By Mike Maltais
Five lighted Olympic rings suspended over the entry leading to Jim and Jan Gregg’s property north of Winthrop bear witness to a crowning achievement for some dedicated parents, the Methow Valley Nordic Team and a supporting cast of coaches, programs and community boosters: Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen and Brian Gregg were officially named to the 2014 United States Olympic Ski Team on Jan. 22.
The Nordic superstars — all three alumni of MVNT — will be among 109 women and 125 men selected for the U.S. team that will compete at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, from Feb. 7 – 23.
“It is fantastic for the [Methow Valley Nordic] Team to have three Olympians as alumni of our program,” said MVNT program director and coach Leslie Hall.
Former MVNT coach Scott Johnston has worked with both Bjornsens since they were youngsters. Five years ago Johnston, a former World Cup skier, and Sam Naney, co-owner of Methow Endurance, formed Methow Olympic Development — the MOD Squad — to focus on elite-level skiers.
“I built the program around Sadie to help her make the often-difficult transition from the junior to the senior ranks, that 18- to 22-year-old age bracket that is a critical time for skier development,” Johnston said.
Once upon a time, Sadie Bjornsen watched a parade of Olympians in Winthrop; now she is one. The occasion was to honor valley resident Laura McCabe, who competed in the 1998 XVIII Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, the year U.S. figure skater Tara Lipinski became the youngest-ever Winter Olympics gold medalist.
It was the last time an athlete from the Methow Valley qualified for Olympic competition and was, in fact, the reason Jim Gregg originally fashioned the rings now hanging over his driveway.
Sadie, 24, an All-American member of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Team, will have some familiar company at Sochi in the persons of fellow APU teammates Holly Brooks and Kikkan Randall. It was Randall who paired up with Bjornsen at a 2011 Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) World Cup team sprint relay in Dusseldorf, Germany, to become the first Americans to ever win a World Cup medal, a silver.
“We don’t know yet which events we will be starting in because they will decide that … depending on the shape and health of everyone,” Bjornsen told the News.
The team will compete at a final World Cup event in Toblach, Italy, on Feb. 2 – 3 just before the Olympics, and that event “will help them pick which races each athlete will do. Most likely we won’t know for sure until even the night before, mostly with team events,” she said.
At any rate, Bjornsen knows her Olympic opponents.
“I have competed against … all the athletes attending,” Bjornsen said. “Period One of racing was full attendance, so we are familiar with our competition.”
Brian Gregg offered an early glimpse of his athletic dedication when, as members of the 1998 Liberty Bell High School varsity cross-country running team, he and twin brother, Chad, were the fourth- and fifth-place finishers on the first team to ever win a state championship for LBHS.
Gregg won the 2010 – 2011 Distance SuperTour Championships, and in spring of 2011 captured a 2010 Olympian when he married Caitlin Compton in a ceremony held on a mountainside behind the family home north of Winthrop.
Since then, Team Gregg has dominated the Super Tour and most recently the U.S. National Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah, earlier this month.
Following a major 15-kilometer freestyle win at Sovereign Lake, B.C., last July, Brian finished second in the men’s 30K at Soldier Hollow and Caitlin became a four-time U.S. 20K freestyle champion.
The selection of only one of the Greggs to the Olympic team came down to those U.S. skiers who were ranked in World Cup standings.
Every one of the seven women who made the cut held World Cup rankings, from Randall currently ranked 10th to Brooks at No. 84. Bjornsen currently stands at 39th.
“There is no substitute for racing in Europe on the World Cup [tour] for advancing your career,” Johnston said. “Women competing domestically are at a major disadvantage racing against those girls.”
Among the seven U.S. Nordic men selected, three of them — Noah Hoffman (26th), Andrew Newell (33rd) and Simeon Hamilton (56th) — are ranked among the World Cup top 150.
“Discretionary criteria wasn’t used to determine the choices,” said Jan Gregg. “They took it right off the FIS points list.”
Gregg said the FIS points are recalculated six times a year and the new point average is based on the skier’s points earned in the best five races over the previous 12 months.
“They get a ranking for both sprint and distance,” she said.
“At the beginning of the summer I chose three races that I thought would be my strongest events and the best points,” said Brian Gregg. “The 15K freestyle Super Tour in West Yellowstone, the 15K freestyle in Silver Star, and the 30K freestyle at U.S. Nationals.”
All were good choices.
A distance specialist, Gregg said he will compete in the 30K ski-athlon and 50K freestyle at Sochi.
“I may race the 15K classic too and I hope to earn one of the freestyle legs on the relay,” Gregg added.
The season’s fourth points list and World Cup rankings were posted just a day or two before the U.S. team selections were announced. Under those criteria, Erik Bjornsen ranked high on the sprint list.
Bjornsen, 22, is also a member of the APU Nordic Team and a two-time U.S. Nationals Champion in the 15K classic. His second consecutive 15K win came at Soldier Hollow, Utah, earlier this month.
Bjornsen made his World Cup debut in 2013 and finished in the top 10 and top 15 in the U23 World Championships.
Like Gregg, Bjornsen was another multi-sport athlete who left his mark on the Liberty Bell High School record books. He still holds the LBHS record of 10 minutes, 2.57 seconds in the 3,200 meters set in 2009, holds second in the 1,600 meters and third in the 800.
A near-miss in biathlon was 21-year-old Casey Smith of Winthrop who, after winning the Olympic trials in Minnesota, was among four Americans who competed at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Cup in Ridnaun, Italy, for the two spots on the U.S. team.
“The competition was very, very close,” said Smith’s mom, Betsy Devin-Smith. “Only five-tenths of a percentage point separated the three finalists for the second slot.”
Still, Smith has youth on his side if he decides to try again four years from now.