The first weekend in October, as the New England leaf peeping started in earnest, 46 U-14’s from New York and Vermont gathered at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Lake Placid, NY, for an annual conditioning camp. The event, started by NYSSRA and joined by VARA for the past five years, is aimed at gathering the most dedicated young ski racers in both states for a weekend of education, hard work, physical testing and fun.
While physical testing and fun may not seem to go together, the idea behind this camp is to create an environment where kids learn that teamwork, camaraderie and support are as much a part of training as push ups, box jumps and stomach routines. In addition to learning about physical training, recovery and nutrition, they also got introduced to USSS SkillsQuest testing, in a purely supportive environment, devoid of expectations.
The coaches behind this initiative are USSS Eastern Region Youth Development Coach, Kathy Okoniewski, NYSSRA Executive Director, Dirk Gouwens, NYSSRA Youth Coach, Steve “Mergs” Merganthaler, and VARA Executive Director, Julie Woodworth. They were joined by ten coaches from New York and Vermont programs. Okoniewski, who has been to many of these camps over the years, feels strongly that this type of ‘unofficial’ education and testing at the junior ages is vital.
“It helps our young athletes, coaches and parents from smaller clubs understand the importance of conditioning and fitness needed for our sport,” said Okoniewski.
FRIENDS WITHOUT PHONES
One key part of the weekend was having athletes leave phones in their rooms. That allowed for a distraction-free environment and connection vs connectivity.
“As with any camp or project, the camaraderie and new friendships between the athletes and coaches is one of the most positive experiences gained,” said Okienowski.
Friday night set the tone for the weekend. It started with housekeeping—rules of the OTC, athlete/staff introductions— and then moved on to the good stuff, namely games. The first icebreaker game was having roommate pairs, each from a different state, find and interview each other. They then had to introduce each other to the rest of the group.
PASSING THE STRESS TEST
Saturday kicked off with SkillsQuest Physical Testing on the OTC Gym.
“We wanted to make sure we introduced the skills quest concept,” said Gouwens, who noted that achieving SkillsQuest minimum standards is now a requirement for any athlete to be named to the US Ski Team.
A key goal of the camp was getting athletes familiar with the tests in a friendly way. First, the entire group went through the tests in the classroom, then walked through each station set up in the OTC gym. Then they broke into groups of 5-6 athletes with a coach and went through the stations.
Because there aren’t SkillsQuest standards for U-14’s, it was a purely educational experience, and the relaxed setting showed in the athletes’ willingness to push their limits, regardless of the outcome.
“I was fully impressed,” said Woodworth. “These kids were nervous. Some had never done it before, and they stepped up to the plate right away.”
She describes them as resilient and willing to go out of their comfort zone.
“Even when they were falling off the boxes, and flailing all over the place, they kept going,” she said.
The competitive spirit soon took over, as kids established their own baselines, then tried to surpass them.
LOW TECH FUN
In an era of personal trainers and high tech gyms, yet decreased basic athletic skills—physical literacy—among kids, the camp was an important reminder that sweat and a good attitude are the only critical investment to fitness. The SkillsQuest session was followed by an afternoon hike, mini Spartan course in the woods and slacklining. The rest of the weekend featured games and activities set up by Mergenthaler, including a dual obstacle course and an evening of sliding around on the ice, in shoes, for broomball.
The emphasis throughout the weekend was on low tech/ high creativity training, incorporating basic (yet shockingly unfamiliar or unnatural to many) games and moves like leapfrog, forward rolls and bear crawls.
“This is stuff you can do in your backyard and with your friends” said Gouwens, who added that the most specialized equipment was a slackline and bosu balls.
Most activities could be set up with cones in the field or in the gym.
Lake Placid’s own 2014 and 2018 Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht visited the kids Saturday afternoon, describing life on the road for a World Cup racer, explaining why he preferred training days to race days, and fielding a wide range of questions.
“We were able to ask him questions about how he overcame his fear in the start or what workouts he did to compete at such a high level,” said Luca Catalano, an athlete at the camp. ”That really helped all of the kids understand what we had to do to really push ourselves to get to that next level.”
Catalano’s father, long time coach Jim Catalano, is Program Director and Head Coach at NYSEF-Belleayre, as well as a competitive mountain biker. His session on sports nutrition, based on his own experience and experimentation fueling for training, competition and recovery, was also a big hit. Catalano shared recommendations for homemade meals and snacks that are high quality, simple and easy to eat. Think fruit, nuts, sandwiches with greens, and water or diluted drinks.
“Sometimes a warm drink and a piece of chocolate can be enough,” said Catalano, who urged kids towards clean, easily homemade foods, rich in color, and away from fried foods, energy drinks and soda.
SHARING THE WEALTH
“Well-behaved and into it,” was how Woodworth described the group. VARA has typically selected athletes for this project from VT state championships results, but aims to make these types of training opportunities available to a broader base of young skiers. To that end, as part of its fall youth programming, VARA is partnering with Eliteam creator and Olympian Doug Lewis to provide the “Do Hard Things” youth conditioning camp on Nov 2 at Okemo Mountain School. Joining Lewis at the all-day event for kids age 8-15 are fellow US Ski Team alumni Julia Ford, Leanne Smith and Tim Kelley.
Find more information and register here for VARA’s Do Hard Things Camp.
For dryland training ideas check out the summer workout program for NYSSRA
Find solid information on physical literacy and training resources at TeamUSA.org’s American Development Model