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Q&A with Sadie Bjornsen

Team USA's Sadie Bjornsen poses in snowy scene with cross-country skis
NBCUniversal

Q&A with Sadie Bjornsen

With a name like hers, USA's Sadie Bjornsen has become a Nordic fan favorite 

Where did you grow up?  
Methow Valley, Washington

Your last name is similar to several greats in Olympic Nordic sports, what is your family’s heritage?
My family has a lot of Scandinavian heritage, but they came to the U.S. several generations back. Bjornsen is a Norwegian last name, which allows for some particularly loud cheering when I am competing in Norway.

What is your earliest memory of cross-country skiing?
There were two local Olympians training in Methow when I was growing up. Laura McCabe and Leslie Thompson. When Laura came back from the Nagano Olympics, the whole Valley arranged a surprise "welcome home" party for her. We all lined the streets as she rode in on a fire truck. I remember recognizing how much honor there must be competing in the Olympics during that time. From then on, I was convinced I wanted to be an Olympic ski racer.

What is your first memory of watching the Olympics?
My earliest memories are from watching the Opening Ceremonies. As a kid, I thought that looked so fun and honorable. I loved the outfits, and the excitement with the event. I was also a swim racer when I was a kid, so [I was a huge fan of] Michael Phelps. I wanted to be both an Olympic ski racer as well as an Olympic swimmer.

Do you remember a “breakthrough” moment in your cross-country career when you realized you could make it to the Olympic Games?
My first "breakthrough moment" for skiing at an Olympic level was my very first World Cup and World Champs races. They were within a week of each other, and they were both in Norway, the place where our sport is the largest. You feel like an American football player when you are competing in cross-country skiing in Norway. I remember my first time getting top 30, and realizing this was exactly where and what I wanted to do.

My first breakthrough moment of feeling I could compete for an Olympic medal was last winter when I won my first individual World Cup medal. I had won medals in team events in the past, but it was the first time I stood on the podium in an individual event. Since then, I have been charged with a new form of determination and excitement for what is to come.

Who in your family has had the biggest influence on your life and athletic career?
My parents have been my number one supporters and believers throughout my athletic career. Competition was a "family vacation" at first. We would road trip across the West (of the U.S.) together, and have so much fun together. I didn't even know that training was training, because it was always just family activity together. I grew to appreciate competition without even realizing it. My parents have always believed the best in my brother and I. Neither of them have had a competitive background, so they have just been so happy and proud for every step I make. 

Within the cross-country world, who has had the biggest impact on you?    
Within my sport, Kikkan [Randall] has been my greatest influence. First she inspired me with her success. Then, I joined her team, and she encouraged me. She taught me that she was human, and anyone could do what she can if you really set you heart on it, and are willing to push yourself. Next, she taught me to believe in it. She taught me that there are no limits, if I am willing to dream. I won my very first World Cup medals alongside her as my role model, my friend, and my teammate. Now, she has continuously pushed me to new levels, and most importantly, she has inspired me with her incredible winning character. I have never met someone so selfless and supportive!

Did anyone ever try to dissuade you from pursuing your goals in cross-country?
I had a really challenging season my first year on the NCAA college racing circuit. I missed making the 2010 Olympics by a long shot (my goal since I was 8), and I was pretty defeated and lost. I remember overhearing another college race say I was "done," "would never come back." I was even further defeated by those comments, and it took a bit to find my belief again despite my really tough racing season.

Have you had other obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are now?
I suffered a reaction from an antibiotic called Levaquin ten years ago that left me struggling with severe forms of tendinitis. One of the rare side effects of this sinus infection fighting antibiotic was that it would create tendinopathy in your tendons. At the time there was little research, and few stories that even create enough alarm to count it as a risk. Unfortunately, I suffered from it, and was out of training and racing for a year. 

Following that, I have had many different forms of tendinitis that have stumped and sometimes stopped my training and racing. I have been very limited in the amount of load that my body can take. This has been an unbelievably challenging and disheartening process, but has taught me so much about resistance, resilience, and patience. I have had to fight the urge to give up and quit more times than I can even remember as it felt like there was no more avenues or options. Aqua jogging, uphill hiking, treadmill walking, and biking have saved me in times when my competitors were running and skiing – the two most efficient ways to train for our sport.

Fortunately, I have an incredible support system of an amazing coach, and an incredible physical therapist that have worked with the mental and physical challenges to overcome the hurdles.

How much time do you spend training each day?
I spend somewhere around 1 to 4 hours a day training, but about double that amount recovering and taking care of my body.

What’s the most out of the ordinary workout you do to train for cross-country ski racing?
One of my favorite out of the ordinary training methods that many others haven't done in my sport is "mountain skipping.” In a year that I was suffering patella tendinitis, it was really hurting me to run. Randomly, I started skipping across a parking lot one day, and quickly realized it didn't hurt my knee. From that day on, I spent the next two months skipping through the woods for training. There are a scary amount of brown and black bears around Anchorage, and running into them is a common thing. They can be particularly dangerous when you startle them, so I often sing or yell out "hey bear" every two minutes while I am training. During my skipping time, you could find me skipping through the woods singing, it was truly a sight to see, but it was my little secret method of training.

How much sleep do you need to feel your best?
I often try to sleep at least 8 hours a night while training and racing. When I am training super hard in the summer, I try to find a time to either lay down and rest or sleep for at least 30 minutes [for a nap.]

What’s the most grueling workout you’ve ever done?
Some of the most grueling workouts I have done are alongside my U.S. Ski Team teammates. These are the girls that are continuously pushing me to new levels, but also holding me to new levels of belief.

I am never afraid to try to stay with them during an intensity workout, or try to jump on the front and push them. For that reason, our workouts sometimes become particularly grueling. One of the most grueling ones I remember was an uphill "running with ski poles" ladder workout. 1 min, 2 min, 3 min, 4 min, 4 min, 3 min, 2 min, 1 min. Those shorter intervals at the beginning feel manageable, so you have a tendency to push yourself too hard. Once you get to the top of the pyramid, you worry you will never make it. Having a new teammate push the pace each interval really encourages you to dig deeper than you could even imagine on your own.

What are some of your favorite workout songs?
I love reggae music. My favorite current song is [Reggae cover of] “Hello” by Adele, “Keep It Warm” by John Craigie, “What Is Love” by Haddaway, “Is This Love” by Bob Marley and “Just A Boy” by Angus and Julia Stone.

What is your favorite perk of being an Olympic athlete?
You have a network of so many other amazing Olympic friends.

What do you do in your spare time when you’re not competing or training?
Aside from being a skier, I have been working on my education. I was a full time student while competing in the Sochi Olympics. I graduated with a double major in Accounting and Nonprofit Business Management from Alaska Pacific University two years ago. I am now working on my Masters degree in Business, which has provided a huge challenge for me while traveling and training, but I love the combination of "challenge and distraction.” When school becomes too overwhelming, I have ski racing to distract me. When ski racing is going through a challenging time, I have school to give me meaning and purpose.

What do you like to do in your time off?
Being outdoors, adventuring with my boyfriend. I grew up vegetarian, but I have learned to love hunting and fishing with Jo. There are so many amazing places to visit in Alaska. It is a giant playground!

What’s the coolest, weirdest or most intense thing about cross-country skiing that people typically miss?
The "life schedule.” I spend 4.5 months away from home (in a row) every year. I leave early November and don't come back until April. That means I live out of a duffle bag for 4.5 months. Once we do come home, we are traveling so much that the accumulated time in my bed turns into only a few months. I live in a true "traveling circus.”

What is your biggest fear when competing?
The fear of failure. My best races are when I have no fear of failure. If I can find a way to have nothing to loose, the sky is the limit, but getting there is the hardest part!

Do you have any specific pre-race rituals?
Wake up, run ten minutes outside in order to feel the temperature and find some place in my head. Eat breakfast, pack my bag (normally a solid 1 hour before all my teammates), get dressed and then organize my room. When I am nervous, I need to do something. That often means cleaning the room, folding and refolding my clothes, sometimes cleaning other stuff. It is a great way to pass nervous energy.

What’s something people would be surprised to learn about being an elite cross-country skier?
It begins at least 10 years before you arrive at the Olympic Games. With such an endurance based sport, the amount of training that goes into it begins so much [earlier than] the actual year of the Olympics. I have been training full time now for 9 years, 10 next year. That is a really long commitment before you start feeling you are really in your best form.

Who is your most interesting teammate and why?
Jessie Diggins. She is the most fearless, silly and talented person I have ever met. If she isn't winning ski races, she is bouncing off the walls full of energy. While she is the most energetic human I know, she runs on minimum 10 hours of sleep a night, which is truly incredible!

Who do you hang out with when you’re out on tour?
I socialize most with my teammates. My team is like my family. Since we spend 4-5 months a year living together, we grow into a supportive family for one another. Outside our team, we socialize quite a bit with our competitors. We are so lucky so many of them speak such great English!

Who are your biggest rivals? Is it friendly or contentious?    
Norway. They have a history of being the strongest, and they have the best support in the world, so any day you beat a Norwegian it feels good.

Have a crush on any Olympic athletes?
Michael Phelps.

Are you involved with any charitable organizations?
I have been an ambassador for nine years for Fast and Female. It is an awesome organization that uses the power of local role models to put on events for young girls around Canada and the U.S. The goal is to empower young girls through sport. Whether you want to be competitive or not, being involved in sports helps empower every woman to set goals, believe in yourself, and deal with set backs. These are all such invaluable lessons for a lifetime!

What will success look like for you in PyeongChang?
I want to go to win a medal, which has never been done by a U.S. woman in our sport!

Karaoke is popular in South Korea. Would you sing if asked to get on stage?
I love karaoke. It is one of my favorite things to do with friends! I love singing Shania Twain or Spice Girls. Those are my secret favorites!

If you are to indulge, what’s your favorite food, snack or dessert?
My two favorite “weak spot" indulgences are hint of lime tortilla chips and chocolate.

Do you have any nicknames?
Sadzarue. It came from my very first email account I made in 5th grade that I used way too long. For some reason it stuck, and everyone still uses it. In fact, they refuse to stop sending emails to it as well.

Do you have any hidden talents?
Working with numbers

How about any fears?
I have a serious fear of dark. That is why I live and train in Alaska (only in the summer when it is light all the time). Then in the winter, I leave!

What is your favorite social media platform?
Instagram. I think a picture speaks a thousand words, so that is my go-to. [Follow Sadie on Instagram @sbjornsen]

What’s something quirky about yourself that people would be amused to learn?
I talk and giggle in my sleep.

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