XC Olympic Team's Youngest, Matt Gelso - San Francisco Chroncle
LAST YEAR'S FALL IN North Tahoe produced a few weeks of blazing foliage followed by intense bouts of rain. During the downpours most people finished puzzles or played Clue or Scrabble. Not 17-year-old Matt Gelso. Bad weather rarely shuts him in. Through the gray days and heavy skies, the flame-haired teen continued to bicycle, rock climb and roller ski. He wasn't overdoing his sports, just preparing in his own serious fashion for the 2006 cross-country ski season. He had big dreams.
By the time spring arrived, in the midst of class camp-outs and other pre-graduation antics, Gelso was nominated to the 2007 U.S. Cross Country development team. He had worked hard in the past four years, to be sure, but now the most difficult training of his life was about to begin. Nomination is a first step toward joining the team. Nominees attend summer training camps. In early fall they sign a personal responsibility code. With those tests behind him, Gelso learned his nomination was official. He was now the youngest member of the team.
Back home, North Tahoe/Truckee locals cheered. Plenty of homegrown kids have joined the U.S. Alpine Ski Team over the years. But this was the first time a Tahoe-raised athlete had made the cross country team. To most who knew Gelso, it was not a surprise. In 2005, he won the Junior National Championship freestyle sprint. At the 2006 Junior Olympics, he won all three individual events: the freestyle (skating) sprint, the 10K skate race and the 15K classic race. In the 2006 World Junior Championships in Kranj, Slovenia, he placed 16th overall.
"His 16th place result at the World Junior Championships last year was one of the best Junior results that the U.S. has celebrated," said Pat Casey, Gelso's new Continental Cup Team coach. "The ranks of Junior skiing can be volatile. From season to season we see different names on the top of the results list. Matt's name has been on the top of the results list for more than one season, and of late he has been the overwhelming favorite heading into domestic Junior championships."
Gelso is simply faster and smarter than most cross-country skiers his age, according to Glenn Jobe, a North Tahoe Olympian who competed in the 1980 Lake Placid Biathlon 20K event, and who has coached Gelso at race events and during training camps. "Matt is the top junior skier in the U.S. right now," Jobe said. "I have no doubt he will go as far as he wants to go."
How far can that be? The U.S. Cross Country Ski Team isn't known for its champions. But true believers think that reputation is about to change. "The U.S. is now knocking on the door for a medal," Jobe speculated. But has the word "medal" ever shared headlines with "U.S. Cross Country skiing" in world competition results? Only once, and not in Gelso's lifetime. In 1976, Vermont skier Bill Koch won an Olympic silver. There was a bit of a heyday in the early '80s with skiers getting top spots internationally, but not since then has an American cross country skier been on the Olympic podium. As recently as 2002, U.S. Cross Country Ski Team press releases from Europe wilted under such headings as "U.S. Skiers Blanked on Sprints."
"In the early 1980s, the sport started being televised, and Europeans poured money into their teams," explained U.S. Nordic Program Director Luke Bodensteiner. But we didn't match that. Soon, American cross-country skiers were finishing in the 40th places, then in the 70s. "Some dead last," Bodensteiner said. It looked as if anyone who hankered to win for the United States, like Gelso, would have to schuss instead of stride. "That's when we decided we were putting our focus in the wrong spot," Bodensteiner said.
Cross-country skiers usually peak around age 30. Before the late 1990s, the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team was waiting until athletes matured into their mid-20s before tapping them. In 1998, the United States switched gears with a new program providing a longer training arc for skiers by starting their World Cup development earlier in their careers. "In the past eight years we've taken a lot of steps to get a handful of athletes up to the point where they are now, close to the World Cup podium," Bodensteiner said. Results were good. Last winter, U.S. sprinters produced the best international results in history for the women and in two decades for the men. And, for the first time since the classification was established in the 1980s, U.S. skiers made the "Red Group," a pool of the top 30 competitors in sprint and long distance. In February, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced it would expand its support of cross-country skiing to impact the program for the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games. There will be better World Cup support, additional coaches' education and a renewed development program. It is this wave that pulled Gelso onto the Team, this wave he'll be riding, perhaps eventually propelling.
Can he hang in there for the four to eight years it could take to win a podium? With composure beyond his age, he doesn't boast. "For an endurance sport, it's necessary to give yourself time," he said. "You can't get world-class 50K endurance in even two years, unless you're extremely naturally gifted. ... It takes self-motivation."
He is used to long athletic trails. He's been drumming for success since he was 6 when he competed in his first swim meet. "He swam 100-meters four times back and forth," his dad, Matt Gelso Sr. recalled. "It was the longest race he'd ever done, and he was going to finish last, but he was killing himself in the race." That sort of drive very likely came from a high-performing mom, Kathy Gelso, who once was a competitive figure skater.
Swimming was good for "building his motor," according to Jeff Schloss, Gelso's primary coach in Truckee, but Gelso was even better on snow. "When he was 13 we took him to the Junior Olympics thinking this would be a good learning experience, but that he would finish toward the back," Schloss said. It's possible Gelso remembered what it felt like to swim in last place, because the back of the pack was no longer for him. In his first races, he surprised everyone by skiing in the middle of the pack. In the last individual race, he outperformed the rest of his own team, all of them older than him, and finished an astounding 11th. "That week I saw this young 13-year-old who was not intimidated by other kids," Schloss said. "On every race day, he learned from the day before." The red-headed kid had the makings of a champion. "To be the very best, it takes four things," Schloss said. "No. 1 is genetics. You have to have a big motor. The sport is so aerobically demanding." No. 2 is technique. "Matt has some of the best technique of any Junior in the country." Motivation is third. "It's not like football and basketball, where everybody's watching you. In cross country you are out in the woods by yourself for hours. If you don't have the inner drive, you're not going to make it. Matt will work out for hours without a coach watching him." Fourth is inquisitiveness: "The athlete has to be willing to learn. Matt will spend hours skiing past a coach and asking, 'Have I brought my arms in closer on the double pole? Is my skate push directed down the track?' He has a great, curious mind."
Jobe adds that Gelso's ability to think strategically also puts him out front. "Matt is a smart skier; he has strategy," he said. "When he goes out, he might be in 20th place, then 10th. Then he ends up winning the race. Other racers will go out hell-bent for leather the first lap, and then they can't maintain the speed. Matt gets faster as the race goes on, and that takes tremendous mental maturity. You have to be your own person."
Maturity, according to many who know him, is perhaps Gelso's crowning trait. "I am very proud of him as a person, even more than as a skier," his dad said. "That's what I admire about him most -- the quality of person he is."
As for Gelso, the new freshman at the University of Colorado is feeling the nip of challenge, one that few of his classmates can share. This winter Gelso will compete with the university ski team in the American and Canadian Continental Cup circuit, and he'll probably travel abroad for select international races. "When you are put up on a level like this, you want to promote the sport, and you want to do well for your country," he said. "Even on days when I don't want to train, when I wake up and it's raining and I'm tired, I could close my eyes and go back to sleep, but I don't, because it's what I need to do. It's what I do."
In the next few years during holidays Gelso may be seen training along the hundreds of miles of groomed nordic ski trails looping the mountains around Lake Tahoe. If his red top frizz doesn't distinguish him on the snow, his powerful technique will. "You don't see a lot of exaggerated movement," Schloss reflected. "Instead, it's powerful, close to the body, and directing him down the track." What a thrilling track that might be.