Caitlin Gregg: More than just being a champion
It was a restless night. As a cross-country ski racer, one of the things you dread is variable weather. The day before the Slumberland American Birkebeiner between Cable and Hayward, warm temperatures and rain blanketed Northwestern Wisconsin. The rain would stop, but above-freezing temperaturess kept the 51-kilometer course soggy.
In the pre-dawn hours before the race, Zach Caldwell and his wax team worked their wizardry on the snow, preparing a quiver of lightning fast Madshus skis from which three-time Birkie champion Caitlin Gregg would make her selection.
A year ago, Gregg was glued to a computer in Sweden, watching the live stream as husband Brian skied to a top-10 finish. A piece of her heart was left in the Wisconsin Northwoods as she wasn’t there to repeat her titles of 2011, 2013 and 2014. A few days later, she won World Championship bronze in storybook fashion. But she was counting the days before she could get back and try for a record fourth Birkie win.
Caitlin Gregg’s career will be defined by a series of accomplishments, notably that World Championship bronze, plus becoming a pied piper for kids in Minneapolis. Most of all, though, she’ll be known for her passion as a Birkebeiner champion who gave back.
"The Birkie is an incredible event because I can share it with so many instrumental people from my life and skiing career," she said. "The people who have supported me from the beginning are able to share the day and the experience so closely."
Race day morning she chose the same Madshus skis that won her a U.S. long-distance title last spring. It was a brisk, windy morning at the start near Cable. She knew this would be her toughest race ever, with a world-class field gathering for the 8 a.m. start.
As she tested skis, her mind drifted to her skiing kids in Minneapolis. Prize money from her Birkie win in 2011 allowed she and Brian to buy a small house in north Minneapolis, a part of town where kids on the street needed direction. That’s where Brian and Caitlin stepped in, becoming proactive ambassadors for healthy lifestyle activities, working hand-in-hand with local civic groups and clubs.
"The opportunities that programs like In-the-Arena, The Loppet Foundation and the American Birkebeiner Foundation provide for kids makes me happier than winning," said Caitlin. "Team Gregg’s passion is to spread our joy and love of skiing to as many people as possible and these fantastic organizations help make not only our result goals come true but also our community goals."
As she moved to the start, she saw her rival — current Worldloppet leader Aurélie Dabudyk of France. They had never met before, but they each knew they would be seeing a lot of each other that day.
It was pensive before the start as her thoughts drifted to the strategy she had mapped out for the rolling trail through Northwoods Wisconsin. In the starter’s tower, Gregg’s teammate Kikkan Randall would signal the command to begin the 43rd running of the American Birkebeiner. Then, a rifle volley echoed through the morning air, and they were underway.
Gregg let Dabudyk take the lead break out of the start while she positioned herself safely in the field as they went stride for stride across the airport flats. The course moved into the woods, gradually climbing as they headed up the ascent of the Seeley Fire Tower hill and down through the checkpoint at highway OO with Gregg running third in a tightly-knit pack.
Gregg knew that the key to her day was patience — not turning on the speed until the final stages of the race. But that also meant the mental anguish of hanging with the pack and the risk of a fall or a broken pole. As she skied through the 23K checkpoint, she was energized by the crowd.
Skating with the pack, the magnitude of this race was not lost on her. She was skiing toward the record books, seeking to become the first skier to win four races. After her first win in 2011, coach Jason Cork told her about the legendary Manfred Nagl of Austria, who became the first athlete to win three Birkies with his 1993 victory.
After the sustained steep climbs in the first half of the race, the course flattened out with a downhill trend up to the Mosquito Brook crossing at 38K. Now it was time to race. Gregg turned on the gas, gunning it ahead of the pack, up and over the notorious Bitch Hill. Dabudyk was the only one to come with her, but stayed back, unable to match Gregg’s strides. For Dabudyk, memories were still strong of American Holly Brooks breaking away a year ago in the final stages of the race. She didn’t want that to happen again.
As they came onto the final kilometers of a slushy Lake Hayward, it was still anyone’s race. With 400 meters to go, they attacked the International Bridge together, coming onto Hayward’s Main Street with thousands cheering them on. Stride for stride they raced up to the finish.
With the record in sight, Gregg summoned every ounce of energy she had left. Her friends and family in the bright green Team Gregg hats were yelling their lungs out as she crossed the finish line a winner and four-time champion.
Like any champion, a victory is about personal pride. With Gregg, though, it’s a whole lot more.
"We use every accomplishment, or failure, as an opportunity to teach the kids about the importance of attitude and effort," she added. "Our motto to the kids is Dream Big, Work Hard and Have Fun!"
In Birkie 43, Caitlin Gregg dreamed big, she worked hard and now, it was time to have fun.
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The Miners ended up on the wrong side of a close game on senior night but are still fighting for playoff seeding.