“What sorts of things do you learn when you are forced to deal with adversity – you learn to be creative,” says author Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath. Gladwell has studied people that fall under the category of underdogs. He says because these folks don’t have conventional advantages, they are forced to use unconventional methods to succeed against greater odds.
Unconventional is a fitting description for the rise former Unalakleet cross-country skier Alyeska Daniels took on her way to reaching the United States Cross-Country Junior National Ski Championships in Lake Placid, New York in early March.
Daniels has used inflatable-tired roller skis on the gravel roads of her hometown and gone on tundra training runs in the wilds of Alaska toting a rifle for bear protection. Pulling fish laden nets out of the water is part of her summer strength routine.
Unalakleet, with a population that is roughly two-tenths of one percent of Anchorage’s population, is not as easy a place to develop a competitive racer as the state’s largest city. Heck, it’s not really an easy place to even stay upright on skis.
“First you have to deal with cold, then you have to deal with wind, then you have to deal with overflow, and that’s just to get out the door to go skiing,” says longtime Unalakleet head ski coach Nancy Persons, who taught Daniels how to ski and introduced her to racing. “Our snow is really windblown, plus our snow sometimes has salt in it from the ocean. And then, we have kids from fifth grade through twelfth grade all skiing together.”
Despite those challenges, Daniels was perennially one of the best competitors at the rural state meet during her junior high and high school years. She was crowned Skimeister at the Western Interior Ski and Biathlon championships in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Her three WISA individual titles tie her for the most ever by a rural female athlete.
Daniels made the jump to a larger ski stage when she qualified for the 2014 Arctic Winter Games in Fairbanks. Since rural ski meets only feature skate skiing, Daniels was forced to learn classic technique on the fly. Ironically, she had her best result in the 7.5-kilometer classic race, placing 11th out of 20 racers from nine different northern nations.
The homeschooled Daniels was speedy with the academics as well. She finished her required high school studies a year early and opted to enter the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 2015 as a 17-year-old.
From a skiing standpoint, Fairbanks offered meticulously groomed trails, warming huts, a highly competitive peer group and opportunities for coaching at the next level. Daniels decided to continue training for both skiing and biathlon. That led her to FXC, or Fairbanks Cross-country, and head coach Peter Leonard.
“She was really focused on biathlon this year, and the World Junior (Biathlon) Trials,” said Leonard. “We structured training for that. Then we had a town race sprint here in the first weekend of December. It was a classic sprint, which hasn’t been her favorite technique, but she had an awesome race. She beat the freshman at UAF that was the junior national hill climb champion.”
That feat prompted Leonard to suggest his protegé compete for the Besh Cup. He thought Daniels could possibly qualifying for Junior Nationals in the U20 category, a division for racers that start the season as 18- and 19-year-olds. Only the best and brightest stars in the state enter this six-part series, which is used to determine the yearly Alaska Junior National team. Athletes often skip high school events to attend these prestigious races.
Daniels accepted her coach’s challenge, and earned enough Besh Cup points to be named as the first alternate on the Alaska Junior Nationals squad. When a girl in front of her declined a spot, Daniels found herself headed to one of the United States top ski venues.
The results for Daniels’ first foray on the upper echelon national scene were good. She was proud of her 33st place finish out of 37 entrants in the classic distance race on March 10. Daniels also finished 31st in the 5-kilometer skate event on March 6.
“It was a four-lap race because it was a 10k,” said Daniels about the demanding Lake Placid classic course. “That hill that we had to go up... it’s like a mental perseverance exercise.”
But more important than results, however, was the fact that Daniels was presented with the Dan Quinn Award by the USSA Junior Cross-Country Subcommittee. The award recognizes “a Junior Olympics athlete who not only accomplishes outstanding results, but has special attributes such as love for the sport, leadership, overcoming hardship, work ethic, etc., which make them unique.”
“Perhaps – as noted by her other coaches – it is her spirit and spunk, or her infinite repository of enthusiasm for the sport which have set her on this path,” said Leonard in a speech to the Junior National crowd at the awards assembly. “Obviously it got her here. More notably, she is the first skier in over 30 years to grow up off of the road system and compete for Alaska at this event.”
“I made a lot of silly mistakes. It was a big learning curve,” said Daniels of her transition from rural Alaskan skier to national-level athlete. “I know a lot of things I didn’t know before.”
Although she has not set plans for next year, Daniels has given lots of thought to her sport. “I was told by (U.S. Olympic Biathlete) Susan Dunklee that if you going to be skiing and racing for a long time you have to find what you really like about the sport, and hold on to that,” she said. “So I thought about that. I love a lot of things about skiing. I really love racing, but I also really love training.
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