My weeklong family canoe trips sum up so much of my childhood: time spent outdoors, where I was curious, stubborn, and determined, fueled on adrenaline with a healthy dose of laughter. I was bursting with raw energy, and because of this, I was constantly outside testing my physical and mental boundaries. I always loved a challenge. More importantly, I was raised in a culture where my parents and grandparents taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to regardless of my gender, size, and age. I was always empowered to go outside, try something new, and be fearless.
My childhood adventures in the outdoors would become the foundation for my athletic career—and a lot of that came right from the geography of Afton, Minnesota. Endurance athletes have long flocked to the area to train for marathons, bike races, triathlons, and cross-country ski races, on both the roads and wooded trails. The land is perfect for training athletes of every skill level, and it was literally my backyard. Afton State Park offers great running trails with many hills to push yourself on. The roads that wind through the farmland near my house provide long, peaceful stretches of pavement to put in miles on a bike. As those wide-open spaces get closer to the St. Croix River, the roads transform into a series of rolling hills. My parents’ house in Afton was located right in this sweet spot of forest and fields, of farms and hills, of recreation and serious workouts.
I went from a childhood spent outdoors in a tiny hamlet tucked away in the St. Croix River Valley, to a career as a professional cross-country skier, traveling from one country to the next every week with the World Cup races in Europe. To understand my journey, you first have to visit the places that shaped me. Let me take you on a little tour of the experiences and people that made me who I am, of the town that helped raise me.
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The first stop is smack-dab in my backyard. Walk round the side of the house, through a row of pine trees, and past my two favorite trees. My parents planted two apple trees, one for when I was born (Haralson), and one when my sister, Mackenzie, was born (State Fair). Every year, we’d get hundreds of apples. We literally couldn’t eat them fast enough. Growing up, I snacked on so many of those apples as I ran around, or picked them to make apple crisp, apple pie, applesauce, or just anything apple. When we couldn’t pick them fast enough, we’d naturally make a little tower out of all the rotten ones and smack it into smithereens with one well-placed golf swing. My mom said it got apple guts all over the yard, but I liked to think of it as composting with flair.
When I was ten, I was running through the yard as usual one day and stopped to grab an apple off a tree. I snapped one off, rubbed it on my shirt (probably made it dirtier), and took a few bites. Then a thought popped into my head. I should be eating this in a tree house. Yep. That’s definitely what we needed here.
After scouring the yard, we picked a tree in the corner of the side yard, past the apple trees and bonfire pit. It was impossible to see the tree house from the house, which of course made it feel like some awesome secret lair and hideout spot for me and Mackenzie.
We went straight to the lumberyard, and I helped my dad pick out the planks, siding, and two-by-fours and load them into the car. We designed it together, and I was his pint-sized apprentice. Then I decided it needed a little vinyl door flap like a dog flap in a door. My mom and dad tried to talk me out of it (what kind of tree house has a dog flap for a door?), but I was dead set on having one. So OK, maybe I was kind of a poor apprentice, but at least I was learning things!
It was so empowering to help my dad build it, to use the saw and drill and hammer—to have an idea and then create something. The first time I climbed up and stood inside of it, it felt like Christmas bursting in my heart. From that moment I used the tree house every day for two months. I didn’t play video games, and I didn’t watch TV. I just went outside, enjoying my personal fortress. Even when I was reading a book, I would read it in my tree house. But something was missing . . . a daring escape route.
We had already put in a zip line in the backyard, and I loved it to death. But it wasn’t very fast or dangerous, so naturally, it was time to take that baby to the next level.
My dad, being the awesome dad that he was, built a little platform that came off the tree house and hovered ten feet off the ground. Then he hooked up a long cable that started above the platform and ended halfway up the trunk of the large oak tree across the yard. He tested it out himself, and I still have the image of him zooming down the zip line, my mom laughing and me cheering. This was now the coolest tree house in the whole world, I was convinced.
I would spend entire days in the yard using the zip line with my sister. It got to the point where I was really quite creative with it. I had this trick where I flipped myself upside down and then flipped back up and jumped off just before I’d hit the oak tree. That was my go-to stunt. My mom would be gardening in the yard next to me and casually look over while she was weeding and see me flying across the yard upside down, flipping over at the last second to get my feet up just before I hit the tree. I give my parents a lot of credit for letting me be a little bit wild and trusting me to use my best judgment, even when it appeared I was heading upside down toward a hard-earned lesson.
And the zip line was only one part of my one-woman Cirque du Soleil act. Around the back of our house, between the fields and the kitchen windows, stood an old swing set. With my tiny kingdom finally built, I created gymnastics routines on every feature of the playground for hours on end. The slide, swings, bar, and two-person glider swing didn’t stand a chance. The little playground grew with me as I got older; I went from swinging to dragging the hose over to the top of the slide to create a grand entrance for a Slip ’N Slide, to using the bar for pull-ups when I came home from ski camp.
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My raw, natural energy only increased with age. I was either fully on or fully stopped. There was no middle ground. Our neighbors had a trampoline and let me use it, and, of course, that’s all I wanted to do once I’d tried it. My mom would walk with me through our side yard, past the tree house and apple trees, along paths my dad had mowed into the grass, past a craggy old crabapple tree, and through a field over to our neighbors’ side yard to use their trampoline. Mom spent hours taking me over there and spotting and teaching me how to do a back handspring and then turn that into a backflip. I remember feeling so psyched when I finally did it.
We eventually got our own trampoline, with a protective netting around it. It ended up being the most amazing thing ever because it stoked my bravery, allowing me to get even more ambitious—or foolish, depending on your point of view. With the netting there, I was invincible. I would try to do two front flips in a row or multiple backflips in a row, knowing that if I missed, I’d just fly into the netting and bounce back. I used the trampoline so often that eventually I could do five backflips in a row. I would just flip, bounce, flip, bounce, flip, bounce, all day, and I was immensely proud of myself, dragging my parents out to the yard to show off my “gymnastics routine.”
Before I realized that skydiving and bungee jumping were super fun recreational ways to scare the daylights out of your parents (sorry, guys), I loved finding ways to be just a little bit scared and get some adrenaline going. Nothing gave me more of a thrill, though, than the feeling of being weightless in the air, of flying. I needed something aerial to push the envelope, so my dad set up a big rope swing in the backyard. It was a disarmingly simple toy, but I loved that thing to death. I’d sprint across the grass, wearing a dirt patch into the ground, delighting in the feeling of being lifted into the air, gripping the rope loops in each hand and kicking my bare feet at the sky.
I never looked at the rope swing, trampoline, swing set, or zip line as a form of training, but man, that’s definitely what they were. I was constantly pushing past my comfort zone, jumping farther, climbing higher, getting used to falling down, and taking risks. Everything about the way I naturally played and found delight in being outside was also building my endurance and strength, but I never saw it as “working out,” because I was just having fun.
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With all the extra energy I had, it’s no wonder that my parents started signing me up for any sport I wanted to try. I can’t thank them enough for this—and for never pushing me to specialize in anything, always letting me try my hand at any activity I wanted.
We signed up for swim lessons early on, as it was important to my parents that I learn how to swim and tread water with as many canoe trips and times at the lake as we had. I was such a water baby, and I would later join the swim team in junior high school through tenth grade, and I even spent a year on the diving team. I loved being airborne so much that learning flips felt like an extension of trampoline time. I also started dance classes at age three. I adored dancing, and although I was never very good, I danced for ten years, eventually giving it up when I could no longer make it to practice because of ski races. I still seek out local dance classes whenever I’m traveling, because I still love to learn how to groove! Soccer was never my calling as I never really knew how to handle the ball, but, man, I could run forever, so for the years I played soccer, I basically ran around getting in the way and having a ball (pun totally intended). I went to rock climbing camp one summer, which I absolutely loved.
Surprisingly, when I tried gymnastics for a year at age five, I hated it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the routines, and my hyperflexible body was well suited to the sport, but the other girls weren’t very nice to me, and I quickly decided this wasn’t somewhere I belonged. I took ice skating lessons for a summer, which was pretty fun, but I had even more fun running the spotlight for my sister’s ice skating show, perched high on scaffolding above the rink. I steadfastly ignored the advice to evenly distribute the spotlight on all the girls and made sure my little sister shone for every step of her routine.
Most people are surprised to learn that I’ve only gone alpine skiing about ten times in my life, but I don’t think it’s all that shocking, because whenever there was snow on the ground, cross-country ruled my world. It’s ironic that I never tried cross-country running in school, because now for training I go on trail runs anywhere from one to five hours long. But back in junior high, I absolutely loathed running and would do anything to avoid it.
I’m so grateful to have had all these other sports in my life. They kept (and keep) me balanced, and I do mean that literally, as being able to move in multiple different ways has been one of the best things for my skiing career. Most of all, I’m grateful because as I got to experience so many different sports, when I made skiing my focus, I really knew it was out of love for the sport.
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My first Olympics was the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, but long before that I was in another Olympics . . . of sorts. When I was twelve years old, I had an Olympic-themed birthday party in my backyard, complete with cheesy little plastic medals. Every year I’d get so excited to plan my birthday party, and every year had a different theme. Some of the greatest hits include rollerblading with glow sticks and neon clothes (not in an ironic, cute throwback type of way, but because I actually thought it was awesome) and rock climbing at Vertical Endeavors all day. I believe that one year the theme was simply “everything has to be pink.”
My mom is terribly creative and always helped me create an all-encompassing day of events at our house. She was straight-up amazing and would spend hours organizing these wild scavenger hunts for me and my friends for my birthday parties. She would make these clever little riddles and hide them all over the property, in the fields and in the woods. We’d have to find them in order and solve all the riddles to find the “treasure,” which, funny enough, always included chocolate. The riddles were something like “What is a home away from home?” Then we’d all run across the yard to the camper and search through it for another hidden riddle. Tucked inside a cabinet in the camper, we’d find another clue, which read, “I’m a rope that does not tie but helps you fly.” Then we’d run to the tree house and find another riddle attached to the zip line. It was amazing.
The year I turned twelve, my birthday party coincided with the summer Olympics, so that became the theme. My mom set up all these stations where we had different summer Olympic sports. The trampoline routine was for our gymnastics floor routine, and we had to end our routine by posing in every direction to thank the judges, and everyone got to hold up their scores. We had track and field events in the fields behind our house that included a three-legged running race (so what if they don’t have that in the actual summer Olympics . . . yet?), sprints, and all sorts of fun, silly races. Every girl got a medal, of course. Funny how that worked out.
Every one of my birthday parties ended with a bonfire, and this one was no different. Bonfires were such a big deal at our house. Every couple of weeks we would burn all the buckthorn brush we’d hauled in from the woods. Hauling brush was a monthly chore for me, but we made it a family affair, and it was actually pretty fun! We had our friends over and hosted them in the side yard, and the bonfire would get to ten feet tall because we had so much brush to burn.
For my twelfth birthday, Mom led us in a ceremonial lighting of the Olympic torch—the torch in this case being a huge bonfire, where we roasted s’mores.