Coach drives rise of MSU Nordic skiing from underdogs to national podium

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Parents often hyperbolize to their children that they had to ski to school through heavy snow, uphill both ways. It may not have been uphill both ways, but Grethe-Lise Hagensen, head coach of the Montana State University Nordic ski team since 2003 and the 2010 United States Collegiate Ski Coaches Association Coach of the Year, did ski three kilometers each way to school every day.

Hagensen grew up on skis in Tromsø, Norway, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. As a child, Hagensen’s mother didn’t have a driver’s license and her family didn’t have a television or phone. If they wanted to talk to a neighbor or go to town during the winter, skiing was the only option. It was also fun. Like many families in her city, the Hagensens would spend Sundays skiing to a cabin, or to get a candy bar or pop.

“We played a lot on skis,” Hagensen recalled. “It’s the best form of training because you aren’t aware of the training as you are learning balance. Later, the technique will come.”

An elementary school teacher noticed Hagensen skiing around the playground and started taking her to competitions in town. Hagensen’s success motivated her to keep competing. Soon after, she was the Norwegian National Champion and a member of Norway’s National Ski Team.

“We had a good camaraderie in the ski club,” Hagensen said. “I enjoyed the sport, but I also really liked being with my friends.”

Hagensen came to the United States as a recruit of the University of Wyoming. There she was NCAA All-America four times and NCAA champion. After college, she returned to Norway to coach women’s soccer and help with local ski clubs. She married an American and had two daughters, Bjørk, now 13, and Embla, 15. When the girls were five and six years old, the family decided to move to the United States for a year. Their father, John, didn’t speak much Norwegian and the girls weren’t strong English speakers.

“I didn’t want to be the interpreter at the dinner table,” Hagensen said.

One year quickly turned into more than a decade as the family made their home in Bozeman. Summers are still spent in Norway, but the rest of the year is for skiing–or training.

In 2003, when Hagensen started coaching at MSU, the university formed a men’s team, which it had been lacking for about two decades. Since men’s and women’s scores are combined at NCAA meets, there was no way to score well with just a women’s team, and the absence of a men’s team made it hard to recruit women. That year they qualified one woman and one man for the NCAA Championship.

A few years later, the MSU Nordic team also had three women on the podium at the Division I qualifier at Soldier Hollow in Park City, Utah. Former MSU skier Mandy Bowden Axelson was the woman standing in second place.

“It was unbelievable and the highlight of my ski career,” Axelson recalled. “Both individually and as a team, it was really moving.”

Under Hagensen’s guidance, the MSU Nordic Team has gone from underdogs to third in the nation. Her team had six All-America Honors in 2010, and by placing eighth overall at the NCAA Championships, the team had its highest finish since 1983. There were just four women and four men on the team during Hagensen’s first year. In 2010-11 there were 25 skiers. This winter, the Bobcats will host the 2012 NCAA Skiing Championships at Bridger Bowl and Bohart Ranch.

“There is a lot of interest in the MSU ski team right now,” Hagensen said. “People contact me every day about skiing here.”

Perhaps that’s because the camaraderie that Hagensen found skiing as a child is now an important aspect of the MSU Nordic team. The team trains most of the year. In the summer they roller ski, using short skis with wheels, run, bike, lift weights and kayak. As ski season approaches, they turn to more ski-specific training.

“These kids look after each other, are helpful and very respectful with each other,” Hagensen said. “I hope they look back on this family they had in college and remember four great years.”

Athletic director Peter Fields considers the Nordic team some of the best student athletes at MSU.

“She takes having a successful team
on and off the snow very seriously,” Fields said.

Ryan Scott, a fifth-year senior in business marketing from Boulder, Colo., skied on Hagensen’s team for four years.

“She cares about you personally as well as how you are doing as a skier,” Scott said. “She taught me how to seek out my strengths and capitalize on those, which carries over to all aspects of my life.”

“One of the greatest things about Grethe is her ability to develop the whole athlete,” Axelson said. “She wanted us to be well-rounded and have interests beyond skiing.”

Axelson, who graduated in 2007,
now owns a Nordic center on Homestake Pass with her husband, Chris. They turned a forest into a lodge, trails and a ski and mountain bike destination in just a few short years. Axelson said she developed some of the attributes needed for such a big job during her time on Hagensen’s team.

“Grethe taught us that in order to be successful, you have to be self-motivated; you have to know what you want and go after it,” Axelson said. “When you are driven, opportunities come your way–that’s Grethe’s legacy.”

Read more at MSU News.

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