Steamboat Olympian Ben Berend steps out of one sport, into another

Joel Reichenberger
Steamboat Today
Steamboat's Ben Berend skis in the Nordic combined team relay event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Joel Reichenberger/Steamboat Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ben Berend was lost in the desert.

That’s actually not quite right. Ben Berend was in the desert, camping in New Mexico in late March, and Ben Berend was lost, unsure what to do with his future.

The Steamboat Springs Nordic combined athlete lived out his dreams in February, competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the end of a cycle into which he’d poured everything he had.

Maybe, he wondered, he’d poured in too much.

“Even in December I wondered if I’d burned myself out,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was stress about the Olympics, but by the time the season started, I was already feeling finished.”

Berend spent his spring bouncing around Utah, where he’s lived in Park City and trained with the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, and New Mexico, where his girlfriend, Brenna Egan, competes on the University of New Mexico cross-country ski team.

The time was important, he said, allowing him to clear his head and decide what it is he actually loves about sports, and if he still even loves competitive skiing at all.

By the end of that period, he emerged with an answer.

Berend, 22 years old, decided to retire, at least temporarily, from Nordic combined, and he will cross-country ski next season in the NCAA from Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the Lobos.

“I’m really psyched, really excited,” he said. “I hadn’t even really thought about that, but when I started to really figure all this stuff out, it came around and seemed like a great idea. It just felt right.”

It’ll be a big shift for Berend. He hasn’t been in a classroom since he was about to graduate from Steamboat Springs High School at the end of the fall semester of his senior year in December 2012. But, he said it’s a shift he was looking for.

Just what required such a change? He’s still not sure.

The Olympics took a toll, he said. He and his teammates, his closest friends, were locked through the summer and into the winter season in an intense battle to claim the expected four United States spots at the Pyeongchang Games.

Hard training wasn’t something that had ever bothered him before. He’d only been able to go a few days without a workout the previous season when he’d promised himself he’d take two weeks off.

The spark just wasn’t there the same way, and he said it showed in his results. He entered the season as one of the favorites to make the Olympic squad, perhaps the No. 3 skier on the team. By January, he had only lackluster results and had been surpassed by several teammates.

When it came time to announce the Olympic squad, it was clear: he was outside the four.

A last-minute qualifying miracle helped change his fortunes that day. The U.S. qualified five skiers instead of four by the narrowest of margins. But it didn’t solve the bigger issues for Berend.

He was in a competitive rut. He’d worked as hard as he thought he was capable of working, and he was coming up short. He wasn’t progressing to the top of the World Cup, as he’d always dreamed, but was perhaps even losing ground.

“I felt a lot of guilt about it,” he said. “What we get to do is so amazing, and I didn’t feel comfortable saying, ‘I’m not enjoying this,’ because it seems like everyone should enjoy this. It’s an awesome gig, and I was always having people tell me, ‘Enjoy this while it lasts. These are the best years of your life.’”

He sought counsel from Egan and his parents, and he took the time in the spring to truly mine his feelings.

Maybe World Cup and Olympic podiums weren’t in his future?

He’d made the Olympic team and been able to compete in two events, one individual and one the team relay. He’d had a strong jump in the individual event, and he’d been thrilled, pumping his arms wildly as he landed and skied to a stop. His cross-country skiing wasn’t up to the field, however, and he finished 39th out the 48 starters, the second-best finisher on the U.S. team, but a long way from contention.

“I’ve improved so much through the years, and I forget everyone else has too. In fact, they seem to be improving at a much faster rate,” he said. “I would love to be finishing in the top 10 on the World Cup, at World Championships or the Olympics, but how realistic is that? Am I willing to put in the work that’s required from here to do that? I’m a competitive person. I still have the drive, but I’m pretty realistic, too.”

So, he decided in the spring he was done, at least for now.

He’d dreaded broaching the topic with his coaches and teammates, friends who he’d sweated with so much, but they were supportive. Then, the University of New Mexico became an option.

If anyone had ever expected him to stay in sports but step away from Nordic combined, it surely would have been to focus on ski jumping. He was a very strong jumper on the World Cup circuit during the 2016-17 season, leaping even to second place in one event.

But, the opportunity came in cross-country skiing, and in an odd way, that seemed perfect to him.

“I have no idea how fast I’ll be, and that’s the fun part,” he said. “I have some time to train and get fast enough. I think if I was to race right now — especially in Classic skiing because I’ve only done that about five times in my life — it wouldn’t go well, but it’s fun having a different challenge, and I’m excited to see how it works out. Will I be fast? My answer is, ‘I hope so.’”

Berend said he loves to write and he’s hoping to pursue a degree in journalism.

He’s unsure how he’ll feel when his Nordic combined teammates get more serious about the coming season, when they fly to Europe for training camps and to start the competitive season.

He’s unsure if he’ll want to try to get back into Nordic combined next spring. Maybe a year of focus on cross-country skiing will change everything?

What he is sure of is that he’s happy with his decision. After spending the spring in the desert, he’s no longer lost.

“It’s something I’m super excited about,” he said. “I didn’t rush myself into anything, but I let this opportunity come to me. It all worked out incredibly well.”