The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, are only weeks away with team selections expected by the end of January. Among those vying for spots to compete in the Winter Games are nearly two dozen Tahoe and Truckee area athletes.
Olympic sport: Cross-country skiing
Resort Team: Alberta (Canada) World Cup Academy
Russell Kennedy, born and raised in Truckee, raced for the Truckee High School cross-country ski team and the Far West Nordic Association. Now, he is racing for Canada’s Alberta World Cup Academy, the country’s most elite racing club, and is a long shot for joining the Canadian National Team on its journey to Sochi, Russia, to compete in this year’s Winter Olympics.
While the Tahoe-Truckee area is blessed with the largest concentration of cross-country ski trails in the United States, cross-country skiing still has an uphill battle competing with downhill skiing and snowboarding for our best winter athletes. It’s easy for kids to be enticed away from the years of grueling physical challenge necessary to become a top Nordic athlete, by the fun of bombing down the big mountains. Downhill skiers and snowboarders also can dream of becoming the next Julia Mancuso or Hannah Teter to bring Olympic Gold back to Tahoe, while Olympic medals have thus far been an unrealized dream in the Tahoe-Truckee Nordic world.
Russell Kennedy was a rare victory for the cross-country skiing community. He was a downhill skier who, in eighth grade, chose cross-country racing over downhill, and he’s been making the best of that decision ever since.
Kennedy credits his Far West coaches including Ben Grasseschi, Jeff Schloss, Glenn Jobe and Marcus Nash for inspiring him to choose cross-country skiing over downhill.
“I loved working with these coaches, they taught me a lot of what I use today, and brought a passion to skiing,” Kennedy says.
“Russell Kennedy is one of the most motivated, talented and fun athletes I have ever coached,” says Grasseschi. “He has amazing kinesthetic awareness and could do almost any athletic task quickly, and that, combined with his will do attitude made him super coachable.”
So, how did this Truckee kid end up potentially racing for Canada? His father is Canadian, so Russell was granted dual citizenship at birth. After high school, he initially thought about skiing at the University of Utah, but instead began racing in Canada in 2010, where they will provide one year of college tuition for each year that he races at the top level. Now, he is racing and training hard while gathering the necessary education dollars to go to college when his racing career winds down.
The Alberta World Cup Academy is located in Canmore, Alberta, just a short distance from the popular Rockies resort community of Banff. They train at the Canmore Nordic Centre, one of the world’s premier Nordic facilities, home base for the best cross-country skiers in Canada, and site for a number of recent World Cup races.
Kennedy had to garner top race results just to be allowed to race with the Academy. In Canada, at the national level there is no B Team, just a World Cup Team of four racers, and the next level of racers who ski for the Alberta World Cup Academy. As we spoke on Jan. 7, Kennedy was getting ready for a qualifying race the next day. He had a shot to make the team of four, but would most likely have to win the race to do so.
At 22-years-old, Kennedy is still a relative newcomer in a sport where many athletes don’t reach their prime until they are more than 30. Therefore, while an Olympic berth would be spectacular, he is more realistically focusing on doing well in the under 23-year-old age category. He’s been getting his first World Cup racing experience, and has been busy training all year for a skiing future that many see as bright. In order to make ends meet, Kennedy works as an Operations Coordinator at the Canmore Nordic Center.
Mostly, Kennedy is a reminder about what competing at the top level in any sport should be about. He is having a good time doing the thing he loves, cross-country skiing.
“While it doesn’t have the action appeal of some of the other winter sports, you can cross-country ski your whole life, which makes it a unique sport in that sense. I’ve had a great time doing what I am doing,” he says.
“What I love about Russell, is his love of skiing, he always had a huge smile on his face,” says Schloss. “I loved to see someone that has that level of passion. He wasn’t a super star at a young age. He slowly worked his way up the rankings at junior nationals, but by the time he was 17, he was medaling. He’s a great example of someone who sticks to it and made it to the top.”