Charmed tracks for nordic racer
One year of fun in the United States. Then back home to Sweden.At least that was the plan in the fall of 1999 when Kristina Strandberg accepted a cross-country skiing scholarship at the University of New Mexico and traded the familiar forests surrounding her quaint hometown of Örnsköldsvik (pop. 25,000) for the desert landscape of sprawling Albuquerque.More than seven years later, Strandberg is still in New Mexico and still racing competitively – although now she skis for prize money and endorsements instead of NCAA titles. For the female winner of last year’s Owl Creek Chase, that one year of fun has led to a two-fold career she never envisioned.”I’m here on a student visa, so it’s open-ended,” said Strandberg, a graduate assistant at UNM who competes during the winter for the elite Subaru Factory Team. “I think once I finish my schooling, I’ll decide what I want to do. I obviously have a lot of attachments to both places. I’m open to suggestions.”Talking to Strandberg, it’s easy to assume she’ll make the best choice possible.Being open to all of life’s possibilities is the way she’s always been, she said.Take her path to Albuquerque, for instance. Like so many young girls in her native country, she learned to ski shortly after she learned to walk and competed in nordic races throughout her youth.She quit racing entirely at the age of 18, however, and didn’t pick up the sport again for more than two years.”Once I was completely out of shape, that’s when I started training again,” she said. “That’s when I realized how much I loved it.”An idea began to take shape in her head. She knew other Swedes who had accepted nordic scholarships at colleges in the U.S., and figured that she could do the same – even if she’d only skied in two races in the previous three years.
She began e-mailing and calling college coaches, which led to an exchange with Lobos head coach Fredrik Lanestedt.”He needed girls and looked at the results in the two races I had, and he said sure,” Strandberg said. “It’s a little longer story than that, but really, he needed girls and only had a few recruits.”Competing for a university in exchange for schooling was something foreign to her at first, Strandberg said, but she quickly learned how good the trade-off was. She’d already begun work on a degree in Sweden, and realized she could continue to get her tuition paid for in the U.S., just for doing something she loved.”I really enjoyed myself,” she said. “There’s a lot of talent in Europe, and that’s why it’s really popular to recruit there. Many times, you get skiers who were on junior national teams or senior national teams, which is very competitive. I think a lot of skiers enjoy racing in college in the U.S. because it’s more relaxed.”
“It really wasn’t that hard of a decision to stay.”She finished her bachelor’s degree in university studies in 2001, then earned a master’s in statistics in 2003. During those four years, she re-wrote the record books for the Lobos as a four-time All-American. She won an individual NCAA national championship in the 15-kilometer classic race in 2000, won bronze in the 5K classic race at the 2002 championships and was fourth in the 15K skate race that same year.More than the accolades, Strandberg said she cherishes the memories of being a college athlete in the U.S. – the road trips, the bonds formed with teammates and the competitive environment.”Traveling with the ski team, I saw places I never would have seen,” she said. “That first year we went to the Grand Canyon, and I was just amazed. That’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”Even when she’d used up her NCAA eligibility, Strandberg wasn’t ready to leave New Mexico. She was awarded an NCAA post-graduate scholarship at UNM and began working toward her Ph.D in statistics.Just as she’d e-mailed Lanestedt before looking for a scholarship, she started contacting professional teams looking for sponsorship to continue her racing career. With her impressive collegiate resume, she was a perfect fit for Subaru – the country’s top outfit of cross-country skiers for more than a decade.
“She was a good fit because she’s a dedicated athlete and a very smart individual,” said Andy Gerlach, team owner and director of the Subaru Factory Team. “There are a lot of athletes who have the ability to win races, but only a few who understand it’s not just about winning races. It’s about winning, and then spending the time with individuals and sharing your experiences to help attract people to the sport.”Last season, Strandberg won two bronze medals at the U.S National Championships on the same Soldier Hollow course used at the 2002 Winter Olympics.She followed her bronzes in Utah with her win at the Owl Creek Chase – a USSA SuperTour stop for the past three years. The victory here propelled her to a seventh-place finish in the tour’s overall standings. She was also the FIS North America Marathon Cup champion for a second year in a row. The SuperTour and the North American Marathon Cup are both sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, but are completely separate series.For someone who thrives in distance races, the demanding 25-kilometer course between Snowmass and Aspen is suited perfectly for Strandberg.Come to think of it, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been a perfect fit when it comes to the 31-year-old Swede and nordic skiing.She has been on a charmed path, Strandberg said.Her love for the sport brought her all the way from her from Scandinavia to the Southwest United States – a second home where she has found professional success, cherished friendships and love.
She met boyfriend Lars Flora – a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2002, who also competes for the Subaru Factory Team – in the most fitting of places.”We met in the wax trailer, waxing skis together,” Strandberg said, laughing.Flora, a national sprint champion who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, won’t be in Aspen this weekend because he is training for the upcoming World Championships in Japan. Strandberg said she continues to spend more and more time in Anchorage with Flora and his family.There she has found a second family and another second home. She hasn’t ruled out the possibility of moving there permanently when she finishes her studies in New Mexico.”We’ll see what happens,” she said.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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