Liz Stephen makes history at Tour de Ski
January 13, 2015
It’s fall in Park City. Liz Stephen pulls the laces tight on her running shoes at the USSA Center of Excellence, heading out onto the mountain trails for a 20-25 mile afternoon run. As she strides over rocks and logs up to the ridgeline, she doesn’t see the brilliant colors of fall. All she sees is an alpine slope, covered in snow, in the heart of the Italian Dolomites. And she feels the pain.
Since its inception in 2006, the Tour de Ski has re-defined cross-country ski racing. Gone are the days of heading into the woods, emerging an hour later. Today’s cross-country ski racing is head-to-head, high speed, on-the-edge plus calculated suffering.
Stephen pushes her body further — gaining elevation, legs burning, heart racing. She has the engine for endurance. To keep her mind off the pain she focuses intently on one day in January — the day she’ll climb Alpe Cermis — Sunday, Jan. 11.
This year’s Tour de Ski included seven stages spanning 10 days. It’s not for specialists. It’s freestyle and classic, mass starts and pursuits, sprints and distance. You need to be versatile. For Stephen, it was a case of staying close in sprints and gaining ground in distance. She needed to come into the hill climb finale within striking distance.
After stage four in Toblach, Stephen stood 16th. She knew, though, that the next stages would play into her hand. She moved up to 13th in stage five, getting a day off as the Tour entourage drove the twisty mountain road over Passo Pordoi and on to the Val di Fiemme. And in stage six, a 10k classic mass start, Stephen put herself into contention for the best American finish ever in the Tour moving up seven spots to sixth.
Standing at the start line for the finale, Stephen knew she was too far back to think podium. But she had four-time champion Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland 36 seconds ahead. Then, Norway’s Ragnhild Haga was another 14 for fourth. That was a realistic goal.
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"With the climb itself my strategy was to try and catch Ragnhild," said Stephen. "I really wanted a fourth place today."
Stage seven covers nine kilometers. The first five and change are a relatively flat track through the valley. But that changes dramatically at the base of Alpe Cermis. By the climb, Stephen had already passed Kowalczyk. Then, in the first kilometer of the 3.6k climb, she had Haga in her sights.
As they approached the first of several ‘walls’ — a 26 percent grade that would sap every ounce of energy — Stephen made her move, passing the Norwegian and pulling away with each skate-step-turned-herringbone stride, settling into fourth. A kilometer later, she would pay the price on a 28 percent grade. Haga took an inside line on the wall, gaining position on a corner and taking back fourth. That’s when the courage kicked in.
Stephen hung on for fifth — the best finish ever by an American in the Tour, and the first non-Norwegian. For that, she got a high five from race winner Marit Bjoergen as they collapsed in the finish.
If you were to meet the tiny Stephen in a coffee shop in Park City, you wouldn’t think about her as an endurance athlete. Her friendly smile and engaging personality belies her real power underneath. And what she’s learned at the Center of Excellence is more than physical strength.
"So much of racing and competing is the immense, unshakable belief in yourself as well as a strong desire to win," she said after the race. "Until this year, I have not been able to feel these sensations in a real way, nor in a strong enough way to be able to fight back when Ragnhild passed me back today.
"In the past, I would have exploded mentally, which would have made me take a colossal slide physically as well.
"But I have worked hard, with a lot of help from fellow competitors, teammates, my sport psychologist, my coach, and my friends and family on really believing in myself and knowing I can be one of the Best in the World.
"Before this year, I didn’t understand how I could be both a person dead set on winning a race, as well as be a caring, light-hearted, fun, supporting teammate and person.
"But I now understand how to balance both."
Liz Stephen didn’t win the Tour de Ski. Not yet. But her medals are about to come.
Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the team.