Liz Stephen charges up a hill at U.S. Cross Country Ski Team roller ski training on the Olympic trails at Soldier Hollow, Utah. (U.S. Ski Team – Tom Kelly)
Cross-country skier Liz Stephen is not totally sure what’s next. After competing with the U.S. national team since 2006, her retirement leaves a lot of questions, but she is sure of one thing: It’s going to be great.
“I’m kind of jealous of myself,” she said a few days after finishing her final race of her career — the Super Tour Finals at Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury Commons, Vermont, where she finished seventh in the 30K mass start classic. “This last year I’ve been feeling this transition coming a bit and gotten really excited to say ‘Yes I can go do that; no, I’m not going to go roller ski. I’m going to go camp out on top of a mountain.”
Stephen has been working toward a career in nursing by taking courses from several Utah colleges over her skiing career, but for now, she is more focused on getting outside and, for the first time in a long time, not having a life tied to a competitive schedule.
That doesn’t mean Stephen will be laying on the couch.
So, she’s planning trips around Utah, her home since making the national team, and looking forward to experiencing a strange luxury – being tired.
“I’m excited to not be afraid of being tired,” she said. “When you’re trying to be an elite athlete, it’s a fear to be too tired or to make yourself too tired at something that’s not actually training, just because recovery is such a huge part of the picture. I’m excited to not feel guilty about feeling tired from life.”
At the time of her interview, she had already planned a backcountry skiing trip (a different one) near Bozeman, Montana and enrolled in an avalanche safety course.
“I want to do all these things, but I know nothing about them, so I want to be safer,” she said.
She is also an avid runner, and Cannis Harte, president of Park City Running Company, said he is excited to see what Stephen does now that she doesn’t have to leave fuel in the tank for cross-country training. Despite her professional obligations, Stephen has won the Red Bull 400 hill climb and the 21K, XTERRA Trail Run National Championship four times. She has also helped with the Moose on the Loose trail run series and has helped host the Fast and Female events, which are meant to empower young female athletes.
Harte also has a vested interest in Stephen’s running, since Stephen will join Park City Running Company’s running team and will work with the store this summer while she tackles personal goals, including running the New York City Marathon in November.
She expects that she won’t hit the same performance peak that she would if she was training for the World Cup circuit, or the Tour De Ski, both of which were venues where Stephens pushed boundaries for the U.S. team. Over her 12 years with the team, she has established three records for the U.S. team, starting with a 15th-place finish at a World Championships at Liberec in the Czech Republic in 2009, which had never been achieved at that distance by the team before, followed by a fifth-place finish in the 10K skate at the World Championships at Val di Fiemme, Italy in 2013 – another distance record for the U.S. team.
“Where she was really good was on hill climbs,” said Tom Kelly, vice president of communications at US Ski and Snowboard. In fact, she was given the nickname “Hill,” after her ability to push herself up inclines when others couldn’t. Those skills shone in 2014’s Alpe Cermis portion of the Tour De Ski, which ended with a 9K hill climb.
“She was just amazingly good at this event,” Kelly said.
Though she never finished in first outright, Kelly said she was usually in the top of the pack, which helped her take fifth overall in 2015, raising the bar for the American team yet again.
“She was one of the first to really have success across all stages, which was an amazing achievement, Kelly said.
Stephen said one of her favorite memories was a frigid 10K climb in Rybinsk, Russia, partly because of the “barely legal race temperatures.”
After finishing second in the race she wanted to celebrate with her teammates, but first she had to talk to the media and go through the anti-doping protocol.
“What I’ll remember about all of that is the team, on one of the coldest days of my career, just waiting there because they knew how important it was to me,” she said. “If I had advice to give people that are trying to create a team — notice the little things that matter to people. Maybe that wouldn’t matter to someone, but the team knew that their presence there would matter more than anything else to me.”
Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard women’s cross-country coach, has coached Stephen since she switched from alpine racing at the Burke Mountain Academy at the age of 15.
Over that time, Whitcomb said Stephen has established herself as one of the team’s most nurturing members, even providing massages to teammates during the team’s early days when it didn’t travel with physical therapists or masseuses. But Whitcomb said Stephen’s mental strength gave her the ability to switch from nurturing teammate to fierce competitor at race time.
“She can absolutely turn herself inside out on the race course,” Whitcomb said. “She is limited less by pain and physical limits than most are. The normal person might think (their challenges) are physical barriers, but to Liz they are mental barriers and to Liz that’s opened up a whole new level of racing.”
Whitcomb said Stephen’s longevity on the team stems in part from how close she is with her teammates — considering them first as friends – and said it’s telling that the team has kept so many of its athletes for so long, given the modest financial incentives.
Stephen said finding that kind of community elsewhere will likely be the hardest part of leaving the team, though it’s a good time for her to get out. She said the goals that her generation of skiers set out to achieve for the U.S. team have largely been met. For example, there was a time when she was skiing competitively that the U.S. didn’t even have a national cross country team. Since then, she and her teammates have made the U.S. one of the most competitive teams in the world. The recent gold medal in Pyeongchang, earned by Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins in the team sprint, was the icing on the cake – showing what the team knew it could do all along.
“The medal was so important in so many ways,” Stephen said. “I never felt like our team needed the medal to know we could do it, but I’ve always felt there is this need for the next generation — that we could have done it, but to show that it could be done, I think that provides a lot of drive in the future and support for the sport.”
Her departure from the team, along with Randall’s, will force some major organizational adjustments, Whitcomb said, though the adjustments for the athletes will be just as large.
“These guys are endorphin junkies, and they have also adjusted their norm to being some of the fittest people in the world,” he said. “There are things like depression that can enter your life that you never expect would.”
To help prevent that, Whitcomb said the team tries to keep former members involved, providing coaching and cameo opportunities at races and training camps – opportunities that will be open to Stephen.
But between the adventures, races, nonprofits and classes she plans on taking, Whitcomb said he doesn’t anticipate Stephen needing additional direction.
“I think that’s going to be very fulfilling for Liz,” he said. “I should add we are going to miss her like crazy.”