Winter Park Beginnings Leads Minocqua Skier to U.S Ski Team

Submitted by Ken Schoville


From Winter Park to the U.S. Ski Team is quite the journey for a local boy from Minocqua.  Kevin Bolger was recently named to the B-team after one of the most impressive starts for an unknown US skier as he placed 11th in the skate sprints at Lahti, Finland, March 3, 2018.  Norwegian TV commentators dubbed him, “the surprising man”, a new name on the elite World Cup stage who performed beyond expectations.  Kevin’s performance was the highest place of any American since Minnesota native Garrott Kuzzy finished 9th in his debut at a sprint at Canmore, Canada in 2008. Awarded the “Breakthrough Skier” of 2018 by FasterSkier website, he’s on his way.

Bolger was born and raised in Minocqua and began his skiing at a young age in the elementary program and, advancing to the high school team where he ultimately capped his years with a high school championship titles in 2010 and 2011, along with being team captain.  A post graduate ski program then followed as he took two years at Sun Valley to hone his skills and develop further in all aspects of training and racing at higher levels.

The next move was to the University of Utah where in March of 2017 the team captured the NCAA National Championship, Bolger being a key component.  Prior to that Kevin had been national champion in the classic sprint, in Anchorage, Alaska so many US Nordic observers knew of his potential.  His leading the US SuperTour series lead to a number of World Cup starts in the spring of 2018 in Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

Following his collegiate career, he had moved back to Sun Valley to work with his club coach, Chris Mallory.  U.S. Cross Country Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover spoke to Kevin’s success and approach to the sport. “We are very excited to have Kevin as part of the U.S. Ski Team. He had one of the best entrances by an American athlete to World Cup competition of all time last season when he finished 11th in Lahti in his very first World Cup race. Kevin has a great work-ethic, a clear love of the sport, and embodies the culture of being a great teammate and training partner. We are excited to see what Kevin can do on the World Cup this season with another year of training and preparation behind him, and we are looking forward to strengthening our partnership with the SVSEF Gold Team.”

In a phone conversation Kevin answered a few questions about, “How’s it going?”  with the standard upbeat, “Great!  My training hours are on track, the training is rolling, May was a great month getting in the first big block with the national team, and now just logging some solid hours in June.  “Quality not quantity” is the design.  There are no huge issues, but I know my stretching can improve and it’s something I’ve working on, getting into a normal routine of rolling…etc.…

Chris is writing my plan, this isn’t to say the US Coaches don’t have a say or influence, it’s all shared on a google doc. We are all working together to target the best plan for me. “HRV (Heart Rate Variability) while sleeping to monitor recovery, and then we can look at my plan as we move forward.

Kevin has a “secret training weapon” as he will be training for a good part of the summer in Trondheim, Norway.  Part of the Bolger Family Team is older brother Conor (Lakeland Nordic Ski Alum) who has lived on and off in Trondheim for the past half dozen years working on a PhD in Exercise Physiology, including an internship at the Center for Elite Sports Research and Norwegian Olympic Sport Center, in Neuroscience at the Center for Sports Research (SENTIF in Norwegian).  As such he gets to rub elbows with elite Norwegian skiers from both XC and Nordic Combined as he tested for both lactate levels and VO2 Max in the lab.

That contact on a regular basis and social contacts beyond that opened the door for Kevin to get connected.  Those connections are still strong as Kevin trains with top Norwegians and uses their methods to improve, as well as help with housing and transportation over there.

For those unfamiliar with Norway and the Trondheim region, skiing is THE real deal there.  In the Sochi Olympics, there were 18 athletes from Trondheim represented on the team.  Current data from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics had Norway on top of the medal count followed by Germany, Canada, and the United States.  Without the distraction of “Big three” American sports of football, basketball, and baseball, a lot of Norwegian pride, media attention, and North Sea oil money resources go into producing the system and infrastructure that ensues Norway owns the winter sports market. Norway, with a size roughly the same as California, and a population smaller than Wisconsin at 5.2 million, has Trondheim as their shining star, perhaps the most densely Olympic populated region in the world, aside from undisclosed and unsubstantiated training camps within Russia.  So for summer

As Kevin’s high school coach, I saw first-hand early on the personality and “skier smarts” that make “the surprising man” a man to watch in the future.  A closing story will illustrate.

As a high school team our race calendar was pretty much my design.  One meet that we had attended on and off for years was the Mesabi East Invitational at Giant’s Ridge, MN.  About a five hour drive to our north, past Duluth into the Iron Range, the race is often touted as the largest high school Nordic skiing event in North America, maybe the Nordic world, except for a Norwegian thing or two.

I would put it on and off the calendar based on the strength of our team, other schedule peaking needs, how my butt felt after the last quick up and back, and whether I’d frozen any appendages the previous trip.  Truth be told, it also depended on the kid’s enthusiasm for a road trip and a major competition the weekend after the Holiday break.

So, 2011, Kevin’s senior year, we made the trip.  Typically, we would take five boys and five girls, competing in the classic race, with numbers constrained by transportation availability and sleeping arrangements, and sometimes budgets.  Friday afternoon we’d skip out at noon, drive, change at the venue in the bathrooms, and preski the course, usually beginning in the waning early January light and skiing into the stadium in darkness for final sprint detailing, testing waxes along the way.

Saturday morning I preskied the course again at 7:00 to check on grooming, changes to the track and conditions, begin the final test for wax, and greet other coaches.  Typical for “The Fridge” temps were a sunny -7F at dawn and kick wax selection less than challenging.

Lakeland arrived around 8:00 am along with the 1200 or so other high school skiers, primarily from Minnesota.  In chatting with the team several things were noted: Cover yourself!  And while the course was primarily up from the stadium as it climbed to the 3k high point before a rolling downhill section, there was a surprising amount of double pole kick that has worked in my earlier dawn preski.  The tracks were typically rock hard and bullet proof as the groomers prepared for the hammering of huge numbers skiers on the 5k’s and while cold, the track was fast.  This was going to be a fun ride.

With the small number of skiers on hand and coach Mike Bolger and myself waxing, we were able to personalize the applications.  When I asked Kevin what he wanted from the box, the answer was short, precise, and easy; “Three layers Swix VR30; long, medium, and a short one underfoot, a little forward from the ball.”  Made sense to me and the confidence in making that call showed maturity.

Two at a time, fifteen second intervals made for busy starts and crowed tracks.  With cold, but legal temps, I elected to stay with the skiers in the stadium focusing on solid warmups and keeping them warm before their starts.  Kevin bounced and hopped with a smile as he waited his turn, charging off mightily and distancing his start partner quickly.

Frankly, after the start, in our situation, as a coach, I’ve done my part.  There were majorly big teams there, school buses and massive diesel idling tour  buses functioning as mobile changing/recovering rooms for teams numbering from 80 to 120, and coaching staffs to match.

When you have the hands available, coaches can find all sorts of ways to stay busy with one of the fun jobs being going off into the woods to “give splits”.  In the case of this course, the top of the hill, just before the high point, the trail gives a perfect spot to give a quick time differential between competitors, a word of encouragement, technique cue, or, in rare cases a “get your ass moving” locker room motivational application.  A lot of coaches gather at that place, with radios, giving the wax crew and stadium coaches a view of how the athletes are doing on course.  We didn’t have that luxury.

However, in between getting the other boys ready and off, I started getting word that some unknown boy might be doing pretty good, indeed leading at the top.  Wearing the unfamiliar “Flames” suit of Lakeland, Kevin Bolger, “the surprising man” was having a good day, and making the Minnesota coaches mumble into their radios, that word being passed through the stadium and eventually winding up in my ears by old friends from the other side of the river and north, as in the UP.

“Hey, Ken!” suddenly became the call as I became a very popular guy.

Kevin rolls into the stadium and after recovery we talk.  Yep, heard the splits on course. Nope, don’t know if they’ll stand.  Other skiers to come with still a lot on course.  Good skis, double pole kick worked well.  Temps were not a factor on a crystal-clear cold day.

Time passes, the top skiers are in, and Kevin Bolger, Minocqua, Wisconsin, wins the classic event in the biggest high school race in North America, by 33 seconds.  His next three closest competitors were within 1.9 seconds of each other.

The future is bright for the skier who started his ski path at Minocqua Winter Park.  The summer training and camps will continue to lay the foundation for World Cup starts in the late fall and into the winter, basing in Europe if all goes well and he learns to rub elbows with the big boys. There’s a great deal of work to do as a solid foundation is built. World Cup starts may lead to World Cup points and eventually a spot on the A-team, completely funded.  As of now, he’s supported by the U.S. Team, but self-funded.

While Bolger primarily trains in Sun Valley, the U.S. Ski Team gathers from across the nation monthly for training camps, testing, and preparation for the snow season.  A skier’s work is never done, with a much-needed recovery periods in April, and then increasing loads throughout the summer and fall; with typical training hours for World Cup skiers falling between 800-1000 hours per year.

“Surprising man?”  I’m not so sure.  The Kevin I know does his work, understands opportunity, connects well, is unafraid and not overawed or overwhelmed by skiing venues or race opportunities. Obviously talented, Kevin exudes passion for the sport and easily makes friends; a good playmate and great representative for a sport we all love and understand as both consuming and difficult.