U.S. women's team in fast company for Anchorage training camp

Beth Bragg

In news that strains believability like a shark- infested tornado, a world champion nordic skier from Norway -- the country that both invented and dominates the sport of cross-country skiing -- is in Alaska to check out how Americans like Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks got so good.

Not long ago, such a concept would have been incredulous. It's American skiers who make pilgrimages to Norway in an effort to get faster, not the other way around.

Astrid Jacobsen, the 2007 world champion in the sprint, will join Randall and Brooks for a two-week training camp that starts Monday in Anchorage with a week of dryland training and then heads to Eagle Glacier for a week of on-snow training.

Jacobsen, who has earned four World Championship medals and 27 World Cup medals, is one of nine skiers participating in the third annual North American Women's Training Alliance camp.

Canada's Chandra Crawford, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist in the sprint, is here too, as is Switzerland's Bettina Gruber, who has registered a number of top-10 finishes in World Cup competitions.

Also on hand is the bulk of the U.S. Ski Team women's squad -- Randall, Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent. With Randall leading the way, the U.S. women are a burgeoning international power that had at least one contender in almost every World Cup race last season.

"I come from a big team with long traditions for cross-country skiing," Jacobsen, 26, said Saturday. "In one way we have dominated the sport, but we have also seen in the last few years the American team has really stepped it up with a lot of motivation and good spirits.

"Maybe we can learn something from each other."

That a top Norwegian skier wants to see how Americans train is remarkable enough. That one is willing to do so in an Olympic season -- the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are less than seven months away -- borders on astounding.

"It's always a big commitment to travel so far and make the time change and train with people you haven't trained before," Randall, a four-time Olympian, said. "It's cool she was up for the challenge. It's fun for us to be able to talk to her about training and ideas."

Jacobsen said the fact it's an Olympic season helped drive her decision to come to Alaska.

"Our national team has such a strict plan," she said. "I feel in one way we are going in circles, we are doing everything we are familiar with, nothing with new input or new places. So for me it was important to try to go training with some new people and get maybe some new ideas and also motivation.

"Even though it's an Olympic year and you want to be (concerned) with details, you come to a place where details don't matter anymore if you get tired of them."

This is the third year for the camp, and each year a handful of foreign athletes join the Americans.

"Every year it's probably been the highlight of the training season for me," Brooks, a member of the 2010 Olympic team, said. "It's the best training of the year because it's such a high quality group to train with, but it's also the most fun.

"That's the success of the women's team -- hard work is fun for us. It's one and the same for us."

The benefit of the camps extends beyond physical training. It's a way for the Americans to forge relationships with competitors on the other side of the world. Three-time Olympic medalist Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland attended last year's camp, and when the World Cup went to Finland last winter, "we actually got to go over to her house and have home-cooked meals," Brooks said. "And that is a big deal when you're living out of a suitcase for five months."

Since arriving in Anchorage on Tuesday, Jacobsen has seen plenty of new people and new places. Randall is her host, and together they've been roller skiing, mountain biking and running all over town.

She said she's impressed with what she's seen.

"I told Kikkan, this place here, you have all the terrain and all the roads and options for training to bring you to the highest level as fast as possible," Jacobsen said. "Seriously, I mean it. An athlete living here should be aware that everything is possible from this area. And for sure the glacier is closer here than any glacier we have in Norway."

Randall, the reigning World Cup sprint champion who will go for a third straight championship this season, said it's fun to show off Alaska to foreign skiers.

"It's always cool for Europeans to come over and see big, bad America," she said. "We haven't gone to Costco yet."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.