Andy Liebner, a 2001 graduate of Soldotna High School, has spent a sizable portion of his life scouring this continent and Europe to try and figure out the secret of how to go fast on cross-country skis.
Sunday morning over the course of three hours at a turnoff on the Seward Highway near the Hope Highway junction, Liebner gave away those secrets for free.
“I would feel selfish if I kept it all to myself,” Liebner said. “I want to give what I’ve learned and the mistakes that I’ve made so they don’t need to make them.
“I want to streamline their success. I’d love to see everyone succeed after what I’ve endured.”
The clinic, which took place on roller skis and not skis, included 10 skiers from Kenai Central and Soldotna high schools, as well as Kenai skiing coaches Brad Nyquist and Chris Bergholtz.
The clinic’s value can be summed up in a story Liebner told the group about the need to “ski like a starfish.”
It was the winter of 2010-11, and Liebner was preparing to race for the first time for Northern Michigan University and its coach, Sten Fjeldheim.
Fjeldheim told Liebner before the race: “Unless you ski like a starfish, I’m pulling you off the course.”
A little background is in order here.
Liebner was already a highly accomplished skier. In 2001 at Soldotna High School, he won the Besh Cup for amassing the most points in the six Junior Olympics qualifying races. He remains the only male from the Kenai Peninsula to win the Besh Cup.
Liebner would then ski for the University of Alaska Anchorage in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, earning All-American status both years.
After that, he took a few years off to live in Europe and delve into what makes skiing powers like Norway tick, eventually writing a book about the experience entitled “Wild Shot.”
While in Europe, Liebner won Poland’s Bieg Piastow, which is part of the Worldloppet, in 2009. Then in the winter of 2009-10, Liebner won the Men’s American Ski Marathon Series.
So this was no novice that Fjeldheim was telling to ski like a starfish. But Fjeldheim wasn’t just any coach.
He started at NMU in 1986 and has produced six NCAA national champions, 90 NCAA All-Americans, 10 Olympians and five U.S. National champions. Liebner said he spent a winter at NMU because he thinks Fjeldheim is the best teacher of ski technique in the United States.
And so Liebner did the V2 alternate skate technique — poling on just one side and the rest of the time holding his limbs out like a starfish.
It was an interval-start race, with skiers all starting at different times, meaning Liebner’s only way of knowing his place in the race was by his coaches telling him his relation in time to the leader.
With his heart rate not nearing its normal pumping during a race, and with his energy levels seldom tapped, Liebner figured the team was playing a joke on him when he went through the first checkpoint and he was told he was in the lead.
But he kept skiing like a starfish anyway, and thought his coaches kept up the joke at the second checkpoint, where he was still told he was in the lead.
Once all the skiers had crossed the line, though, Liebner was shocked to hear he had finished second despite all the energy he had conserved.
V2 alternate is a gliding technique, Liebner explained to the students. And to glide, one needs balance, achieved by holding out the limbs. The more glide, the more energy the skier is able to conserve.
“I hope telling the story helps them understand and remember why they need to do this,” Liebner said. “That way, they don’t feel so awkward and absolutely ridiculous when they’re doing this.
“I’ve already done it, and they can think about me at that level doing the same thing.”
Liebner started the clinic with an obstacle course that taught skiers the skills needed to stay safe on roller skis, then gave tips on cornering, skating while poling on each side, skating while poling on one side, and skating up steep hills.
Nyquist said the clinic was more than worth the drive of over an hour and a half on a Sunday morning.
“Andy is all about efficiency,” Nyquist said. “He’s very thoughtful about why you do certain motions, and he explains it well.
“He doesn’t just expect you to do it, he gives you a reason.”
The coach said another great thing about the clinic was the way Liebner personalized instruction for each skier. He also provided poles, roller skis and even boots for those who needed them.
Kenai Central sophomore Mickinzie Ticknor started skiing last winter.
“I got tricked into it by a friend, and now I just love it,” she said.
With one season under her belt, Ticknor said she learned a tremendous amount Sunday, particularly about the technique for skating uphill.
She said she has roller skis, but this summer stuck to rollerblades because she feels more comfortable on them.
But with another winter on skis, Ticknor said the clinic probably gave her the confidence to get on roller skis next summer.
Kenai Central junior Karl Danielson said he has been roller skiing once a week this summer with the training group Alaska Nordic Racing, with breaks for fishing and for the just-completed cross-country running season.
“I came because I haven’t skied in a while and I was looking to touch up on my technique before the season,” he said. “This was really good. There were a couple of things he said that really helped.”
While teaching cornering, Liebner told Danielson to let his arms swing all the way back behind his body when poling — like a pendulum — instead of stopping his hands at the hip.
Liebner smiled as Danielson cruised around the parking lot modeling the adjustment.
“That’s World Cup right there,” the coach said.
While Danielson has his sights set on things like a top finish at the borough meet and a top three at regions, Nyquist said technique isn’t just about finishing No. 1.
“Learning these things makes it more enjoyable for the kids, and seeing Andy makes them realize this can be a lifetime activity,” Nyquist said. “He shows it can be a hobby, a passion and a lifestyle.”
Liebner, who also served as the head coach for the Peruvian ski team at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, started doing the clinics in Michigan before hitting Alaska. In the next month, he will stop everywhere he can and give clinics on his drive back to Michigan.
He said the clinics are a perfect way to marry his two passions — coaching and promoting the business he founded in 2012, the United States Ski Pole Company.
He wants to have his poles on sale in Soldotna sometime this winter.
“I’m doing all these clinics in the US and Canada as an introduction to my pole line and as a way to give back to the ski community and increase the level of sport for our continent,” he said.
With the quality of winters flagging at various parts of North American lately, Liebner also wants to promote roller skiing not only as training for skiing, but as a healthy activity in its own right.
“Skiers can have four seasons, one on snow and three on the road,” he said.
Liebner peppered the clinic with lessons he learned from high school skiing coaches Ronna Martin and Sarah Murray and high school cross-country and track coach Mark Devenney, who in 2000 helped Liebner earn the first Class 4A state cross-country title by a Kenai Peninsula runner.
He said those lessons have helped him throughout his life, so he’d love for teenagers today to have the same experience with lessons they learn in high school.
“I had my doubts, but I gave it my all and did it,” Liebner said of the 2000 state title. “There’s been a lot of times in my life where I said, ‘If I could do that, I can take care of this.’”