In the early years of her career, it would’ve been hard for Sadie Maubet Bjornsen to imagine it: American women beaming from the podium, as they have this year, during the early part of international cross-country ski racing season. Though the field shrank during the pandemic, the U.S. Ski Team has seized the moment to flex the strength of a program that has been building for a decade.
But as her teammates reached new heights in Europe, Bjornsen, a veteran team leader and one of its most accomplished racers, was here in Anchorage, breaking trail toward a different life and resetting the terms of her relationship with the sport that has consumed much of her adulthood so far.
Bjornsen said she felt no frustration for missing a share in the athletic glory.
“I thought I was going to be so sad, but I was taking the CPA exam at the same time, and I was so focused on that goal,” she said. “It’s actually so fulfilling, being excited for them and not regretful and not jealous.”
Bjornsen isn’t done skiing. In fact she feels as fit as ever, she said, which is saying a lot for a two-time Olympian who has racked up seven podium finishes in individual World Cup races in the last five years. She’ll rejoin the U.S. team at World Cup racing this month and is training with more American firsts in mind for the 2021 World Championships.
But Bjornsen, 31, said skipping some of the racing helped her begin to answer a question that has gnawed at her for years: Can she be happy without it?
“I guess that’s been a fear. It’s like, who am I going to be after I’m done being a skier? And I think part of this year has been testing that out,” Bjornsen said.
“I think at the end of your career, that fills your brain more than you can imagine,” she said.
A racer’s course
Bjornsen, 31, isn’t the first athlete to experience existential dread. The sun sets on all world-class careers eventually, oftentimes leaving a laser-focused personality wobbly with indecision about what to do next. If Bjornsen’s dilemma is surprising, it’s because it’s a puzzle she’s trying to solve while she still may be at the top of her game.
When the COVID-19 pandemic blunted the competition season last year, she ranked eighth in overall points in the FIS World Cup, the sport’s major-league level. She finished sixth in 2018. Only two U.S. women have ever done better at season’s end. Two races into the 2019-20 season, Bjornsen donned the yellow jersey in Ruka, Finland, signifying she was — for a brief moment — at the top of the season standings. That’s something no American woman had done until then.
“I will save that yellow bib forever,” she said at the time.
She followed that up with a seventh-place overall finish in the Tour de Ski, another of her proudest accomplishments. But as the season wore on, fatigue seemed hard to shake. Frustration created space for long-simmering anxiety about falling behind, both in racing and in life.
“When you don’t achieve what you want, you kind of question yourself more. You’re like, ‘Most people my age are starting a family and have a job and have done all these steps in life. And here I am still traveling out of a suitcase, chasing this dream,’” said Bjornsen. “And so you almost beat yourself down more because you have to prove to yourself it’s valuable.”
That pressure intensifies with each passing year, she said.
“In one way, it’s like what many people would consider a selfish quest, so to say. It’s difficult to not feel you’re making every decision for yourself and wonder what good you’re actually doing for the world if you’re not even achieving what you’re trying to achieve,” she said.
Bjornsen’s career tracks closely with the growth of the U.S. women’s cross-country ski program.
In her early days of World Cup racing, American top-30 finishes were rare, she said. But APU Nordic Ski Center’s elite training program, which Bjornsen joined in 2010, refined its methods, increased expectations and became a major talent contributor to the U.S. Ski Team. Both APU and Team USA were led by the example of Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall, who retired in 2018 and whose career remains the Olympic gold standard for American cross-country skiing.
Bjornsen responded well to the challenges. She recalled a time early on when U.S. skiing coach Matt Whitcomb predicted she would earn a podium finish in an individual race.
“At the time, that was not a common thing to say. Only Kikkan had really done that. Nobody else,” she said.
In 2017, Bjornsen felt the pride of living up to that once-outlandish suggestion for the first time. She has notched 12 World Cup top-three finishes in both individual and team races, a resume few Americans have matched.
It’s a journey she cherishes, made even more special by the bonds forged with her teammates along the way. Those memories will endure even as the details of her individual races fade into history, she said.
“I’ll remember who I was doing it with and the fun things we were doing in between,” she said.
But it’s also true that youthful enthusiasm is tough to sustain amid the athletic intensity, month after month, year after year. Nowadays, she’s sometimes struck when young teammates buzz about the food, the crowds or the occasional small luxuries of the World Cup experience.
“When you notice them getting excited about things, you’re like ‘That’s funny. I remember when that was exciting to me,’” she said.
Emerging as an elite skier created its own unexpected mental hurdles. Her improvements were no longer measured in leaps and bounds, but scrutinized in incremental ups and downs that amounted to a nonstop roller coaster of confidence.
“We’re so used to basically pass-fail, whatever we identify as pass or fail. We’re so used to basing our self-worth off of that,” she said.
The lifestyle, which demands year-round training, leaves little time to plan for a career when professional skiing comes to an end. It’s difficult enough for American cross-country ski careers to make dollars and sense in the present day.
Athletes are not paid to be on the U.S. Ski Team. Travel, lodging, food and wax technician expenses are generally covered only for skiers named to the A and B Teams. In World Cup races, the top 20 finishers generally make prize money, but that’s not something an athlete can bank on. Podium finishers can earn several thousand dollars in one race, but the earnings falloff is dramatic from there.
“I think 20th place is a hundred dollars,” Bjornsen said.
“If you have an incredible year, it’s realistic to take home $30,000, but that’s hard to live on,” she said.
Sponsorship is crucial for making ends meet. Bjornsen said she has “a collection of incredibly generous people” to thank for her opportunities. But there’s no playbook for finding sponsors and negotiating agreements.
“If you have good results, you feel a little bit more confident doing so. But even if you’ve had a tough year, it’s hard to go to them and explain to them why you’re valuable …” she said. “You feel a little bit ashamed asking for that support.”
“People just assume you get done and you’re set for life, but you’re really not. You’re just at the start of life,” Bjornsen said.
Midway through the 2019-20 season, Bjornsen felt the weight of it all, though she didn’t immediately recognize that it might be affecting her race performance. On one World Cup stop, Norway’s Therese Johaug, a podium regular, shared food for thought.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Bjornsen said to Johaug. “I feel terrible.”
“Do you ever think you’re just mentally tired, and not just physically tired?” Johaug asked, according to Bjornsen.
Bjornsen was touched by the empathy from a woman she called the best skier in the world. When she and four other U.S. skiers spent an off-week training at a cabin in Sjusjoen, Norway, she focused on clearing her head, asked her teammates to give her space and let her ski alone.
“Just so you know, I’m wearing noise-canceling headphones for two days,” she warned.
By season’s end, she had returned to full strength, both mentally and physically, she said. Though the season was cut short, Bjornsen returned to Anchorage optimistic with thoughts of a bold new plan: She would continue to train and also take a job in accounting, her college degree field.
“I worry a lot about finding something as rewarding or as thrilling as skiing. I wake up every day and I’m so excited to do my job. And I think I worry that if I don’t start experimenting, I won’t find that,” she said.
A new perspective
A funny thing happened while Bjornsen was taking a break from skiing at the world’s highest level this winter: she started to enjoy the sport more than ever. Free from the strictures of the race-rest-relocate-repeat lifestyle, the simple joys of Anchorage seemed sublime.
“I feel like I’m truly falling in love with this sport again,” she said in mid-December. “When I ski at night under the lights, I easily convince myself I’m on another planet. It’s so quiet and peaceful and magical.”
Most mornings, she trains with up-and-comers in APU’s deep talent pool. She’s not sure if they see her as a leader, but she has noticed she laughs more in their upbeat company.
“Everyone is so good now. It’s crazy,” she said. “When I’m spending time around 19-year-olds, I’m like, ‘You guys are so much more serious, talented and dedicated than I was.’ I was just lost in being a college kid at 20 years old.”
In December, on the same weekend Anchorage-based teammates Rosie Brennan and Hailey Swirbul were turning heads in Davos, Switzerland, Bjornsen entered an Anchorage Cup race that drew mostly recreational athletes. She weaved her way through a crowded trail and won a race that she hadn’t spent the whole week thinking about and didn’t have to travel to the other side of the planet to attend.
It felt like a revelation.
“There wasn’t any part of me that wished I was there,” she said of the World Cup races in Davos. “I was really happy to be where I was.”
Bjornsen said her perspective shifted with a new approach to the offseason. This year, she divided her time between ski training and working as an intern for an Anchorage-based accounting firm. Working on tax returns and financial statements was a challenge she enjoyed, even if working behind a desk proved a difficult adjustment.
Exploring a new career meant less time training for her existing one, but her hope was to maintain her fitness and rejoin the team recalibrated. Bjornsen said she leaned on the support of Erik Flora, her APU coach, who understood the value in her non-traditional approach.
Flora said he tries to see the bigger picture with his athletes.
“It’s easy to focus on what their training log looks like. But often, if it’s not going well, there’s something else that is impacting that,” he said.
Bjornsen’s experiment may pay off when she returns to competition, he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw really top-end performance,” Flora said. “She has all this training behind her, but also she’s kind of finding her happiness.”
Bjornsen has also felt community support. In fact, she was surprised to learn how many people in Anchorage follow the progress of Alaska skiers abroad. In mid-January, Bjornsen went for an easy 4-mile run in Chugach State Park. On the Powerline Trail, two women stopped her momentarily.
“Sadie Bjornsen? Well, of course! Alaska, all of our great Olympians ...” one said, trailing off with delight, then playfully shooing her away. “Show us your moves. Get out of here. Go, go, go!”
A week before she planned to rejoin the U.S. team in Europe, Bjornsen tested her endurance in a new way. She took a four-hour CPA licensing exam. It was her second try and it was difficult.
“It’s so easy to feel so down. I don’t take failure very well,” she said. “I have to find ways to identify small successes. That’s something that I certainly worked on in skiing that I will hopefully be able to carry over.”
This winter hasn’t ironed all the wrinkles that will come from transitioning to life after skiing, whenever that day arrives. But it did make the unknown seem knowable.
“I think the thing that made me feel lost was that I was so fearful that the only thing that was going to make me happy was chasing after a ski goal,” she said. “And after having this other experience, I think I released the pressure.”
On a recent morning, she pulled on her boots, spoke with Flora and began her training on the Hillside Trails as the sky began to brighten. The rhythm of her skate skis on newly groomed snow gently sliced through quiet.
This month, Bjornsen will return to World Cup racing in Falun, Sweden. She’s weeks away from the start of the World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, where a first-ever medal in the 4x5-kilometer relay is within reach for the American women. It’s an opportunity she’s approaching with rejuvenated appreciation.
“You never realize how good something is until you have a little perspective,” she said.
Bjornsen hopes her increased peace of mind will sharpen her competitive edge. But if it doesn’t show in the race results, the lightness she has felt lately is its own reward.
“I’ve gotten to step my toes in both sides and balance myself out … I feel so grateful for everything,” she said. “And I think that gratitude and happiness has put me in a different place than I’ve ever been.”