equipment sponsors, and $15,000 from the Maniilaq Association's Diabetes Program. Olympic downhill skier Suzy Chaffee -- some will remember her as Suzy Chapstick -- chipped in some gear, and one of the skiers who helped coach, high school senior Mariah Cooper of Hayward, Wis., is a member of Chaffee's Native American Olympic Team Foundation.

Flora said he developed the program with assistance from Robin Kornfield, NANA Development Corporation's vice president of communications and marketing, and Scott Warren, the principal in Kiana.

Besides ski lessons for kids, NANANordic brought two doctors from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of Alaska to Kotzebue to speak to students about sports and asthma. It also introduced the Healthy Futures program to each of the villages.


On school days, Flora's group took kids from P.E. classes out to ski. Weekends brought open-ski days that proved extremely popular. On the Saturday that Flora's group was in Selawik, more than 20 percent of the K-12 school's 250 students showed up.

"We had 35 for the first session at 10 in the morning, and generally kids don't like to get up that early on a Saturday," Daniels said. "For the afternoon session we had 65 kids. That really surprised me."

Flora said he saw the same enthusiasm in other villages.

"These kids are amazing," he said. "They have super-good endurance. On the weekend sometimes we'd ski two hours before lunch and two hours after. We would have kindergartners skiing for two hours."


NANANordic's group of instructors included another Olympian -- Sara Studebaker, a 2010 Olympic biathlete from Boise, Idaho, who sometimes trains in Alaska -- and a host of other top skiers.

Andrew Kastning, the UAA ski coach, participated, and three Service High skiers -- Forest Tarbath, Hugh Cosgrave and John Glen, the reigning Skimeister in the Cook Inlet Conference -- based their senior project on the trip.

About a half-dozen skiers visited each village, with Flora visiting all four. NANA donated Alaska Airline miles to fly the instructors to the region, although Flora traveled from village to village on skis.

His longest trip was the 75 miles between Kotzebue and Kiana, which he and Dylan Watts broke into two days, because they were pulling a 40-pound sled. Flora skied the 25 miles from Kiana to Noorvik by himself and was joined by Renfro and Evelyn Dong for the 35-mile trip from Noorvik to Selawik. As they crested a hill on that journey, they encountered a herd of caribou that a Selawik villager estimated was 2,000 strong.


Kornfield, in a press release, said the project appealed to NANA because of its long-term potential. Flora said that with some instruction and equipment, kids could use the region's snowmachine trails as cross-country highways, allowing them to discover a healthy, lifelong activity.

"We're representing skiing as a great way to get outside and explore their communities," he said, "especially when they have snow right at the front steps of the school."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

NANANordic Coaches

• Lars Flora (2002, 2006 Olympic cross-country skier)

• Sara Studebaker (2010 Olympic biathlete)

• Andrew Kastning

• Reese Hanneman

• Charlie Renfro

• Greta Anderson

• Dylan Watts

• Crystal Pitney

• Tamra Kornfield

• Zach Hall

• Evelyn Dong

• Katy Rehm

• Rachel Samuelson

• Danielle Hess

• Forest Tarbath

• John Glen

• Hugh Cosgrave

• Mariah Cooper

Sponsors and supporters

NANA Development Corporation; Maniilaq Association; Girdwood Ski Club; Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska; Allergy and Asthma Foundation; DOWL HKM; Bering Air; Carlile Transportation Systems; Fischer Skis; Swix; Rossignol; Suzy Chaffee (

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