Fjeldheim builds bright future for nordic ski team

Andy Frakes

Sten Fjeldheim sat down across the ski room, a little out-of-the-way nook with a steel door at the back of the basketball practice gym. The wall above where he sits is covered in awards and accolades he and his athletes have won. National titles, world championship podiums. I had never seen any of this before.re-Skiing

Fjeldheim, nearing his sixtieth birthday, has a lot to reflect on. Since he began coaching the NMU nordic ski team in 1986, six skiers have become NCAA national champions; the team has qualified to compete at NCAA nationals every single year, without fail, since Fjeldheim’s first season as a coach. This isn’t something many teams, especially at NMU, can lay claim to.

“We started out with zero scholarships,” Fjeldheim said of his early years with the program. “We had to prove ourselves to the administration, had to prove that these kids deserved funding.”

They’ve certainly proved a lot. Not only have the NMU skiers delivered many wins and top-tier finishes to the school’s athletic résumé, but they’ve also delivered the highest cumulative team GPA for several consecutive years.

“I tell my athletes that they’ll have to pick two of the three ‘S’s’ when they’re on this team: sleep, socializing and studying,” Fjeldheim said. “And they’d better pick the right two.” He chuckled for a moment but went on to say that with a base-level of 60 hours a month in training, the underclassman skiers learn pretty quickly that the team is, by necessity, their social group, their family.

“The juniors and seniors can get up into the 80- to 90-hour range for a month of training, with one day off each week to rest and recover. If they aren’t dedicated to all of it, they won’t make it in this program. But we’ve never really had that problem,” Fjeldheim said.

The team has featured athletes from North America as well as all over Europe under Fjeldheim’s leadership, and there are currently five international students on the roster: Krystof Kopal, a junior from the Czech Republic; Fredrik Schwencke, a junior from Norway; Lea Bünter, a freshman from Switzerland; Sophie Schimpl, a junior from Austria; and Vera Gruber, a sophomore from Germany.

Fjeldheim’s plans for his team in the next five to 10 years include, not surprisingly, bringing home more hardware and continuing to improve.

“We have a strong program, and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “But this next summer I’ll be 60 years old. Being fully in charge of this program is a lot of work, and I hope to start handing off responsibilities to my assistant coaching staff.”

If the past three decades are any indication, the NMU ski team is going to be just fine.