SPONSORED: When he was a little boy, Tyler Kornfield didn’t know he’d someday earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He just knew the outdoors beckoned -- and he had energy to burn.

Kornfield grew up in Anchorage, in a neighborhood that backs up to Kincaid Park -- the very location where, last year, he sprinted to a national title at the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Championships. As a child, he followed his older sister Tamra to Anchorage Junior Nordic, and then the Alaska Winter Stars ski and fitness program. He dreamed of earning a college scholarship, or even going to the Olympics.

“I just developed this work ethic and this drive, from a young age, to be the best skier that I could be,” Kornfield said.

Family support made the difference

Kornfield says his parents joke about how, before they had kids, they used to pass one another the sports section out of the newspaper in the morning, knowing full well neither one of them was interested in reading it.

“They never had any interest in sport, and then they have a son and daughter who -- it’s their life,” Kornfield said. Supportive but never pushy, he said, his parents sought out opportunities for their children to get involved in sports. “They made sure to surround me with friends and families that were active and were willing to explore the outdoors.”

Kornfield credits his role models in the Nordic skiing community with showing him that his dedication to skiing could be applied to other areas of his life, including school.

“The overall reaching thing is the drive I developed from a young age, through my teens and into my college years -- that drive never went away,” Kornfield said.

Kornfield’s hard work paid dividends. He earned that college scholarship (to study mechanical engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks). He won two national championships. And then, in 2013, he ended his collegiate career on a sour note.

“Your senior year, that’s when you want to put it all on the table, and I didn’t even make the NCAA championships,” Kornfield said. “That was (my) first big, big failure.”

Instead of dwelling on his disappointment, Kornfield finished his degree and headed back to Anchorage to begin training with the APU Nordic Ski Center. Surrounded by other driven skiers, he soon found his career back on track, and in 2018, he crossed the finish line at Kincaid Park a national champion in the 30K classic event.

A month later, Kornfield competed in South Korea as a member of the U.S. Olympic team -- his childhood dream realized.

Giving back to his community

Between his parents, his coaches, and other role models like Kikkan Randall, Kornfield knows he’s had a lot of good influences on his journey. As a college student, he decided he wanted to give back in his own way.

In 2011, Kornfield started a cross-country ski program, Lickety-Splits Ski Camp for Kids, that brings together elite skiers and local Anchorage kids with the aim of getting young Alaskans excited about being outdoors.

“I remember coming to big races and seeing the people that I only read online and watch on TV,” Kornfield said. “I want to be that to these kids and inspire them, hopefully.”

In addition to Lickety-Splits, Kornfield has worked with the Healthy Futures program and volunteers each spring with Skiku (known in the Northwest Arctic as NANA Nordic), a nonprofit led by his mother that brings Nordic skiing instruction to schools and families across Alaska.

That’s right -- Kornfield’s mom Robin, who never used to touch the sports section, started a nonprofit that teaches kids to ski. Kornfield said his mother saw how much her own children had benefited from skiing and knew it could be valuable for children in rural communities, like her hometown of Kiana.

“That’s something my whole family is passionate about,” said Kornfield, who is Inupiaq. “We’re passionate about the villages and my people.”

Staying healthy to keep exploring

Kornfield honed his love of outdoor adventure on his childhood visits to Kiana.

“As a young kid, you develop these little games in your mind, and little adventures,” he said. “I remember just going to my grandmother’s cabin and wandering through the back hills, fishing and finding beaver dams and berry picking.”

Well, actually, he admits: “I was never that good at berry picking. I was mostly good at eating berries.”

Alaska is a place that inspires good health, he added, because being healthy is the best way to explore.

“The adventurousness of what you can do with a healthy body versus what you can’t do with an unhealthy body -- you can’t hike mountains and run through cities and see things” if you’re too out of shape to walk and explore, he said.

‘The way I want to feel for the rest of my life’

Kornfield admits that staying in shape is easier for him than it is for most people, since it’s his career. But his general advice for good health works for folks at any level of health and fitness.

“I like to set small goals and have a routine,” he said. “Go outside once a day, whatever it is, go for a short walk -- the hardest part is to get out the door. Once you figure out how to build that routine into your daily life, it’s so much easier.” He also likes to plan his meals a week at a time so when he gets busy, he’s got fresh, healthy food ready to go.

Right now being fit and healthy is Kornfield’s job -- but he knows it will always be part of his lifestyle, even after he’s hung up his ski boots.

“A lot of the things I do for training aren’t fun,” he admitted. “It’s stuff that I won’t want to do when I’m done racing.”

But, he said, he knows he’ll always want to be fit so he can keep doing the things he loves, like backcountry skiing and hiking in the mountains.

“Allowing my body to live like I feel right now is what inspires me,” Kornfield said. “It’s as simple as knowing that the way I feel now is the way I want to feel for the rest of my life.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.