As snowboarders, skiers and skaters finish their qualifying events to get to the Winter Olympics next month, cross-country skiing siblings Erik and Sadie Bjornsen are waiting to find out if their special edge — each other — will get them both to the games.
Sadie has secured a spot on the Nordic team based on her good season; for Erik, the next two weeks will be the clincher.
U.S. Ski Team coaches and officials will wait until practically the last moment to finalize their Olympic squad. They want to have as many of this winter’s race results as possible to evaluate rankings and get a feel for who’s just plain hot.
The Sibling Advantage
During the off-season, the Bjornsens live together and train at Alaska Pacific University, where both are students. Erik, 22, says he and his sister both really want to go to the Olympics together.
“It would just be nice,” he says. “I think I can post better results when she is around cheering for me. I feel more comfortable just on the road with her. If I ever have any problems, there is someone I can go to.”
“As a sibling you always have a little more of an open connection,” says Sadie, 24. “It’s easy to get feedback from a sibling and not be threatened, and I think that Erik has been awesome for that because he has encouragement when I need it, and also a reminder when I need it.”
Their mother, Mary, says all three Bjornsen children had an athletic upbringing with constant friendly competition. “I can remember people wondering when Erik was going to start beating Sadie,” she says. “It took a while, actually. Sadie was fast.”
“Everything was a competition — from running to the car, the first one to get there,” says Sadie. “Or balancing at [our dad’s] job site on a beam as long as you could.”
Growing Up With Olympian Neighbors
Sadie remembers her Olympic dream taking root when she was a child. She particularly recalls a welcome-home parade after the 1998 Nagano Games for a local cross-country skier.
“I remember distinctly Laura McCabe riding in on a fire truck, the whole valley lining the streets and clapping,” says Sadie. “That was the moment. I was like, ‘This is so neat.’ It’s such an honor. I knew I was going to be an Olympian.”
Erik and Sadie grew up with former Olympic skiers as neighbors on two sides. An enviable, 120-mile-long Nordic trail system starts practically at their doorstep.
How rare would it be to send siblings to the Winter Games? Neighbor and ex-Olympic Nordic skier Leslie Thompson Hall says it happens more often than you might think.
“You know, certainly once someone is involved in a sport, it’s easy to have another kid in the family join the sport too,” Hall says. “To have two exceptional athletes is not that unusual either.”
Phil and Steve Mahre took home medals in skiing at the 1984 Winter Games, and Eric and Beth Heiden medalled in speedskating in 1980. This year, two sibling pairs have secured spots on the U.S. men’s and women’s ice hockey teams. In the wider field of hopefuls, there could be at least four more in sports ranging from snowboarding to freestyle moguls.
Passing On The Olympic Dream
On a recent day, Erik is taking a day off from training to coach junior racers from his home valley, just like former champions once did for him.
He would normally have help from his big sister to lead this annual clinic, but she was on the World Cup ski racing circuit in Europe, so he demonstrates cross-country racing techniques and finishing lunges by himself.
“I like to think of myself as a kangaroo sometimes … and just bouncing off each foot in skiing,” he tells the kids.
The class full of 8- to 13-year-olds mimics his every move. Later, many say they want to follow in the Bjornsens’ path.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the Olympics as well,” says seventh-grader Emerson Worrell. He gushes about learning “really cool” techniques from Erik that could help get him there.
The Bjornsens and the other ski and snowboard hopefuls will learn for sure who is on Team USA during the week of Jan. 20.