Photo by Mandi Donohue
Eli Nielsen recently returned from Slovakia, where he took part in the World Youth and Junior Championship biathlon competition.

By Mandi Donohue

The idea of the “All-American Kid” has a tendency to make my eye twitch. While typically a comforting connotation, it can come across to me like artificial sweetener.  Faux integrity, chemical character and filler accomplishment can be a superficial box we stuff our kids into for the sake of college applications and a lifetime of “successful” endeavors.  

That is why it was so refreshing to sit down with Eli Nielsen, a 17-year-old local student-athlete currently living in Mazama. He recently got back from a trip to the World Youth and Junior Championship biathlon competition in Brezno-Osrblie, Slovakia. Last year, he was selected for the Youth Olympic Games biathlon team representing the United States and competed in Norway.

Eli also competes on the Liberty Bell cross-country running team and finished 14th at last year’s state meet. And he is a member of the Methow Valley Nordic Team.

When I asked him what he is most proud of, he didn’t give me a list of accolades or trophy experiences. Instead, he talked to me about his work ethic. “I think I’m most proud of putting a lot of time into something and working towards a goal, training six days a week, after school and before school, putting all of this work into it, being able to have it pay off and being able to go places with it.”  

And he does. What was his favorite part? “Definitely racing with all of the athletes from all of the different countries.”  

It’s a pretty heady experience to see younger athletes from all over the world wearing the same style suits as their adult counterparts in this kind of competition, talking gear and trading racing tips. Thankfully, this level isn’t nearly as cutthroat. “Meeting some of the athletes and talking with them was really interesting,” Eli said. “It’s a really cool atmosphere, really exciting and really, really fun! Everyone’s super excited to be there and everyone’s really nice.”  

It’s been quite an interesting road for Eli as he and his family are originally from Stehekin.  He lives here with his mom, Tammy, during the school year (Stehekin’s one-room schoolhouse only educates up to eighth grade), while his father, Bob Nielsen, holds down the fort back home. In such a small community, with impossible roads to plow, being on skis is how you get around in the winter in Stehekin. So when given the opportunity to move to Wenatchee, Chelan or other surrounding communities for school, the family chose to live in Mazama, a place where Eli’s Nordic skiing itch could be scratched.

When they moved and Eli joined the Methow Valley Nordic Team, his coach, Betsy Devin Smith, noticed he was at the perfect age to participate in the Youth Olympics and Junior World Championships as a biathlon competitor, but he would have to work incredibly hard to get there. She planted a bug in his ear, and Eli took it to heart.

When he finished tenth in his first trial as a biathlete for Junior Olympics, he thought the goal was impossible. What might send some campers packing, instead took the pressure off and Eli began to have fun with it.

“There were no expectations I put on myself to do well,” he said. “I just went out there and had a really good time and a really good race. Then it all happened. It was an amazing feeling to qualify.”  

He finished 91st in the 12.5-kilometer individual competition and 82nd in the 7.5K sprint race at World Juniors. This year was for the experience but says, “Next year I look forward to being competitive.”

Despite the intense training schedule, Eli still gets out for some fun. Backcountry skiing is his big passion and he loves his mom’s homemade chicken pot pies. He had nothing but praise for his parents, calling them the greatest contributors to his success. He also has deep respect and appreciation for his coaches. Eli has every opportunity and reason to be instant and manufactured. Instead, this intelligent, driven and heartbreakingly sweet kid is the real deal.