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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas WiertellaApril 30, 2024

Famed cross country coach pushes Wildcat skiiers into national spotlight

NMU head basketball coach Dean Ellis has won 340 games over the course of 21 seasons. Hockey head coach Walt Kyle has coached several players who have received national accolades. USOEC boxing coach Al Mitchell has played an instrumental role in the success of a number of Olympians.

And then there’s Sten Fjeldheim, the highly successful, yet largely unheralded coach of the NMU cross country skiing program.

During his 18 years at NMU, Fjeldheim has coached 40 All-Americans, 12 Olympians, and three national champions in skiing. In addition he has coached the Wildcats women’s cross country running team to six national championship appearances and two GLIAC championships. If that’s not enough, he’s also served as the head and assistant women’s track coach for Northern.

“Sten has played a huge role in my development as a skier. Choosing to come to NMU to be coached by him was the best decision I have ever made,” said Lindsay Williams, a senior on NMU’s cross country ski team.

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Williams won the NCAA championship in the 5k freestyle this year and finished second place in the 15k classic.

Fjeldheim is a very tough coach who has the highest expectations for all his athletes and demands excellence from them constantly, Williams said.

Williams said that her most vivid memory of Fjeldheim was from her initial season on the team.

“It was my first 15k race ever and I was pretty intimidated by the distance,” she said. “I started the race and was really stiff and going a lot slower than I ever should have been. So I get to the one kilometer mark and Sten is running up the hill after me screaming ‘What the hell are you doing! This isn’t a 50k. I know you can go faster.’ I didn’t want to disappoint him and I ended up speeding up and finishing with an OK time.”

Despite his demanding and tough approach toward his athletes, Williams said that Fjeldheim always has the respect of the team.

“He does a ton to motivate us all. He is right there next to us on most of our workouts and practices and we all know that he really cares about us,” she said.

Athletic Director Ken Godfrey agrees.

“During the time that I have been here Sten has been nothing but a great coach,” Godfrey said. “He isn’t only a great coach though, he is also a great person. I know that he personally cares about every single one of his athletes.”

Fjeldheim began his coaching career at NMU in 1985 when he was approached by former athletic director Rick Comley about a part-time coaching position with the Nordic ski team. Fjeldheim said that he accepted the job but had only planned on serving as coach temporarily while working on his master’s degree in exercise science.

“I hadn’t planned on becoming a coach,” Fjeldheim said. “I was actually looking at other schools to pursue a teaching degree, when I was offered a full-time coaching position here in order to keep me on staff.”

When Fjeldheim took over the program it was small and insignificant in comparison with the level of funding and attention that most collegiate sports receive.

“When I started here as coach we had zero scholarships to give out for either the men’s or women’s program,” Fjeldheim said.

Fjeldheim remained the coach of the Nordic ski team at NMU until 1994 when he departed Marquette to be an assistant coach for the United States Olympic Ski team. Fjeldheim coached the U.S. ski team in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, as well as the 1995 and 1997 world championships, before returning to Northern after three seasons away.

“Coaching the Olympic team taught me a lot about the sport and about training,” Fjeldheim said. “I got to see the best athletes in the world and how good they were, and then I came back to Northern and got to compare NMU’s skiers to those skiers and I worked out a plan to get my skiers up to that level.”

Fjeldheim’s plan for NMU’s ski team is clearly working. As evidenced by the women’s team’s first, second and third place finishes in both the 5k and 15k races this march in New Hampshire. Never in the history of NCAA cross country skiing has a team swept both races.

“When I saw Sten just after he saw the results of our sweep at the NCAA championship I’m pretty sure he said something like, ‘I am so excited I could just take off my clothes and run through the snow,'” Williams said. “He was just so excited for us and so proud of all of us.”

The cross country ski team practices from May 1 through the middle of April each year. During this time Fjeldheim leads the team through approximately 600 hours of practice, he said.

“Coaching is a full-time commitment,” Fjeldheim said. “Sometimes you don’t always get to spend the amount of time you want with your family when you are a coach.”

This year, however, Fjeldheim has had a special opportunity to work with a member of his family on the cross country ski team. His daughter Ingrid was a freshman on this year’s team.

Ingrid Fjeldheim, a graduate of Marquette High School, was a highly-recruited cross country skier who was recruited by several Division-I programs across the country, Fjeldheim said.

“The part I like best about coaching Ingrid is that I get to spend much more time with her than I did before,” Fjeldheim said. “When you have a kid who is an athlete you usually don’t get to see them much and I get to see her more now than I ever did in high school.”

Next season, Ingrid will be attempting to fill some big shoes. Fjeldheim said he is looking forward to the challenge of replacing seniors Lindsay Williams, Lindsey Weier and Morgan Smyth, the trio of skiers who netted NMU the podium sweep at the NCAA championship.

“I’ll really miss all the seniors who are graduating this year,” Fjeldheim said. “It won’t be the same without them.”

Williams shares similar sentiments.

“After five years on the team I am just really thankful for all that Sten has done for me. I just can’t thank him enough for that,” she said.

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