The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bill Koch League Ski Club in Carlisle – training future Olympians?

Margot Kissinger and Erin Cox are read to hit the trail at Great Brook (photo by Jame Hamilton)

It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the area outside Great Brook Ski Touring Center is buzzing with families. Parents greet one other and the children chatter excitedly as they don bright orange ski bibs that declare them members of the Great Brook Bill Koch League ski club.

The sky is a brilliant blue and the morning sun is surprisingly warm. The area around the touring center is down to bare earth so everyone gathers up their equipment. In groups of two and three, the skiers walk 300 yards around a bend along the Lantern Loop to the snow, where they step into their skis. Then off they go, a colorful stream of skiers of all sizes, heading back toward the High Meadow and the ski club’s morning activities.

Welcome to the Bill Koch Ski League at Great Brook Farm State Park. Stuart Johnstone’s dream of bringing organized Nordic (cross country) skiing back to Carlisle is a reality and by everyone’s estimation, a smashing success.

On this brilliant February morning, Johnstone and a crew of dedicated volunteers have set up Olympic events for the ski club. Vibrant orange fl ags fl utter in the breeze, mapping out a loop for the cross-country ski race. A jaunty pair of pine branches marks the ski jump. On a nearby slope, more branches create a slalom course. The biathlon has four “shooting” stops with tennis balls and blue sledding saucer targets.

James Sibley is right on track. (Photo by Beth Clarke)

The children are smiling and rosycheeked, clearly enjoying the events. The slalom course is especially popular, with most children wanting to stay and try it again and again.

“It’s a wonderful life-long sport,” said David and Rebecca Parker, who have four daughters skiing with the club. “They love it. It’s a very accessible sport. We can do it as a family and practice right outside our house.”

Johnstone, who has operated the Great Brook Ski Touring Center for the past 21 years, skied as a youngster in the 1970s in what was then called the Torger Tokle League (named after a World War II soldier and accomplished Nordic skier).

“It was a major part of my youth,” Johnstone remembered. “My whole family was involved, my brothers and me, and my Dad was a leader in the club.”

In 1976 when Bill Koch became the only American to win a medal in Nordic skiing in the Olympics (a silver medal in the 30-km freestyle race), the league changed its name to the Bill Koch Ski League.

“Back then, it was mostly a racing group. We had a race almost every weekend,” Johnstone explained.

The Bill Koch Ski League is popular throughout New England with over 40 registered clubs but up until now the club nearest to Carlisle was the Eastern Massachusetts Bill Koch Ski Club based at the Weston Ski Track.

“I couldn’t imagine growing up without the Bill Koch League,” Johnstone said. “I had been talking with people who came into the touring center for the last year or two to see what sort of interest there was to start it up again.”

“We needed to enlist parent volunteers because it takes a whole team of people to make something like this work,” he said. Johnstone’s wife, Cat, volunteers for the club and their two children are club regulars.

“The really amazing thing about the club is the coaches,” said Meri- Sue Nuzum who has three sons in the program. “They are really good skiers who come out every week, helping the kids learn and have fun.”

The list of coaches who have helped get the club off the ground is substantial and includes Cat, Scott Forsberg (Concord), Drew Kissinger (Carlisle), Meighan Matthews (Carlisle), Sandy Nash (Carlisle), Andy Sheehan (Concord), Chris Weiner (Billerica), and John Willard (Carlisle). In addition, Johnstone appreciates all of the parents who volunteered to help. “We really needed the extra arms and legs. We couldn’t do it without everyone’s help,” he said.

The Great Brook club held its fi rst session in early December, 2009. “Amazingly, we had snow,” Johnstone noted. “We’ve had enough snow to ski every week.”

By the third week, Johnstone had to cap registrations with 75 children signed up. “We still had people interested but we really couldn’t take any more.” “We had never done it (skied) before,” Nuzum said.

“We were able to lease skis through the parent organization (the New England Nordic Ski Association) and that made it so affordable.”

The Bill Koch League is geared towards children ages fi ve through 13. “Not everyone would show up every week but we averaged about 50 a week,” Johnstone said. The club drew participants from Carlisle, Concord, Bedford, Billerica and Lowell.

Johnstone estimates that approximately one-third of the members were brand new skiers in December. “After the fi rst few weeks, you could really see the improvement,” he said.

Club practices this year have emphasized games and having fun on skis with instruction on technique and skills mixed in. “A third of our time was spent playing games like soccer on skis, Sharks and Minnows, or relay races,” Johnstone said. “On Super Bowl weekend, we played football on skis. The kids are learning how to move on skis without thinking about it. They’re learning by doing and having fun.”

Len Glazer, who has two children in the club, was enthusiastic about the program. “None of us had ever skied before. They had them doing relays, like carrying a ball on a paper plate and playing games every week so there was something for everybody to enjoy.”

Johnstone is already planning for next year. “We are not a fancy and formal ski club. Our emphasis this year has been on having fun on skis and less on competition.”

“Next year we may go elsewhere to ski or attend the end-of-year festival that the Bill Koch League holds annually. We do need to manage expectations so that people know that it doesn’t always snow in Carlisle. Of course we’ll be ready with exercises and games on the ground if we don’t have snow,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone would like to increase the number of coaches and “improve our ability to coach.” Attending formal races could also happen in future years.

“It’s wonderful to have an organized outside winter activity and that we can embrace the outdoors,” Nuzum said. “It’s been just spectacular.”

“We all learned a lot,” Johnstone agreed. “We knew we had the interest and the results were really magical.” Δ

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito