Leslie Hall’s coaching career put MV Nordic Ski Team on fast track
Leslie Hall’s lifelong devotion to Nordic skiing was ignited by a bit of hero worship. Growing up in Stowe, Vermont, with a father who skied competitively for the University of Vermont, she was motivated when Brattleboro native Bill Koch won a silver medal in Nordic skiing at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck.
“Koch’s medal had my dad so excited I told him, at the age of 13, ‘I’m gonna win a gold medal,’” Hall recounted. “Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.”
That said, how it did turn out was pretty good.
Before Hall found her way to the Methow Valley in 1996 with her husband, Alex, she skied for Dartmouth, where she was a three-time All-American; won 11 national championships; competed at the World Championships in 1987, 1993 and 1995; and competed at the 1983, 1985 and 1987 World Winter University Games.
Most notably, she represented the United States as part of the Winter Olympics Nordic skiing team in 1988, 1992 and 1994, which makes Hall entitled to a bit of hero worship herself – if she cared about that sort of thing.
The focus of Hall’s care has, for the past nine years, been coaching Methow Valley kids to excellence in cross country skiing, as director of the Methow Valley Nordic Team’s juniors program for kids ages 8-18. Before 2012, she was a longtime volunteer coach for the program.
During Hall’s tenure as director, the program has continued growing and now includes biathlon, which combines Nordic skiing and target shooting. This year, about 130 local youths participated.
Now Hall is stepping down from her leadership role, leaving a legacy that can hardly be measured.
Doing what’s necessary
On a Saturday in late January, the parking lot at Liberty Bell High School was packed with cars belonging to parents of young Nordic skiers from throughout the Northwest, there to compete in the Race of the Methow on the Sean McCabe Nordic Race Course.
If you were looking for the Methow Valley Nordic Team’s head coach that day, you would have found her in the waxing tent, peeling and rewaxing skis to match the changing snow conditions and give her athletes the best possible combination for gliding along the track that day.
Hall’s willingness to do what’s necessary for the kids’ success and self-esteem typifies her coaching style.
“Leslie has been such an organized, amazing force for our team — her attention to detail, never skipping a beat,” said coaching partner, neighbor and longtime friend Laura McCabe, herself a two-time Winter Olympian for the U.S. Ski Team. McCabe also cited “[Hall’s] weekly emails, keeping communication lines open, laying out the weekly plan so as coaches we can provide the kids what they need on a daily basis … Her willingness to think creatively and help make opportunities happen for the skiers even though at times it is logistically difficult.”
Travis Grialou, a Liberty Bell High School senior and member of the Nordic team, said Hall “coached in a way that prioritized enjoyment and development, and at every practice and race she would make sure that no one was miserable and that we were all going to gain something from the workout. She was also really supportive outside of skiing and always very caring to everyone.”
Grialou said Hall’s coaching method was based on kindness, passion and improvement. “The positivity and support Leslie gave to everyone was super helpful in keeping me caring about skiing, and that was really important for improving as a competitive skier,” he said.
“Leslie Hall is the reason my sons chose to ski race competitively,” said Jill Sheley, whose twin sons Carter and Graham are Nordic team members. “Her dedication to the team and to the individual skiers created a program that challenged my sons athletically and motivated them to improve. We are so grateful that Leslie is part of the village that raises up our children.”
Hall and her husband, Alex, owner of Hall Construction, same to the “village” 25 years ago. They raised two children, Ella and Walker, both of whom graduated from Liberty Bell High School and were active in the Nordic program.
The Halls had met just the year before. Hall (whose maiden name is Thompson) and U.S. Ski Team mate Suzanne Hall were rock climbing in central Oregon with Hall’s brother Alex. Leslie and Alex were married in relatively short order, and moved the Methow on the advice of Laura McCabe.
Building a program
For her high school years, Hall relocated to Stratton Mountain Boarding School, where she attended classes for half of the day and trained for Nordic skiing the other half. From there is was on to Dartmouth followed by more years of high-level competition before her retirement from competitive skiing in 1995. She made three trips to the Olympics, traveling to Calgary, Alberta in 1988, Albertville, France in 1992 and Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, where she and McCabe skied together as U.S. teammates.
Hall turned her attention to passing along her passion and knowledge by volunteering to help the Methow Valley Nordic team as a volunteer. She became the junior program director in 2012, following David Lawrence and Annie Budeselich, inheriting a program on the upswing with the ascendance of siblings Erik and Sadie Bjornsen, who each went on to stellar competitive careers on the national and international level and were themselves Olympians.
Other local success stories followed: Kelsey Dickinson earned a spot on the 2021 U.S. Biathlon team, and 2020 Liberty Bell graduate Novie McCabe (Laura’s older daughter) is attending he University of Utah and already a veteran of the European competitive circuit.
“I feel real joy in being around the kids and sharing in the joy of their successes,” Hall said.
She attributes the program’s success in large part to the support of coaching volunteers. Indeed, parents are required to volunteer for events, workouts, fundraising and other means of supporting the program outside of paying participation fees. Even with the compulsory volunteer time, many of those volunteers go beyond what is expected, and those efforts are not unnoticed by the head coach.
“We get great support from our parents, and so many of our former athletes come back to help,” Hall said, among them Sam Naney and Chad Gregg as well as others.
The Halls have also fostered a cooperative relationship between the Nordic program and the Methow Valley School District. Offering support for winter-related after school activities at the elementary school, and working with coaches in developing training programs that compliment and build upon each other at the high school, has been beneficial for the program and district. In turn, the school district has accommodated the Nordic program’s use of school property for equipment storage and events.
Hall hasn’t lost her competitive spirit. She regularly competes in local Nordic events.
Asked about the most memorable moments of her coaching career, Hall noted that “working with Laura (McCabe) would have to be up there.”
“Leslie has been a true gift in my life,” McCabe said. “We raised our children together, we built the ski team together. The least on the list is competing with each other. We have endured the hardships of life together and I am always thankful that Leslie and Alex moved into the valley a four-minute walk from house to house.”
Hall and McCabe first encountered each about 30 years ago, and it wasn’t exactly a warm embrace.
“My very first impression of Leslie was quite interesting and it makes me laugh to this day,” McCabe recalled. She was skiing on trails of West Yellowstone with a friend and former teammate.
“We were skating away, talking on a long over distance workout,” McCabe said. “I heard someone coming up behind me off to my left and all of a sudden, out pops the words, ‘Don’t skate on the classic tracks.’ And then this skier wizzes by. The tip of my left ski had been migrating into the classic track here and there as I was chatting away and wow, I learned a lesson. I said to Ingrid, ‘Who was that’ and she replied, ‘oh that’s just Leslie Thompson, she hates it when people ski on the classic tracks.’”
Time and shared experiences brought Hall and McCabe together. They competed together in the 1994 Winter Olympics before reuniting in the Methow. “Our own adventures in the mountains, with our children, with the kids on the team — we have always pushed each other to be better athletes, coaches and even moms,” McCabe said.
“Leslie will be truly missed,” McCabe concluded. “I will say with my whole heart that I am forever grateful to her for all the love, time and energy she has poured into all the young people and adults who are part of the Methow Valley ski team.”