methow grist 2011-2014 archive

Proud and Anxious
Olympic hopeful parents

Two sets of Methow Valley parents are waiting anxiously for an announcement that’s to be made a few hours from now—the names of the athletes nominated for the U.S. Olympic Nordic Ski Team.

photoTom and Mary Bjornsen at their home in Mazama holding the “Road to Sochi” sign they brought back from the recent U.S. National Championship races in Utah. Their daughter, Sadie, will go to the Winter Olympics with the U.S. Nordic team. They are waiting to find out if son, Erik, will go as well.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association will announce the list on Wednesday, January 22, according to spokeswoman Margo Christiansen.

When the word is out, Tom and Mary Bjornsen and Jim and Jan Gregg will know whether their sons, Erik Bjornsen and Brian Gregg, and their daughter-in-law, Caitlin Gregg, have made the team. (Sadie Bjornsen, Erik’s older sister, qualified earlier.)

All four parents admit to being excited and anxious for their children, who have spent years training to reach their level of excellence.

Tom and Mary Bjornsen are “staying busy” with work and preparing for their first-ever trip to Europe—Italy, where Sadie and Erik will be racing prior to the Olympic Games. They’ll return to Mazama the day before the opening ceremonies to watch the games on television with friends and family.

The Greggs, who also say they’re trying not to dwell on the announcement, are taking a more philosophical approach. “The anticipation is part of the fun,” says Jan. If Brian or Caitlin make the team, the Greggs will fly to Sochi for the “Olympic experience,” knowing they’ll have no chance of seeing the kids until the games are over.

“We’ve spent the last year positioning ourselves to go,” Jim said. Brian’s twin brother, Chad, arranged tickets for the family that may be sold if Brian and Caitlin aren’t selected to represent the U.S. (Caitlin was on the 2010 team.)

photoJan and Jim Gregg, who live between Winthrop and Mazama, pose in their yard. Jan is wearing a Team Gregg hat. Jim is sporting one of son Brian’s jackets. They are waiting to find out whether Brian and his wife, Caitlin, made the Olympic team.

All these parents have spent their lives in outdoor culture. They, too, are athletic. All of them cross-country ski, among other things.

Tom Bjornsen started mountain climbing as a kid and is a former guide on Mt. Rainier. Mary, who grew up on a farm, runs, swims and skis. The couple met alpine skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And they took up Nordic skiing as a family when their three kids were young.

The Bjornsen’s eldest daughter, Kaley, as well as Sadie and Erik, all skied on the Methow Valley Nordic team coached by former Olympian Laura McCabe. Their parents took them to races, including the Bill Koch Festival, an annual event in New England, because they wanted to race. As a result, the family met people across the nation who shared their interests.

Sadie, for example, has two teammates on the U.S. Ski Team whom she met when she was 12 years old or younger, her parents said. And they are acquainted with many parents of elite skiers.

The Greggs also have spent their lives immersed in the ski sub-culture. Jim Gregg was an alpine skier and the snow ranger for Vail, Colorado. Jan taught alpine skiing for Vail Resorts, and later for neighboring resorts. “We were just totally into the alpine culture,” she said. “Nordic skiing was what we did on our days off.”

The Forest Service brought Jim’s expertise as a snow ranger to the Methow Valley in 1987, when the Early Winters downhill ski area was in the works. Their daughter, Tara, was five years old and their twin boys, Brian and Chad, were three. Until the kids were about 10, the family did both downhill and cross-country skiing.

Chad, Brian and Sam Naney, another of the valley’s top skiers, were all in the same class at school. “They did all the sports together –soccer, running, skiing– all through school,” says Jan.

photoA recycled window from an old barn is now an outdoor tabletop and shadowbox displaying some of the dozens of medals the Gregg family has won in alpine and cross-country ski races over the years.

Jim tells about a winter trip the family took to Germany when the kids were in junior high school. The Greggs decided to enter a citizens’ race. Jim told his kids that they shouldn’t expect to win because their competitors had all grown up skiing and did it all the time. One of the boys brought him up short by looking him in the eye and saying, “ ‘Well, Dad, so did we.’ ”

These days Jim Gregg, who served three terms on the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association board, will tell you that the valley has a “world-class” trail system. “The setting we have, and the connection between the towns... It’s definitely world class –most years,” he adds, alluding to the nearly snowless conditions that have prevailed on the lower trails this winter.

Skiing has opened doors for their children. The three Gregg siblings all attended colleges with Nordic ski teams, and Sadie and Erik Bjornsen also have college scholarships.

The Bjornsens marvel at the education skiing has given their children through travel and meeting people from all over the world.

Their original plan to pay for three college educations was based on the whole family’s hard work. Tom and Mary Bjornsen run a construction business. Tom would get home from his regular work day, then mom, dad and all three kids would work another six or seven hours on a spec house. “We called the first house Kaley’s house,” Mary said, because it was to pay for her education. “The second one was Sadie’s house. The third one was Erik’s house.” They built several others, including the Mazama house they call “home.”

The Bjornsens, the Greggs and all other local parents who have children competing on the international level in Nordic skiing and biathlon have become experts at figuring out how to follow races half a world away.

Eurosport TV streams live, the Bjornsens explained. That means parents willing to get up in the wee hours can sometimes watch races in real time on their computers. There also are some web sites that post real-time results without video of the athletes.

Mary Bjornsen said she gets set up in advance. Then, “I take my computer to bed and set the alarm and sit in bed and watch.”

The second weekend of January, the Greggs were up at 5 a.m.,
because Brian and Caitlin were racing in the Czech Republic. “You’re just watching numbers roll by, but it means something to us,” Jan Gregg said.

As for their kids’ Olympic aspirations, the parents all credit the opportunities and support their children had living here.

Brian Gregg decided he wanted to go to the Olympics when he was 16 and enrolled in an Outward Bound program. Caitlin Gregg says she fell in love with the Olympics when she was 8 years old.

Sadie Bjornsen recently told a reporter for National Public Radio she set her goal after seeing Olympian Laura McCabe ride through downtown Winthrop in a fire truck after the 1998 winter games. Erik Bjornsen says he decided to try for the Olympics when he was in middle school.

In each case, there were adult coaches, themselves elite skiers, to help the youngsters reach their goals. And “a village,” to use Jim Gregg’s words, of ski program supporters to help make it possible.

Regardless of who makes the Olympic team to be announced Wednesday, their parents say that in their eyes, all these athletes already are winners.


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