Performances earn spots on U.S. teams
Winter came early to the Methow this year, but not too early for a contingent of four Liberty Bell High School graduates who are in the thick of international Nordic skiing and biathlon competition.
Novie McCabe, Walker Hall, Kelsey Dickinson and Eli Nielsen have been named to represent the United States on the U.S. Ski and U.S. Biathlon teams for the 2022-23 season.
After her performances representing the United States in the Beijing Olympics last year, McCabe’s promotion to the U.S. Nordic “A” team World Cup Tour was not a surprise. Dickinson has been named to the U.S. Biathlon’s World Cup team after a heartbreakingly close call last year that saw her just miss making the U.S. World Cup and Olympic team.
Hard work and training have begun to pay off for Hall and Nielsen, as Hall has been named to the U.S. Ski team’s Nordic Developmental squad (where McCabe began last season), and Nielsen will be skiing and shooting on the International Biathlon Union World Tour, just a step below the World Cup tour.
McCabe and Hall are teammates at the University of Utah on the 2022 NCAA Champion Utes ski team, where McCabe won the 5,000-meter Classic National Championship last year. Nielsen is a member of the Vermont National Guard and has been skiing on their nationally prominent biathlon team, transitioning over to the U.S. team this year. Dickinson skis out of Vermont also, with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, an elite Olympic development program that trains biathletes, as well as others of the endurance sports.
All left their athletic marks in the valley before skiing on to greater things. Nielsen, Hall and McCabe all ran on Liberty Bell cross country teams during the 2016-18 run of girls’ state championships and boys’ state runner-up trophies. McCabe took first place in 1B-2B meet as a freshman, sophomore and junior before foregoing her senior season to concentrate on skiing.
There’s also family tradition. The international pursuits of the Hall and McCabe families have been well documented. Leslie Hall (Walker’s mother) and Laura McCabe (Novie’s mother) both skied internationally and in multiple winter Olympics. Dickinson, the first of her family to be named to an international competition team, is not the first one familiar with U.S. international skiing. Her father, Peter, a physical therapist, served as trainer for and traveled with the U.S. Ski Team for a number of years.
Hall essentially grew up with skis on his feet. His mother Leslie was the program director and coach of the Methow Valley Nordic Ski Education Foundation’s youth program, and Walker began skiing almost as soon as he could stand up. Leslie competed for the United States in three Olympics (1988, 1992 and 1994), and her sister-in-law, Suzanne King (sister of Walker’s dad, Alex) is also a two-time Olympian.
Hall followed McCabe to Utah after a planned gap year in Norway. Strong performances, particularly at the August Soldier Hollow meet, seemed to secure his spot on the developmental team. While he won’t be skiing overseas much this year, he will be getting some international experience, traveling north to Canada occasionally to race there for the U.S., and competing at the intercollegiate level for Utah.
Blending school with the U.S. Ski team doesn’t seem to faze either of the two. Hall hasn’t decided on a major course of study yet, though computer sciences does capture his interest. McCabe looks to have settled into political science as a major, her international travels having influenced her choice.
“Most classes are available online with lots of independent study and you can either stream live or watch when the time is available,” McCabe said. “It works out pretty well and I’m able to keep up no matter where I am.”
That’s a good thing since she’ll be skiing around the globe on the World Cup Tour this year, eventually headed for the World Championships in Planca, Slovenia, later in February and early March.
Nielsen, who actually claims his hometown as Stehekin, at the headwaters of Lake Chelan, did his K-7 education at the Stehekin School. He transferred to Liberty Bell in junior high to train with the Methow Valley’s Nordic Youth program and run with the Mountain Lion cross country team.
“My first year in biathlon was either in eighth or ninth grade with Betsy [Devin-Smith, a Methow Valley coach],” he said. “But I do remember starting cross country in eighth grade,” when he also started with the Methow Valley Nordic program. He has continued his post-secondary education in the Vermont National Guard, learning the craft of being a helicopter mechanic while training as a member of their biathlon team, competing mostly domestically.
He became interested in competitive biathlon while in high school and began training with Devin-Smith. Dickinson got started the same way with Devin-Smith, though she was one of the now-retired veterinarian’s early protégés.
“Both Kelsey and Eli were fun to coach as young athletes,” said Devin-Smith. “They were no different than any of the other kids on the team then or today. They worked as hard as they could at the time and had a lot of fun with the sport and their teammates.”
Besides just learning how to ski fast, biathlon also requires one to be proficient at target shooting, while skiing at top speed between shooting stations.
“They bumbled with focus, time management and communication skills but kept learning and growing,” Devin-Smith reminisced. “In order to continue to compete at the level they are today, they obviously have gotten better at these skills.”
In a recent interview, Dickinson said that several events have fallen into place for her this year to go along with her intensive year-round training. The Russian war with Ukraine has had an impact. With the teams from Russia and Belarus being banned from international competition, several teams have been allowed to expand the number of athletes on the World Cup tour. It turned out that Dickinson was in a position to make the team regardless.
It helped that she had continued through the summer months with roller skiing and competing. The summer competitions help the various selection committees in choosing national teams for winter competition.
Methow Valley connections within the skiing community are strong. At a late summer national event in Soldier Hollow, Utah, the four older Methow Valley skiers and the younger Sands kids — Aidan and sister Maren — were able to watch each other compete at the late summer event. Soldier Hollow is the site of a number of high-level competitions, and the home course for the University of Utah.
The planets also aligned in August as several Methow Valley summer skiers came together for a large national meet in Jericho, Vermont, including Dickinson, Nielsen and the Sands. The excitement of the younger kids picking up both biathlon and traditional Nordic skiing is obvious among the older set.
“It is really cool to have that Sands family around,” said Dickinson. McCabe, Nielsen and Hall expressed similar sentiments.
A common theme among the four Methow Valley skiers is their admiration and inspiration they draw from each other. Each, in separate conversations, said essentially the same things about their former neighbors and schoolmates, summed up by Nielsen. “Those guys are incredible,” he said of Dickinson, McCabe and Hall. “They are so inspiring and really motivate me to work hard and do my best.”
Building on success
The emerging international success of the local athletes is also having and influence on the younger generation of Nordic enthusiasts. Over the past couple of years, enrollment in the Methow Valley’s youth program has grown exponentially.
Sam Naney, youth program director for the Methow Valley Nordic Ski Education Foundation, points directly toward the model set by the Methow-based skiers as a cause of the effect.
“I know that these four skiers striving for international success are great motivators for our younger participants,” said Naney, now in his second year as head of the youth ski team. “They know that if they imagine themselves chasing those same dreams, we will help provide the opportunity and tools to help them get there.”
Naney also reflected the sentiments of Devin-Smith.
“Eli, Walker, Novie and Kelsey all had their glorious ups and downs as young skiers and probably at several points along the way they wondered what the future looked like,” he said.
Naney, himself an alumnus of the local Nordic program, is obviously proud of the program’s history. “It is always remarkable to see those skiers who took their abilities and commitment to the highest levels of competition on the world stage,” he said, “and watching Novie, Eli, Walker and Kelsey all chase their dreams on those courses is a testament to the breadth our program offers.”