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Ski coach a local legend

MARQUETTE – Sten Fjeldheim has been a part of the Marquette community for many years and is known for his big smile and friendly demeanor.

Behind that happy disposition is also a fierce competitor who is dedicated to building a phenomenal Nordic ski program at Northern Michigan University.

Accomplishments many

Fjeldheim’s coaching accomplishments are many, starting with coaching six individual national champions, more than 80 All-Americans, 10 Olympians and five U.S. national champions.

The national champions include Fredrik Schwencke, who won the 20-kilometer classic event just a few weeks ago.

If that wasn’t enough, Fjeldheim was also the head coach of the autumn cross country running team from 1986 to 2007 when he had 10 NCAA All-Americans.

More than talent

So what does it take to build such a high quality skiing program? Fjeldheim says it involves a lot of work and more than just having talented skiers.

The first part is having good relationships between the athletes along with the understanding of what it takes to be successful. Skiers have to be dedicated if they want to improve and reach their full potential.

“You’ve got to have the right chemistry on your team and you’ve got to have people that realize that this sport just isn’t easy,” Fjeldheim said. “A good chunk of our training starts the first week in May, so you have the whole summer to train, and if you combine training with a job and family activities, that’s all you have time for. The key is to get a group that all believe in that and all want to train because we train a lot, and at times, we train hard.

“Skiing requires everything from the human body. You think when you watch skiers that it is easy to do, but when you’re really tired and fatigued, it’s hard to maintain good posture and good technique, and if you don’t do that, you lose more time. Those are ingredients that all skiers have to have. They have to have strength, power, agility, balance and they have to have a lot of groceries because they’re gonna train a lot.”

Keep a balance

Student-athletes devote a lot of their time and efforts to their sport, which Fjeldheim appreciates, but he also stresses the importance of keeping balance in your life.

“I think all athletes, no matter what sports you are in, you have to buy into that there are no shortcuts and you have to balance your training with your academics, and you have to balance academics with the rest of your life, whether that’s a part-time job or family,” he said. “They want to be good at everything that they do. They want to be the best at school, the best at practice. They want to be a good student athlete basically. That’s why I love Division II because we emphasize this balance.”

While trying to keep that balance, athletes may find different ideas online that could help them improve their skills, but Fjeldheim urges his skiers to keep an open mind and focus on basic training instead of believing everything that you read.

“There’s a lot of stuff available for the athlete and lots of times what works for one person won’t work for another,” he said. “You’ve got to identify your strengths and then you’ve got to identify your weaknesses. And then you have to really focus on improving your weaknesses and maintaining your strengths.”

Don’t worry, be happy

So what are the basic training principles that Fjeldheim has used to build a powerhouse ski team? It’s simple. It involves consistency and happiness. Happiness probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when college coaches ask what they want their athletes to be, but it’s important to Fjeldheim.

“The building blocks of my training are consistency, confidence and being happy,” he said. “There is no part-time training anymore. If you want to be good and competitive, it’s a year-round training program from year to year to year. The biggest part of training is that if you put all the pieces together, you’re training correctly, you’re living correctly, you’re eating correctly and you’re happy.

“If you’re happy where you are, you can train great and you can accomplish a lot of things. A person needs to be happy and I’ve noticed that when the athletes aren’t doing as well as they want to with athletics, I tell them you always have your academics to fall back on.

“You can say that I’m getting a 3.95 (grade-point average) in chemistry and I have a future. I try to teach the athletes to have a balance in their lives so that they realize that their whole lives are not just about one weekend. If you have a bad day, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It means you had a bad race.”

Always learning

In addition to training his team, Fjeldheim also trains himself. The amount of effort he puts into coming up with training methods is impressive and he considers many things that other coaches might have not even heard about.

“I use a lot of the hyper-department professors, biomechanics and sports science as advisors,” he said. “I’ll go and ask them questions about what they think about this study or that study because in human performance, there’s so much going on that’s new with training methods.

“I like to bring my new ideas to the professors here and they’ve always been super willing to sit down and talk with me. I owe a lot of what I’ve learned to (professor of exercise science) Dr. Phil Watts. I owe him a big thank-you for taking me under his wing, because I wasn’t the best student in the world and his classes intrigued me. Light bulbs started going off in my head about how the human body performs and how we can perform and train better.

“Dr. Watts has been my mentor for sure and he’s been just fabulous to work with. He taught me to not believe anything or take it for granted just because it’s published research.

“You have to really think about it and who the subjects were. Were they really elite skiers or weren’t they? Phil made me a believer. He’d have research articles and he’d say, ‘Look at this. I’ve never heard of this and I’ve never known that this was possible.’

“Phil really inspired this with all the students I was in class with. He inspired you to want to learn more and I caught that bug from him and sports science and human performance, and I just couldn’t stop. Here I have all these athletes not to test things on, but to apply the basic training principles and philosophies that I was learning to them and seeing this improvement was motivating.

“I really think having the knowledge of how the human body performs is an incredible tool for coaches to have. Not just wondering about it, but actually knowing some of the factual science. It’s just fascinating to me that the body can do amazing things and I’ve seen it happen, so I’m thankful for that.”

Happy at NMU

With all of his accomplishments, one might think that Fjeldheim might get tired of being at a D-2 program and want to move on to bigger things, but that’s not the case.

“I’ve gotten other offers and I’ve looked around,” he said. “I got an opportunity in 1994 to go coach with the Olympic team. I did that for four years and I got lucky because I didn’t really enjoy coaching on the international stage as I do working with college kids.

“Once you’re at that level, you’re more of a manager. You’re not really coaching much anymore. So I kind of missed that. I got lucky because the coach who was here actually went with another program and I’m not sure what happened, so I had the opportunity to get my own job back. I’m so grateful for that.

“I like working with this age group. These kids really want it and they are combining their athletics and academics. They’re really diligent kids and hard working.”

Fjeldheim is also far from done as a coach and says he is learning a lot from his skiers. He also plans on bleeding green and gold for the rest of his life.

“I think the day that comes where I think I have nothing more to learn is the day where I should probably retire,” he said. “You learn something all the time. I’ve learned to be a believer in these young people. I learned that if you have an athlete that doesn’t have all the qualities and all the talent and they aren’t exactly what you think, they might have the spirit and determination above and beyond anything you have ever seen in your life.

“I’ll be a Wildcat for the rest of my life and there’s no way I could ever leave this program. Whether I’m an employee or not, I’m going to be helping the ski team forever. It’s just the way it is. I don’t play golf, so I’m not going to be moving to Arizona or Florida. I like the snow and I like it here, so I’m going to stay with the team forever.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.