By Jenny Neyman
In the classroom, walking through the hallways or hanging out at lunchtime, they may seem a little different from most their schoolmates, with music in various languages pumping from their MP3 players, some clothing brands that didn’t come from Fred Meyer or Old Navy, the occasional rolled “r” or “t” that softens to an “f” sound, and mystification at the existence of Pop-Tarts.
But get them in their school’s Lycra uniforms, click them into skis and send them out on the trails and they become fully integrated members of their cross-country teams — doing the same drills, learning the same skills, every bit at home cheering on their teammates as their teammates are cheering for them. Even if their homes are thousands of miles away, where they may not have ever even seen snow before, much less skied on it.
High school Nordic ski teams on the Kenai Peninsula have had their ranks swelled by skiers from afar this year, with far and away more international students participating than in recent years, all from far, far away — Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Kenya, Indonesia, Egypt and Thailand.
“As a coach, I love it. It brings a great element to the team. I think it’s a very positive
aspect and it helps the other athletes see a larger picture. They bring some very unique qualities and it’s always a plus,” said Dan Harbison, coach of the Soldotna High School Nordic ski team.
Area high schools typically have two to four international skiers each season. This year, Kenai Central High School has five, Skyview has four, Homer has five, Seward has two and SoHi has eight. Some are from regions that at least have a passing familiarity with winter’s white stuff, but other than a few who have tried downhill skiing, they aren’t necessarily experienced schussing through the snow.
“This year I finally have a Norwegian that actually knew how to ski, but that’s not the norm. And I’ve had Scandinavians in the past who had never been on skis before and I was like, ‘What? Is that possible in your country?’” Harbison said. “I always hold out for that ringer that shows up one day, but so far that hasn’t happened.”
The international students more often are new to it all — Nordic skiing, snow and cold — at least, to the degree they exist in Alaska. The cold snap over Christmas was the chilliest temperatures most of Harbison’s international skiers had ever experienced, he said.
“Typically we’re taking them from scratch, and some of them actually have never seen snow before,” he said. “That, too, is always interesting. On the first snowfall we’ve had them do everything from run out and roll around in the snow to want to have a snowball fight because they saw it in a movie or something like that, to the reaction of, ‘It’s really, really cold.’”
Ana Laura Valdes, a SoHi skier from Mexico, can vaguely remember an uncharacteristic snowfall in her country when she was in elementary school.
“And then the next day it was all melted and it was like, ‘No! The snow is gone!’” she said.
SoHi’s Valeria Morten, from Italy, is used to a week or two of snow in the winter, and temperatures around 35 to 40 degrees this time of year.
“It’s a lot more cold here. It’s kind of hard, but I’m getting used to it,” Morten said. “I was complaining a lot, ‘I’m so cold,’ but in the end I put warmer clothes on and I’m good.”
Knowing that Alaska is cold and being prepared to experience it are two different things, the latter involving an expanded wardrobe of puffy jackets, thick gloves and extra layers that are cobbled together through purchases and loans from host family members.
“It’s so weird to use so much clothes. I’m not used to it,” said Carolina Castro, a Kenai
Central High School skier from Costa Rica.
Alaska bound — reluctantly
As the international students learn, it can take awhile to warm up in the Kenai Peninsula’s climate, just like it takes many of the students a while to warm up to the idea of coming to Alaska.
Students choose three preferences of destination countries and the exchange programs place them in one. They don’t usually get a say in where, within the country, they end up, with host families selecting the student they’ll take in for a year.
Alaska was off the map for most of their expectations.
“At first I was shocked, like I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘What? Alaska? Seriously?’ I thought my mom was kidding when she told me, but then I thought about it and I did some research and I liked it,” Morten said.
“I didn’t want to come here, because, I don’t know, it’s too cold and ice. I didn’t see Alaska like I see it now. I knew only igloos and penguins and Eskimos everywhere in Soldotna. But not anymore,” said SoHi skier Silvia Gavela, from Spain.
“At first I didn’t know that Alaska was in United States. I think Alaska’s Canada,” said Aoi Yokomori, a SoHi skier from Japan.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all. I thought I’d be going to California or somewhere,” said Sam Werthmuller, a Skyview skier from Switzerland.
Werthmuller’s host, Bill Galic, said surprise and trepidation are common reactions for the international students when they discover they’ve been placed in Alaska. He’s hosted students for nine years, and none of them started off particularly thrilled to be here. But with time they thawed, and being involved in something like skiing seems to help the process, he said.
“Almost all of the kids that I’ve hosted, when they find out they’ve been selected by a
family in Alaska, they are not pleased, and often their parents are equally as displeased about it,” Galic said. “But most all of them have arrived at a place where they love it here. They’re out skiing at sunset and they get in the car and they’re just raving about the beauty of Alaska and how happy they are that they’re here. It really helps them see the uniqueness of this country.”
We’ve got spirit,
yes we do
International exchange programs encourage students to get involved in sports and activities at their schools. Participation helps them meet local students and experience the culture of the high school they’re in. That concept alone is foreign to many international students, since most come from educational systems that don’t have school sports programs like the United States does.
“For the international students, that’s not their experience. They don’t really have teams with their schools. The whole concept of school spirit is something they learn about here. Maybe their community or town has a team, but they’re very hard to get onto. The students are very happy to be able to participate on a team, actually be a member and learn the sport,” Galic said.
Team sports, like basketball, can be intimidating to join since, without a comparable
skill level to the rest of the team, a new recruit without prior experience may not get much opportunity to play in games. In skiing, the students get to participate in all the races — even if there are moments when they wish they hadn’t.
“It’s kind of hard for me. I don’t like to go down the hill, because I fall down all the time,” said Mine Sirijaratwong, a Skyview skier from of Thailand.
“My first classic race was terrible, just terrible. I fell like seven times. Bad memory,” Werthmuller said of his first race in Homer, where snow and weather conditions were challenging even for experienced skiers.
Skyview coach Kent Peterson said that even the most hesitant starters usually end up being at least passable skiers by the end of the season.
“The ones that come from someplace that does not have snow, their experience is pretty amazing. There have been a few from Mexico that picked it up pretty well. Generally it seems like they have kind of a hard time, but they make some pretty good progress, and then by the end of the season they’re doing OK. There have been a few that don’t get it at all, but not very often. Usually they figure it out,” he said.
Going from zero to OK in one season is a sizable accomplishment for any new skier
learning to step turn the learning curve, made even more impressive if they’ve never seen snow before.
“We had a kid from Mexico, Victor. I’d tell him, ‘Victor, you’re probably the fastest skier in all of Mexico, like Speedy Gonzales.’ And then I found out there was another kid in Wasilla also from Mexico, so I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you might not be.’ But it turned out he still was the fastest skier in all of Mexico,” Peterson said.
With such a large group of international student skiers on the peninsula this year, they’ve got a built-in group of supporters to sympathize with them through each ski-boot blister, downhill crash and chilly race-start shiver, and they find their local teammates lending support, as well. After all, the discomfort of the first awkward movements on skis is an experience that transcends cultural, language and geographic borders.
“It’s fun to have them on the team,” said Duane Shaffer, a KCHS skier. “It’s a nice feeling because you look back to last year and you’re like, ‘Huh. That was me.’”
Tavo De La Torre, a KCHS skier from Mexico, said his coaches have been particularly patient.
“I don’t try to win, I just try to have fun. Of course, I try to be better every day, but my main purpose is to have fun,” he said.
“It wasn’t very fun in the beginning — you fall too much and it was kind of hard,” Castro
said. “But the people are really nice. They’re so friendly. They support you and they cheer for you. It’s nice. You keep learning every day.”
At a mixed relay meet at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School on Saturday, the international skiers may not have been leading their heats in time, but they were being cheered on as though they were.
“Go Laurianne! We love you!” came shouts from the KCHS team as Laurianne Piguet, from Switzerland, got set for her turn around the relay course. A little later, Gavela got a chorus of cheers as she picked herself up from a wipeout at the bottom of a hill.
The international skiers say their favorite thing about being on ski teams is the social aspect — making friends, going on trips, having fun with new people.
“I’m from a big city,” De La Torre said. “What I like is, in Mexico City, people are not very connected as like here in Kenai or Soldotna. If something happens to someone here, a lot of people know him so they help each other. Everybody is really nice.”
He said he particularly likes bus rides on ski trips, where the international students
learn things they probably wouldn’t get in classroom lectures or team coaching talks — like slang and the unofficial rules of how things work.
“The coaches go in the first seats and they don’t pay a lot of attention to us, like everybody feels really free to talk about all this stuff,” De La Torre said. “Like sometimes the coach doesn’t like us to do snowplowing (which slows speed going down hills), but they tell us to just do that when we’re going down a hill so we don’t fall.”
There’s so much vital information to impart.
“Introducing them to Pop-Tarts is interesting. A lot of them don’t have Pop-Tarts I think that’s one of the main things they don’t have,” Shaffer said.
The learning goes both ways, with local students getting a taste of international culture. Sarah Bressler, a KCHS skier, said the international students talk about what life is like in their countries — what foods they eat, what they do for fun. The local students help expand their international teammates’ grasp of English and American culture — Bressler is trying to teach Piguet to say “three” instead of “free,” for instance. And they learn something in return, like a “weird polka-song dance chain thingy,” Shaffer said, where Piguet starts dancing with one person, they split and bring in new partners, and the dance spreads.
“And this soccer player from Denmark brought these licorice candies, but they’re like salty licorice and they’re horrible. I don’t know how anybody can like them, but a friend of mine loves them,” Shaffer said.
The Nordic ski teams tend to be a friendly, inclusive bunch, and the international students fit right in, Peterson said.
“It’s a lot of fun. They bring whatever experiences from their own countries and it’s just fun to get to know them,” Peterson said. “The kids on the team then get an appreciation for the international culture and diversity, so hopefully we can not see people from other countries as hostile or enemies. Not that we necessarily do, but at least they understand that these kids, wherever they come from, are just like them.”
With Facebook, e-mail and other advances in social media and technology, it’s easier
than ever for students to maintain friendships, even after they return to their home countries. Harbison said he’s had former international skiers show back up in town and drop by for a visit, and local skiers have gone to visit their international friends in their countries.
“Typically the Nordic teams are very accepting groups and so it’s a really good place for foreign exchange students. It’s just really fun. Over the years we have built up a kind of extended team that’s all over the word,” Harbison said. “I just think it brings a really neat quality to all the programs, and to cross-country skiing in general.”
OK, but why — out of all the school sports and activities possible — is skiing so popular? For the students from warmer climates, who shiver if the temperature even approaches freezing, skiing seems like the last thing they’d want to do.
The lack of familiarity turns out to be the very reason they’re interested. If they’re going to be an exchange student and they’re going to go to Alaska, they might as well take the opportunity for every new experience it offers.
“We don’t have snow in Thailand, so we cannot ski in Thailand. I just want to try new things I never done before,” Sirijaratwong said.
“If I have to go to Alaska, then let’s do the coldest, most into-the-nature thing,” Morten said. “It’s something you can do in Italy, but it’s particularly good in Alaska. And you can see the nature and experience the wildlife and stuff.”
That open, give-anything-a-try attitude has been a hallmark of the international skiers, said D’Anna Gibson, coach of the KCHS ski team.
“Most of them are really excited to learn a snow sport because a lot of them come from an area that doesn’t have snow,” Gibson said. “They’re just a lot of fun because they want to be here, they want that experience. They always seem to be really charismatic and they’re really open with the team.”
The novelty of snow creates an excitement for it that’s infectious even to lifelong Alaskans who take it for granted, or would just as soon leave it as take it.
Kelli Stroh, of Kenai, and her family are hosting Castro, from Costa Rica.
“Caro is so willing to do everything. She loves Alaska,” Stroh said. “She comes right along, whether we’re snowmachining, snowshoeing, skiing or sledding. She could not wait for it to snow. We could all wait, but she was saying, ‘I want to see the snow.’ The first day she saw the first flakes coming down she did a happy snow dance she was so excited, and then when it really started to snow she went outside with my daughter and had a snowball fight.”
Castro said she wants to squeeze as much winter activity as she can into her international year, so joining the ski team was a natural fit.
“I always want to see snow so it was actually really fun. I never skied before. I’m never going to have the chance to ski again maybe, in Costa Rica, so it’s like an experience you’re not going to have. It’s really fun, and the snow is so fun.”
Stroh said she’s finding herself participating in more winter outdoor activities than she usually would, excited on behalf of Castro’s excitement. The family went sledding under a full moon on a particularly cold, clear night.
“I was thinking, ‘Would I be out here if it weren’t for Caro?’” she said. “It’s looking through another set of eyes. They’re just so happy about winter. It keeps us going, too, because we want her to experience everything. I think I am more enthusiastic about getting outside and showing her things.”
More enthusiastic may be pushing it, because Castro’s enjoyment of winter knows few bounds. Certainly not any that are dampened by language, culture or geographic divides.
“The people are really nice and the weather is so different from my country,” Castro said. “It’s so fun. You can ski and go sledding and stuff like that. I’m having so much fun here, it’s going to be so hard to leave this place.”