Sports

High schooler uses ski race to memorialize former teacher

Like many kids, Annie Connelly struggled to find her way in the world as an adolescent.

"When I started middle school, that was a really tough year for me," said Connelly, a junior at Eagle River High.

But thanks to the work of a dedicated teacher and coach, Connelly found inspiration that carried her through into young adulthood.

"I don't think Mike realized what impact he had on my life," she said.

"Mike" was Michael Hansen, a longtime middle school teacher in Chugiak who died in October 2013 at the age of 63.

Connelly said Hansen encouraged her to join the nordic ski team at Mirror Lake Middle School -- despite her initial lack of enthusiasm.

"I wasn't really into it, I wasn't competitive at all, that just wasn't my personality," she said.

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Hansen didn't care about that. He just wanted kids to enjoy the outdoors.

"He kind of put the love of skiing into his athletes," she said.

The next year, Connelly signed up for Hansen's wilderness studies class. One of the school's most popular courses, the class focused on getting kids outdoors no matter the weather. Some of the activities Hansen's students worked on included building winter snow survival shelters and planting apple trees around the school.

Connelly said the class brightened her days.

"It definitely made seventh grade a lot easier to get through," she said. "I would just go to his class and without even realizing it he'd make my day so much better."

This fall, Connelly decided she wanted to find a way to honor the teacher who'd helped her navigate the difficult world of middle school. Last winter she'd staged a small nordic ski race at the Beach Lake trails in Chugiak to raise money for the Brother Francis Homeless Shelter in Anchorage. When this winter rolled around, Connelly decided to hold the race again -- this time re-christened as the Mike Hansen Memorial Ski. Billed as "A ski race for all!" the event is designed to be a fun, friendly competition open to all levels of skiers.

"It's a great way to get a jump on your New Year's resolution," Connelly said.

The race will be held at 11 a.m. on Sunday, with pre-registration beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the Beach Lake Chalet. Cost is a donation of the participant's choosing. There will be prizes donated by local businesses.

Connelly and some of her friends are also hosting a "learn to ski" event on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the trails, which are located off South Birchwood Loop. The idea of the Saturday ski lessons was to -- in true Hansen style -- bring newcomers into the sport.

"I thought this year it'd be fun to teach other people how to ski," Connelly said.

Alex Hagler was the nordic skiing coach at Mirror Lake when Hansen was an assistant. She said teaching high level techniques or instilling a killer mentality in his athletes weren't Hansen's strong suits.

"He was super kind … he drove me insane at times," she said.

Hagler said Hansen was the kind of coach who could get almost anyone to join the team.

"He couldn't care less about competition or skills, he wanted the kids to be out there and having fun," she said. "He just wanted everyone to enjoy the outdoors."

One Hansen memory in particular sticks in Hagler's mind. She said a boy wanted to join the team, but didn't have money to buy equipment. Hansen wasn't going to let that keep the kid from the trails.

"Mike went out and bought boots for this child out of his own money," she said. "He was just that kind of person."

It's moments like that that made Hansen a special teacher and coach, Hagler said.

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"I just loved him so much," she said.

Connelly said Hansen's genuine enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors and his students is the reason she wanted to name her race in his honor.

"He was just so enthusiastic about everything," she said. "That's just how he was."

Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4335.

Mike Hansen Memorial Ski

Beach Lake Trails, Chugiak

Saturday

10 a.m. – Learn to ski event (donation; bring your own gear)

Sunday

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9:30 a.m. – Race-day registration (donation)

11 a.m. – Nordic ski race

Correction: This story has been modified from its original print version, which misstated the day of the race.

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.

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