Sadie Bjornsen races in the 2016 Ski Tour Canada. (USSA-Dave Kynor)
From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World. As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected.
To be a champion goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion. In this installation, U.S. Ski Team Content Manager Courtney Harkins sits down with Sadie Bjornsen to discuss #WhatMakesAChamp.
“The first time I went to World Juniors, I started dead last,” remembered Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, WA). “I was so intimidated by everybody, I remember saying to myself ‘Well, I guess this can’t get any worse.’”
But it turned out, Bjornsen was being overly humble, as she skied into the top 15 that day. And now, she is a member of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team, trains with the elite team at Alaska Pacific University, has stood on four World Cup podiums and is looking for an Olympic medal in 2018. Not a bad projection for the 26-year-old racer, who is still exceedingly unpretentious.
Sadie skis with her coach in the Methow Valley.
Bjornsen’s story began in Washington’s Methow Valley, where she was an alpine skier as a kid until “I got tired of being freezing cold on the chairlift.” So, she began skiing uphill instead. Although she was a competitive swimmer — “Michael Phelps was my hero,” declared Bjornsen — she was fascinated by the nordic scene. “I decided swimming in a pool was just a bit too boring,” she said. “So I focused on cross country through high school.” It was a decision that paid off when she was named to the U.S. Ski Team and started racing World Cups in 2011.
But it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows in Bjornsen’s rise to the top. “10 years ago I took an antibiotic for a sinus infection called Levaquin,” she said. “One of the side effects is that it attacks your ligaments, but it was like a 3 in 10,000 chance.” Bjornsen was one of the those three. Right after she took the drug, she developed Achilles tendinopathy—a condition where the tendon that connects your heel bone to your calf muscle swells and stiffens—and she’s suffered from extreme tendinitis in other parts of her body since then.
Training on Alaska's Eagle Glacier. (Caitlin Patterson)
But Bjornsen refused to let her diagnosis affect her lifestyle and career choice. “It’s made me really respect my body a lot more and never take for granted a day when I’m healthy,” she said. “It’s made me take a different path. It’s been challenging, sure, but it makes it more rewarding. When I can run for two hours and do it healthy, it’s the joy of knowing I can do two hours of training. It keeps things exciting.”
Sadie works out with her teammates at USSA's Center of Excellence. (USSA)
Bjornsen attacks everything with that optimism. When she’s not skiing, Bjornsen is attending school at Alaska Pacific University, where she also trains. She has her undergraduate degree in accounting and nonprofit business management and is now studying for her master’s in business. “I’m obsessed with activity, but I also love school too. I think it’s super fun to continue learning and challenge your brain in a different way,” she stated, remembering a year where she dropped out of school to race on the World Cup circuit. “That year, I skied the worst of any year. I need something else going on.”
Sadie took second in a FIS World Cup in 2011 with her friend, teammate and mentor Kikkan Randall. (Getty Images)
While Bjornsen works her way towards her master’s, she’s also training hard in Alaska for the coming season and next season’s Olympics. During the summer, she’s able to spend one week of every summer month on snow, making it an ideal place to live. Plus, she trains with Kikkan Randall—a teammate, friend and mentor. “I remember getting an autograph from Kikkan when I was a kid,” Bjornsen disclosed. “It’s crazy to think back on that autograph and how impactful that was. She is still one of the most inspiring people to me. She has this knowledge of excellence and she’s a selfless leader—she wants us to be as good as she is.” To make it even better, the first time Bjornsen ever stood on a World Cup podium, she took second place in Dusseldorf, Germany: a team sprint with Kikkan.
Celebrating after a 2016 World Cup with teammate Jessie Diggins. (Getty Images/AFP-Fabrice Coffrini)
Now Bjornsen is focused on PyeongChang, looking for medals in 2018. “I think our relay team has huge potential,” she said, highlighting the team mentality of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team. “It requires putting down four amazing performances in one day and I think we’re capable of it. I think it would be so exciting to win a medal with your teammates.”
Sadie smiles with her teammates after a work out. (l-r, Rosie Brennan, Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent)
She also has her eye on an individual podium result, as she works on becoming more of an all-around skier. Once just a classic sprinter, she’s finding that she is becoming more competitive and consistent in all disciplines. And while she attributes her success to her heroes like Kikkan and coaches Matt Whitcomb and Erik Flora, she is figuring out that she is a true champion on her own, as well. We asked her our three questions on what makes a champion.
U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion? SADIE BJORNSEN: A champion is somebody who builds the strongest castle with all their building blocks of strengths and weakness. A champion is somebody who takes advantages of the highs and fights through the lows. A champion is somebody who believes in themselves unconditionally and is willing to fight harder than anyone else on the given day. A champion is somebody who is able to celebrate success, but also spreads the accomplishment among everyone else who is a part of their pyramid of success.
U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion? SB: I remember one of the first times I felt like a champion was during a cross country running race in high school. I went to a big meet, where I was incredibly intimidated by all the older high schoolers that wore the “right” running clothing and seemed to have the "right” warm-up. I started that race and immediately went into my own head. I knew what I was good at and I attacked with that belief. I went on to win the race totally unexpectedly, but I was proud I had no fear the minute that gun went off. It may have just been a regional race, but at the time, that was enough to make me a champion.
U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today? SB: Happiness is the key to success! Determine your strengths, train your weaknesses, make sure you enjoy the process... and then believe in your abilities unconditionally. There is always something to be learned from the people around you, but remember that you are you! You are your own key to success. Every athlete has their struggles and challenges, so never get too bummed if the road becomes bumpy! Perseverance pays off!