Crossing the line
Blessed with a Huck Finn disposition and the Elk Mountains for a back yard, John Callahan grew up exploring and adventuring on foot, bike and alpine skis.He played hockey, baseball, football and soccer. He alpine ski-raced with the Aspen Ski Club, as it was known then. But it’s memories of youthful exploits with friends, including younger brother Pat and the brothers Marolt and Pelletier, that work Callahan into a most animated state.Skiing the rocky face of Shale Bluffs in summertime, backpacking Aspen-to-Vail in four days, Aspen-to-Ouray in 10, biking to the Bells with pork-chop picnics in backpacks, and ripping up the lift-served mountains, all a birthright for the son of a ski patroller and mountain rescue volunteer.”Pat and I were talking about this – I don’t think there was a weekend or a Christmas vacation day between probably sixth grade and when I graduated high school [AHS, class of ’81] that we weren’t on the mountain,” says the 42-year-old Callahan.”There were no days when you just didn’t go skiing. If we weren’t in school, we were on the mountain – every day.”The oldest of four children of John E. and Cynthia Callahan, John F. Callahan took over as nordic director of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club in August. His office is next door to his brother Pat’s, the head age-class alpine coach at AVSC.In spite of his alpine-skiing roots, Callahan carved out a niche for himself in a world that he grew up regarding as the “other” type of skiing. During his youth in Aspen, Callahan figures he only “cross-country skied” three times. Nevertheless, he went on to become a 1992 Olympian and three-year member of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team.
“It’s kind of an interesting story,” says Callahan, the married father of five, including triplets Kevin, Keegan and Kelli, who turn 7 the day after Christmas; son Hunter is 8, and daughter Tiffany, 18, is a nordic skier at the University of New Mexico, the reigning NCAA ski champs.”When I got to college, at the University of Puget Sound, we had an alpine team but we didn’t have a cross-country team or even a cross-country coach. But for team results, our coach asked us if some of us would volunteer to race cross country – better to get last than not to field a team at all,” says Callahan. “So three of us volunteered and after the GS or the slalom, we’d go over to the rental shop and rent equipment – fish scales and three-pin bindings – and we’d go out and come in last, second to last and third to last.”It was really kind of a joke at first. We were horrible, skiing around in our cotton sweats – we looked like tourists out there. But that’s what got me started.”Callahan, a self-described “pretty decent alpine racer,” began collecting a few “ski-meister” awards for top results in the combined calculation of alpine and nordic races on the college circuit. At some point he recognized in himself a talent in the “other” form of skiing.A year after he graduated from college, in 1986, Callahan appealed to the race director of the U.S. National Championships for a starting slot in the nordic events.”My alpine career wasn’t going anyplace. I wasn’t U.S. Team material, I wasn’t going to advance beyond college skiing. But I kind of had a knack for cross-country skiing. And I talked to a friend of mine who was heading to U.S. Nationals and he said, ‘They didn’t fill the quota for Washington. Call the guy!’ I ended up going and getting 30th and 32nd in the two races,” says Callahan.
“I was lucky because those were the years that skating just started, and they decided skating was going to be the thing. I couldn’t classic ski at all, but because of my alpine background, I picked up skating right away. I just sort of slipped in at the right time.”Callahan figured his results at the ’86 Nationals were good enough to land him a spot on the U.S. development team.”And on the alpine side, it would be,” says Callahan. “But the cross-country side is a much smaller team, and I didn’t know that. I was naive. But it was a good lesson, and at that point I said, ‘I’m just going to see how good I can become at this sport.’ I really devoted and dedicated everything I did to trying to be the best cross-country skier I could be.”Still, Callahan remembers events where he was outclassed even before the start.”You’d see these guys testing their four or five different pairs of skis. Guys would say, ‘Hey, hop in the speed trap, see how your skis are running.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t want to know how they’re running. If they’re slow, I don’t want to know about it. I only got one pair,'” Callahan says, chuckling. “Later on, of course, I was one of those guys out there with five pair of skis, testing.”Somewhat new to the rigors of the nordic circuit, Callahan launched a straightforward training regime for himself. In 1988, he was invited to train with U.S. team racers in Park City. (The temporary relocation, following two years back in Aspen after college graduation, proved permanent. Callahan stayed in Park City for 14 years, working as a computer programmer for the Deer Valley ski resort and later as a director for the local nordic team.)It wasn’t an easy road, though.”After the first U.S. Nationals results, they started noticing me. … We’d gone out for Level I, or easy, training runs, and, for me, I’d be at Level III trying to keep up with these guys. And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to go as hard as I can until I can’t go anymore.’ That’s kind of where I learned how to ski fast – even though it was killing me. In the ’88 season I was so badly over-trained I couldn’t walk up stairs anymore without putting my heart rate through the roof,” says Callahan.
“I had to take a bunch of time off in the middle of the season. … I burned a year with some pretty bad results. But overall, my climb to the top was really fun.”And in ’89 or ’90, I skied seven 50Ks in eight weeks. It just fried me at the end of the season, but I learned so much about how to train when you’re traveling, how to recover and train and race, week after week after week. That was a huge learning experience for me,” continues Callahan. “I don’t recommend it if you want to go out and have good results, but it was tons of fun, and that I do recommend – having fun. It served me well in the next few years.”Eventually, Callahan broke onto the U.S. Ski Team.”Just being a nobody and then suddenly placing top 10 at Nationals two years into it – people were saying, ‘Who is this guy?'” he says.Not that anything came easy to the unorthodox Callahan.”I didn’t really know what I was doing, but as it turns out, I was doing things right. As you get more into it, you learn more about training zones. But at the beginning, I would just go out and hammer every day. And you can get relatively fast doing that, but you can’t get really fast doing that. There comes a point where you need to be smart about your training to get really fast,” he says.”I was definitely a different animal than everyone else I was competing with, just with my alpine background and not having skied as a junior. I was odd in that respect.”
Callahan raced with the U.S. Ski Team from 1991 to 1994. In his one event at the ’92 Olympics, the 30K classic, Callahan finished in the middle of the pack – 49th out of 108 starters.”When I went to my first U.S. Nationals, I was six years into it. And at first I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to be there right away.’ Well, it took six years. But looking back, that’s not that long to get to that level,” Callahan concludes.
Callahan took over the AVSC nordic program this past summer from Toby Morse, who held the post for 10 years (with some years serving as executive director too).And while the terrain is familiar, Callahan must still build relationships with already distinguished racers from the club.Last year, for instance, AVSC’s Simi Hamilton won four (out of four) gold medals at the J-1 Junior Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Hamilton swept all three individual races and, partnered with AVSC teammate and friend Brandon Cooper, also an Aspen High School senior, collected his fourth and final medal in the three-man relay.”It’s scary, in a way,” says Callahan. “You’re coming in and working with a skier that’s already the best in the country, and you don’t want to mess anything up. Training Simi is different than training most of the other kids – because Simi knows what he needs.”Callahan regards Hamilton, Cooper and Geoff Walker, another AHS senior, as the physical and psychological core of this year’s team. They’ve already had three races, with another 20-some to go before springtime. About 40 boys and girls participate in AVSC’s competitive nordic program, while another 50 are enrolled in the introductory base camp program.To date this year, Cooper beat Hamilton at the season-opener in West Yellowstone, Mont. And last weekend, in Summit County, Walker came from behind to win a sprint race final.”He was slow to start,” says Callahan, “but then he picks off two guys and he’s in second. And then, all of a sudden, 30 meters behind the leader, he kicked it into an extra gear and ended up winning the race. That was the most exciting moment of the day.”From now until spring thaw, you’ll find Callahan and his racers training on the trail above the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain, where Callahan hopes to impart a few words of well-earned wisdom.”One of the things I’m trying to teach the kids, and it’s sometimes hard for them to hear, is that they need to take rest days,” says Callahan. “And that’s what it all comes back to – you can’t get fast without recovery time.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.