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For rural Alaska kids, Olympian teaches thrill of cross-country skiing

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Instructors teaching cross-country skiing in Northwest Alaska villages demonstrate for their pupils.
Reese Hanneman/Engine Room Media

What does it take to get 600 kids on skis?

Lars Flora knows. The 34-year-old two-time Olympic skier from Anchorage is director of NANA Nordic, a group aimed at establishing strong Nordic ski programs in northwest Alaska schools.

Flora, who brought the idea to the NANA Development Corporation last spring, was one of 17 coaches to tour the region last month teaching nordic skiing to area youth. He was the only one to appear in every village.

“It was an amazing trip,” Flora said.  “One of the best experiences on skis I’ve had.”  He called the effort “equally challenging” to his pair of appearances in the Winter Games.

'Blast to be with them'

The group started in Kotzebue April 9, arriving with 70 sets of skis, boots and poles ready to show students the ropes. The willingness and enthusiasm from the kids was impressive, Flora said, with kids filling every set of boots they could get their hands on.

“(We wanted) to get the kids comfortable on skis, used to the equipment and teach them some basic skating techniques,” said Flora. The coaches brought their skills to gym classes in Kotzebue, Kiana, Noorvik and Selawik. Additional time was spent on snow after school. After boning up on the basics, each school received about 20 sets of gear, to keep the skiing going.

“The first day or two, the kids were a little bit protected and it took some time to gain their trust,” Flora said. “After that, it was just a blast to be with them.  Some of them ended up skiing twice a day. After school, 60 kids lined up at the door to get their skis.”

For Kiana principal Scott Warren, NANA Nordic not only revitalized the Kiana ski program but served as a beacon for healthy lifestyle choices. “The idea was to help promote wellness,” Warren said, “and a good, healthy physical activity that is a good lifelong individual sport. And to help showcase for kids the importance of exercise -- but also other aspects of wellness.”

The program combined motivational talks from the coaches, as well as information from area experts about other health topics like diabetes and asthma. Flora was a representative of the state’s Healthy Futures program during his village visits. But the main attraction was still the time spent on skis.

Lifelong habit

While some schools, like Kiana, already have a ski check-out program, other do not. Finding a person and system to maintain and manage the gear once it’s placed in a community can be a hurdle, but one Warren said is worth the time and energy.

“It kind of refreshed our priority on providing a good sport that’s so well suited to our environment,” he said. The activity promotes a lifelong habit of health, while giving kids a new way to access the wilderness around them.

Warren joined planning forces with the program last summer and, like NANA coordinator Robin Kornfield, hopes to see the skiing program grow in the region.

“We want to create a sustainable program that people can use,” Kornfield said. “Hopefully we’ll develop some love of skiing. It doesn’t have to be racers, just the ability to use your own body to get places.”

Flora offered the kids a stark example of that skill by traveling between the four communities on skis. He had covered a total of 125 miles by the time he reached his final destination in Selawik.

By far the longest and most tiresome journey was the two-day trek from Kotzebue to Kiana, Flora said. He and fellow coach Dylan Watts did the trip in two days, taking turns pulling a 40-pound sled behind them.

2,000 caribou

The challenge was more than matched by the sights. Flora and the several other coaches skated near a 2,000-animal herd of caribou outside of Selawik.

“In the morning,” Flora said, “we saw maybe a half-dozen caribou. But when we got 8 to 10 miles out of Selawik, there was this big herd stretched out for a couple of miles. We just kind of skied in there, and they started running and churning up the snow.”

These experiences and the moments shared with students allow the coaches to get as much from the program as the kids, Kornfield said.

“How many of those kids would have met a real Olympian before?” Kornfield asked. “Meeting people who are passionate enough to be able to participate in something at the very highest level is a gift we can bring.”

NANA funded the coaches’ transportation to the region, outdoors gear and food during their stay. A $15,000 grant from Maniilaq bought the skis, which were spread among the four schools after the week-long workshops.

Not only did the program reach a range of students, it brought together a variety of coaches.

In addition to elite athletes like Flora and Dylan Watts of the Alaska Pacific University ski team, there were professional coaches like Andrew Kastning of the UAA cross country ski team.

Mariah Cooper was one of four coaches who are high school students themselves. Cooper, a Native American of the Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin, is also a national spokesperson for Native American sports. The other three high school coaches came from Service High School in Anchorage.

While this is not the first cross-country ski program to come through the region, it is the first to bring such a collection of talent.

Hannah Heimbuch is a reporter for The Arctic Sounder. Mike Campbell of Alaska Dispatch contributed to the report.