Like so many cross-country skiers with a dream, Greg Schumacher was lured to Anchorage by the promise of a long season, good snow and a community that supports the sport. Like a handful of those skiers, Schumacher will soon be joining the World Cup circuit in Europe, where the world's top nordic skiers perform.
But unlike decorated Anchorage skiers like Kikkan Randall, Schumacher's invitation to join the U.S. Ski Team doesn't hinge on his ability to keep up with the world's fastest skiers. He's an orthopedic surgeon who is gearing up for his third stint on the World Cup tour as a volunteer physician for the ski team.
Schumacher will spend Feb. 4-18 with the team in Davos, Switzerland, a two-week span during which American skiers will be recovering from the taxing Tour de Ski that just ended, racing in World Cup competition in Davos and preparing for the World Championships that begin Feb. 20 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
"I'm honored to be involved," said Schumacher, whose relationship with the ski team started a few years ago when he volunteered for the medical crew when Anchorage hosted back-to-back national championships.
Schumacher has learned to multi-task for the American team, which is understaffed compared to many European teams. He is as apt to be carrying extra ski poles or passing out Gatorade on the race course as he is to be wearing a stethoscope or giving a medical exam back at the hotel.
"It's a fun job," he said, "but part of it is understanding when to speak up and be helpful. Sometimes these are adults who have been doing this their whole life and they get nervous before races, so you have to be good about reading people, to be a presence but not up in their face. Sometimes they just need some space.
"I'm there when they need me. On game day I'm usually on the course with a couple of poles and some Gatorade with a radio. I'm another responsible adult who can go to the far side of the course and help, or someone who can go to the hotel to get the van."
Schumacher, 43, works for the Anchorage Fracture and Orthopedic Clinic and is certified in sports medicine by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, Inc. He's part of a pool of physicians for the U.S. Ski Team who volunteer their time and pay their own way on the World Cup tour. In return, he is allowed to advertise his alliance with the U.S. Ski Team by using its logo on his business cards and website.
Schumacher came to Anchorage 13 years ago from Madison, Wis., with his wife Amy and their newborn son Gus, now 12 and an older brother to Rudy, 9, and Heidi, 5. He had spent time in Alaska with the military and was eager to return because of the skiing.
"We came up knowing there was a long nordic season," he said. "We came from Madison, where the season had been shrinking. My practice is very sports oriented, so that was a natural fit."
In Anchorage, he found a community filled with super-fit athletes: "You go to any of the AMH or Besh Cup races, and oh my..." he said.
But on the World Cup level, the caliber of athletes is beyond super-fit. They are driven, ambitious and willing to work through pain and injury, traits that can challenge the person trying to keep them healthy.
"What do you say to someone who exercises 800 hours annually and is starting to feel some kind of breakdown, is starting to hurt, is starting to feel soreness?" Schumacher said. "A doctor would say 'Stop doing this.'
"Well, that's not going to work. I recognize we cannot just quit, so how do we get from A to B while maintaining your goals for fitness?"
Schumacher said he tries to be helpful without being annoying.
"I would sort of dawdle after dinner, talk and be sociable," he said of the bedside manner he acquired in his two previous World Cup tours. "They would come to me and say, 'I'm starting to get a bit of a head cold.' Or, 'I've heard of this on Internet, what do you think?' It's neat to be available. And times when there is an injury, to have an English-speaking doctor with them is soothing.
"The biggest issue is: 'I'm hurt, but I know I'm not hurt that bad; can you tell me if I'll get worse if I ski tomorrow?"
Schumacher said his association with the ski team -- and his 13 years in Anchorage -- have not made him a world-class skier, though he said he's better than when he arrived from Wisconsin.
"I had a large margin for gain, so it would be hard not to make me better," he said.
Schumacher, whose spent two weeks with the ski team in Germany last season and joined it in Norway the season before, said one of the biggest benefits of being on the World Cup tour is spending time with U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover. Grover, a West High graduate, is overseeing what is arguably the most successful period of nordic skiing in U.S. history.
"Standing next to Grover during a race," Schumacher said, " is like listening to a scientist as he talks -- 'That person doesn't ride his left ski flat.' 'That person doesn't recover his hips.'
"It's fun to feel like I'm a student of physical motion, looking at it the way a coach does. That makes me a better doctor as well. It translates to what I do all the time. I feel even more qualified to tell someone, 'These are the things you need to work on.' ''
By BETH BRAGG