Feb. 3, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Maybe it's a skiing memory from Lobo Martin Kaas' youth that helps push him in front of a Nordic pack. Kaas had his share of bringing up the rear when his father pulled him around the slopes of Europe for a couple of years in a kiddy chair on skis.
Kaas first memory on skis is, well, looking at someone else's backside.
Maybe Kaas' dramatic success as a Lobo is simply being in a ski environment and at a university that makes it easy to excel as a student-athlete. Kaas, a product of Oslo, Norway, loves being a Lobo, loves being an American college student.
"I'm in a secure environment. I'm having fun," said Kaas, who has won three of four Nordic (cross country) events this season for the No. 1 ranked Lobos.
"I'm in a routine where I'm not worn out by too much training and you get so much support here academically, training, medical. It's just a perfect environment to be successful. I've become a better skier over here and so much of that is that I'm really enjoying life over here."
Kaas makes it easy to envision this Lobo junior poling across a snow-covered trail with a smile splashed across his face as he beats the pack across the finish line. One thing is for sure: whatever it is that has Kaas excelling at such a high rate, Lobo coach Fredrik Landstedt needs to bottle it and pass it on to all Lobos.
Well, not that they need much help. The Lobos are ranked No. 1 in the nation and their balance as a team, combined with blue-ribbon talent, has pulled in that lofty ranking. Kaas has helped, too.
He won his third race of the season Jan. 22 at the Utah Invitational in a 10-kilometer classic. He is the first Lobo men's Nordic skier to win two classic races in a season - and in a career.
It's a big jump for a Lobo who had no wins before the 2010 season. So, what's the reason for that jump to the head of the Nordic pack:
"He wanted to win some races. He got a taste of it," said coach Landstedt.
Yeah, winning will do that to you. And sometimes not winning will do it, too. In Kaas' freshman year at UNM, he did not qualify for the NCAA Championships. Last season, he was one spot off the NCAA podium, which is reserved for the top three finishers.
That hurt Kaas as an individual. It also hurt the Lobos as a team. UNM was ½ point out of second place. A tiny push, a second here or there by any Lobo skier would have made the Lobos national runners-up.
"I want podium at the NCAA," said Kaas. "I got number four last year. The podium is my main goal, but our team comes first. We really want to win it."
Kaas obviously got motivation from standing off to the side and watching other skiers climb onto the podium. But motivation is only wishful thinking if you don't apply a little sweat to the formula. Kaas got to work.
"I think finishing fourth really motivated him," said Landstedt. "Martin has good technique on skis. He is a very good racer. But he wasn't fit enough, especially his first year. He saw he could be up there and he improved his training and got stronger."
For Kaas, skiing was a family thing as well as a national pastime. He also threw in some soccer and orienteering - a competition where the participants use maps and compasses to find checkpoints hidden in the woodlands of Norway.
He came to UNM to combine skiing and education. "In Norway, we don't have athletics in college," he said. "If you try to do (athletics) with school, it becomes a long process and you only go to school part time and you don't graduate until you are 30, 35.
"I was close to making the Junior National Team, but I was just behind for three years. I thought it was a reach to make World Cup or Olympic events, so I thought I'd try to get more out of my skiing by coming over here. I've been thriving over here in skiing."
The thriving should continue, too. Landstedt says a Nordic skier usually gets stronger and better toward the end of the season. If so, you can't help but think Kaas might end the season with another smile on his face.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is the former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.