After a weekend of racing in near subzero temperatures at Lake Placid, N.Y., the Bowdoin Nordic ski team returned home with its third consecutive top-three finish. Led by two podium finishes, from Gabby Vandendries ’21 and the men’s skate relay, the Polar Bears continued this season’s unprecedented success and put themselves in an even better position heading into the final stretch of the short season.
This past weekend’s Williams Carnival was moved to upstate New York due to course conditions, forcing athletes to brave arctic weather conditions on both days of racing. Despite the frigid temperatures, snow conditions were exceptional for Friday’s classic race. On the men’s side, Christian Gostout ’20, Elliot Ketchel ’21 and Peter Moore ’23 all finished in the top 16 in their individual races. Three of the women’s skiers also finished in the top 25, and were led by Vandendries, whose third-place finish was the first podium result for any Bowdoin woman since Kaitlynn Miller ’14 finished third at the Williams Carnival in 2014.
In particular, Vandendries’ result was the culmination of four years of buildup.
“I always hope for it, because you’re always trying to do better than your last finish … [but] I didn’t ever really think I would podium until this year,” said Vandendries.
With such a short season, there is little opportunity for improvement during the racing months—often, a skier’s potential is all but decided by the end of preseason. Head Coach Nathan Alsobrook credits Vandendries’ result to her effort throughout the entire year.
“The whole season has been about her getting paid back for the hard work she did last year,” said Alsobrook. “[Last winter], she didn’t make NCAA’s by the narrowest margin, and she was not going to let that happen again. She really stepped up her game with the level of focus I’ve rarely seen. This whole season has just been validating that hard work and the approach she’s taken.”
Although personal successes are exciting, individual results can have a much greater ripple effect throughout the entire team.
“Any time we get good individual results, it lifts the whole team,” said Alsobrook. “It builds confidence, it creates a sense of pride and it expands the possibilities for what our athletes think they can do.”
In many ways, this season’s superlative success is proving to be the culmination of over a decade of progress for Bowdoin Nordic. When Alsobrook took over in 2008, the team was still in an era of slow growth—the program was not yet attracting elite recruits and rarely, if ever, broke into the podium spots at carnivals.
“The overall trend [has] definitely been upward, but it’s been a lot of baby steps—it’s been a very slow, painstaking process to get us to a higher level,” Alsobrook said. “It’s really only the past three years that things have really taken off and we’ve been able to see big leaps and bounds with each season … it’s this current generation of skiers where we’ve really finally seen this pay off.”
Recent success has dramatically changed the team’s image. Whereas once Bowdoin wasn’t viewed as one of the marquee teams of the Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association (EISA), the Polar Bears are starting to earn a reputation of speed and success. Many of the the younger skiers on the team have only known a Bowdoin team with a reputation for excellence.
“I’ve only really known the Bowdoin ski team in the context of the past two or three years when they’ve been skiing really well,” said Moore, a first year on the men’s skate relay. “Speaking to the current seniors and juniors, skiing at the level we’re at—placing third in carnivals, putting three people in the top 15 becoming somewhat of a normality—is very new … I guess the way I put it is that I don’t know [the] difference.”
Moore is one of a number of athletes over the past few seasons who have contributed significantly in their rookie seasons. With one qualifying race left to go, Moore sits four points out of a NCAA nationals bid—a top 10 finish in the season’s final race would secure him a spot.
“Starting with early season time trials and leading into the first couple races of the season, I never could have predicted the level I would be skiing at this year,” said Moore. “I think I’ve made a pretty big jump this year, and I’m hoping I can continue that trend.”
In a broad sense, the team’s marked improvement over the past years has triggered a self-perpetuating effect. Faster races and better group results improve the team’s profile, which attracts higher and higher level recruits that start the cycle over again. Historically, Bowdoin has not attracted elite-caliber talent out of high school.
“We typically get a bunch of hardworking, scrappy underdogs as our recruiting class,” said Alsobrook. “With the last couple classes of athletes we’ve started to get … a handful of the truly elite recruits that we have not been able to attract [in the past].”
And with a new wave of talented skiers comes a heightened set of expectations.
“We’re getting greedy. We’re ready to set big goals for regionals and NCAAs and see what [we] can do,” said Alsobrook. “The confidence is starting to get there.”
With just three weekends of racing left, the Polar Bears are at just the right time to put that confidence to work.
Bowdoin will compete in the Maine State Championship, known as the Chummy Cup, this Saturday in Rumford, Maine. at 10 a.m. Students are encouraged to come to the race and cheer on the team.