First Meet: Jan. 3-8, Anchorage, Alaska
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you think about it, the goal for the 2008-09 Lobos ski team makes a lot of skiing sense: Top of the NCAA mountain.
Even the Nordic Lobos are willing to fudge a bit on that ski analogy. Because the Lobos that push along the snow on a slightly more horizontal slope also believe that the 2008-09 version of the Lobos ski team is talented enough, deep enough, to return the Lobos to the top of the NCAA hill.
"We are really a strong team. We think we can finish on top," said Polina Ermoshina, UNM's top nordic woman skier.
In case you have been buried under an avalanche for the past five years, the University of New Mexico has an NCAA national title. It came in skiing in 2004. It might just come again in 2009 or maybe 2010, because this deep, talented team also is young with only four seniors on the roster.
"This is the best team we've had since 2004," said Fredrik Landstedt, UNM's head coach. "We have a lot of athletes who can win races."
NCAA skiing is a combination of scores from both the men's side and the women's side in both Alpine (downhill) and Nordic (cross country) events. There are two events in each style of skiing, so that means a team's final score is the combination of eight races: men's Alpine (two events), women's Alpine (two events), men's Nordic (two events) and women's Nordic (two events).
A team can qualify three athletes in each race, so the best way to win the 2009 NCAA title is to have 12 Lobos advance to nationals. But the best way isn't the only way. In 2008 and 2006, the NCAA championship team qualified only 11 skiers.
If there is a question mark on this year's UNM team, it is quality depth in women's Nordic skiing.
"That might be the area we are thinnest in," said Landstedt. "Polina is very consistent and Melanie Zemp should be able to qualify. Ingrid Leask has improved greatly and we're counting on her to qualify as a freshman. She has a chance to be in there.
"But if we only qualify two, we can still win it. Denver won last year with 11 skiers. You can still win with 11, but it helps to have 12. But I think we will be up there near the top and when you are up there, you have a shot."
Another key to winning a national title on snow is health and good luck -- or bad luck. A rough spot in the snow can take a competitor out of a race. An injury or a cold also can cut into a team's score.
Example: In the 2008 national championships, UNM's Simon Reissmann (men's Nordic) was coming off a shoulder separation, Tor Fodnesbergene (men's Alpine) suffered an ankle injury and Malin Hemmingsson (women's Alpine) was battling the flu.
In his bag of recruiting tools, Landstedt has a couple of gems. He can say come and ski for a former national championship team in a land of sun and snow.
Then he has to convince his recruits that there is snow in New Mexico.
"The perception sometimes is, `New Mexico? How can you ski there?'" said Landstedt. "But you can train here as good, if not better, than anyplace else."
New Mexico skiing actually is first class. The Sandia Mountains are 45 minutes away. Then you have Taos, Santa Fe, Red River, Ruidoso, Los Alamos, Angel Fire -- just to name a few. It`s not even universally known on the UNM campus that there is a Lobos ski team. "I get comments like, `Oh, there is a ski team at UNM?'" said Malin Hemmingsson.
And when Landstedt recruits outside the U.S. or on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a map isn't necessarily his friend.
"I looked at the map one day before I came here," said Polina Ermoshina, who hails from Moscow. "My mom wanted to know where I was flying to. I looked and said, `Here.` Then I noticed it was kind of South and I wondered if they had snow there."
Said Landstedt: "We go after the best skiers we can get and once we get them here, they like it. They like all the sun. Some of them aren`t used to skiing in nice weather on good snow, but they get used to it."
If there is a strength on the UNM ski team, it might be this unit of talented women paced by All-Americans Malin Hemmingsson and Karin Ohlin. This group can fly down the mountain and there are a lot of them who look like they pack wings with their skis.
"It is really strong," said Landstedt. "There are five who can all win races. We could have three women in the top five (at nationals)."
Said Ohlin: "There would be no way to make it if there was not a pushing and supporting team there to back you up. Lots of good skiing, great athletes and great people."
Hemmingsson is an example of two things that could influence UNM's national finish: talent and the fickle finger of fate.
The UNM junior is good. She won a national title as a freshman in the slalom. As a sophomore, she went to nationals battling the flu. She finished 33rd in the slalom. She enters this season healthy and motivated.
"I'm really excited about this season," said the skier from Ostersund, Sweden. "We have a stronger team than ever. We are pushing each other and it's so much fun for us. It looks really good."
Hemmingsson said the average observer might look at skiing as more of a individual sport because, once on skis, you are on your own. But the talented junior said a team spirit is an important part of this cold-weather sport. And like any NCAA athlete, Hemmingsson likes to ogle a shot at a national title.
"My first two years, I was struggling some with motivation because we hadn't been very good as a team," she said. "But now we have a chance. We should be up there fighting and that excites you. You want to train harder."
So, is it possible the Lobo skiers have been a bit spoiled by success? Probably. UNM was national champs in 2004, national runners-up in 2006 and finished No. 7 in the 2008 championships.
If Simon Reissmann wasn't such a free spirit -- he once showed up for a photo shoot sporting a Mohawk -- you might think he learned a lesson about training too vigorously and too fast on hard surfaces.
Reissmann crashed on his roller skis three weeks before the 2008 nationals and dislocated his shoulder. "You can get up to 40 mph," said Reissmann. Well, let's not shoot for 50 mph this season, OK, Simon?
"The injury was really frustrating," said the sophomore from Schotten, Germany. "But the therapy went really well and I did OK. We have a really strong team this year, so many strong guys. We might qualify five men for NCAAs, but we can only take three. But that's good. We are really pushing each other. I think we can compete with any other team."
Reissmann's best finish at nationals in 2008 was No. 12 in the freestyle event. He said his goal in 2009 is top five. He said that goal is more obtainable in his second season because he has learned to better handle and organize the travel and the studying.
"The traveling is more exhausting as a freshman," he said. "I think I got a little burned out last year. But I'm used to it and I have more experience in how to study, when to study, how to deal with your classes while you travel."
Reissmann said one misconception about his sport from the average sports fan is that the training has to be done on the soft, white stuff. "For us, it's not that important to ski that much. You can train off snow," he said.
Sure, Simon. But watch out for the hard, gray stuff. It's called concrete.
There's not much question that Polina Ermoshina is the star of this UNM unit. She was an NCAA runner-up in 2008 at 15-kilometers and also was an NCAA All-American with an eighth place finish in the 5-kilometer. She is a Lobo double threat in 2009.
She said she came to UNM because she felt Coach Landstedt was a straight shooter during her recruitment process.
"He was very straight with me about the workouts," said Ermoshina. "In skiing, you have to schedule things in advance and he was the most organized of the coaches I talked to and he also was the most nice to me."
Ermoshina said she didn't know much about U.S. skiing prior to making a decision to become a NCAA athlete. "I knew Utah," she said, referring to the Olympics held in Park City.
Ermoshina said she realizes that the women's Nordic team has some pressure on their backs to improve as a group and do their part to help UNM reach toward the 2009 NCAA title. She also thinks this Lobos team has the talent to grasp that goal, especially with Melanie Zemp as a two-time NCAA Nordic qualifier. "We will be good," said Ermoshina. "We have a tight group and we support each other. We cheer for each other."
Of course, with college athletes, sometimes there is more than just cheering. Like when the Alpine skiers are going down the mountain as the Nordic skiers are going up the mountain in leg-strengthening drills.
"They (Alpine) would be skiing down and we'd be skiing up the same slope," said Ermoshina. "They used to make fun of us. They'd say, `What are you doing? It's easier to ski the other way.'"
Olivier Lacaille is a foreign skier, who has adapted well to the diverse climate that comes with skiing in the Land of Enchantment.
"I love it," said the native of Montreal. "I love going up into the mountains and then coming back to the warmer weather. The mountains here are way better than what I'm used to and the training facilities we see are world class.
"I didn't expect to come down here and find great mountains like Taos and Red River. It's as good as I could have hoped for and this is a great university to ski for."
Lacaille is part of a UNM unit that is heavy at the top with talent. The Lobo junior already has won a giant slalom FIS event this season in Winter Park, Colo. "We are really pushing each other," said Lacaille. "We have such a good team this year and we have a shot at winning the title."
A huge addition for UNM this season in the men's Alpine is freshman Petter Brenna, an Olympic-caliber skier from Norway who won the 2008 Norwegian championship. "We expect him to win a lot of races and be in the top two a lot of the time," said Lacaille. "He is bringing all of us up with him. The competition on this team is really high. We get pushed out of our comfort zone all the time."
Lacaille said he has returned for his junior year in the best shape of his life. It wasn't an easy thing to do. He had a full-time job this past summer in Montreal and then did his off-season training with a new level of motivation for about three hours in the evening.
"I've been putting muscle on top of muscle," he said. "I just have a better understanding this season of what it takes. There is such a great, group chemistry this year and a willingness to do all the little things it takes to win.
"My enthusiasm is as high as ever and high expectations hopefully will bring high results."
And we already know how high Lacaille and his Lobo teammates plan to go: to the top the mountain.
Editor's note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner.