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Why This Year Promises To Be A Big One For Cross Country Skiers


In Montana, Thanksgiving marks the traditional start of the cross-country ski season. This year promises to be a big one for the sport. For the first time since 2001, the Cross-Country World Cup includes a stop in the U.S. Yellowstone Public Radio's Rachel Cramer takes us to the annual cross-country ski festival in West Yellowstone, where many athletes are training.

RACHEL CRAMER, BYLINE: Half a block from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, a local shop called Freeheel And Wheel is stocked with cross-country skis, poles and hand warmers. Co-owner Melissa Alder is in the back, waxing a pair of skis so they'll glide more easily over the snow.

MELISSA ALDER: Once the wax has hardened, we'll then scrape the excess wax off the base of the ski.

CRAMER: Alder is one of the people who helped the weeklong Yellowstone Ski Festival grow from a fall training camp for the U.S. Nordic ski team in the '70s to a celebration with clinics, skier expos, talks from world-renowned athletes, even a fashion show. The festival now draws more than a thousand people every year.

ALDER: We have many skiers that return every year that are in their 80s. So we know that it's a lifetime sport, and we really love promoting that and creating that enthusiasm behind it and opening up doors for people that may not have experienced cross-country skiing any other place.

CRAMER: American interest in cross-country skiing got a big boost a couple of winters ago when Jessica Diggins with the U.S. ski team won a gold medal in South Korea. Leveraging that success, she helped draw the Cross-Country World Cup tour away from Europe and Scandinavia, where fans fill stadiums to watch, and to hold a race in her home state of Minnesota this winter, only the third time ever in the U.S.

JESSICA DIGGINS: Skiers at any level can be right up alongside the fence to see their heroes ski in the highest-level competition in the entire world. This would be like - if you're a basketball player, it'd be like, for $25 dollars, you get a front row seat to watch LeBron James play.


AMANDA SUSNIK: Now that the World Cup is going to be in Minnesota, it's going to be so cool. I think everyone's just, like, hyped about it.

CRAMER: Amanda Susnik is a Nordic skier for St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Beads of ice cling to her eyelashes after she's just finished her morning workout here in West Yellowstone. She's one of the hundreds of athletes who came to the trailhead at 8 a.m.


CRAMER: Rick Kapala, a coach from Sun Valley, Idaho, says a lot of people like cross-country skiing because it gets them out in nature and every trail is different.

RICK KAPALA: The festival sort of has mirrored the growth of cross-country skiing in the U.S. When we first started coming here, they'd be just a handful of people, a few teams. And now there are thousands of people here.


CRAMER: Kapala says his group alone brought out 60 athletes. He says West Yellowstone is one of the first places in the country to get good snow.

KAPALA: If you're pursuing the sport at a higher level, you got to go where the best competitions are or where the skiing is.

CRAMER: Skiers don't seem to mind that the temperature today is -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Gordon Lange, a former head coach for the U.S. Olympic team, is out here with the Park City Nordic Ski Club from Utah.

GORDON LANGE: I love it. I complain a little bit because it's cold and I'm old, but once you're out there and you're skiing on good tracks and everything, it's really nice.


CRAMER: Dozens of long, lean athletes in colorful Lycra ski wear stride past, pushing forward with long poles, skis whispering as they disappear into the trees. The Yellowstone Ski Festival ends this weekend with races and a party.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cramer in West Yellowstone, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.