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Olympic Dreams: Skiing to the Limit
By Julie Hwang

NOLS grad Graham Nishikawa, a Canadian favorite for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
© Morten Byskov

It’s not always about winning; sometimes it’s about how far you can go.

During this winter’s 20th Olympic Games, Sarah Konrad marked her place in sporting history when she became the first American female to compete in two events in the same games: the biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Former NOLS Instructor Sarah Konrad makes history as the first American female to compete in two separate events at this year’s winter Olympics.

Categorized as a “late bloomer,” the Wyoming native didn’t start competing in Nordic skiing seriously until she was 30. Since then, Konrad has carved her own tracks to the Olympics, living the vision and action that she taught for almost a decade at NOLS.

In 2001, the Laramie-based athlete with a PhD in geology switched her focus from skiing to biathlon in a calculated effort to achieve her Olympic goals. And over a year ago, Konrad quit her job as well as competitive cycling to dedicate herself to the biathlon. Why? “Mostly because I was good at [skiing] and wanted to learn how good,” she says. “I love winter and being out in the snow, the feel of moving fast with my lungs and legs pumping.”

Konrad has also gained attention for her age — at 38, she was the oldest female Olympian in Torino. The bigger point, perhaps, is how she pursues such a punishing endurance sport. “When I am skiing a marathon, people wonder how I can go that hard that long,” she says, “but really, it is nothing compared to a long, hard day with a 70 pound pack on my back.”

Her EB doesn’t go unnoticed, either. “A more gracious athlete I haven’t met,” Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal said after interviewing her.

Skiing fast seems to come easily to the woman some call the fastest skate-skier in the country. Konrad kicked off the Games by skiing the 15k only nine seconds short of gold medal time, but her shooting cost her 10 minutes in penalties, leaving her in 63rd place. The 7.5k produced similar results. When she switched over to cross-country skiing, she contributed to the 4x5 relay’s 14th place finish and ended the two weeks with her best result in the 30K in 32nd place.

Although her races in Italy may not have met her expectations, Konrad is the type of athlete who will use this experience to her advantage. Now that she’s gained the recognition that she’s worked so hard for, the Olympian plans to continue racing and shooting for as long as she improves.

Another NOLS grad finds himself at his dreams in a more traditional way; Graham Nishikawa grew up skiing in the Yukon Territory, which naturally turned to competing for the Yukon Ski Club. Now at 22, he has just completed his first season with the Canadian National Cross-Country team.

“I always enjoy competing and pushing yourself and always improving,” Nishikawa says. “I also just love being outside; it’s totally relaxing to me.”

The Whitehorse native has posted strong results all season, culminating with a gold in both the 10k classic and 15k freestyle at the Northwestel Western Canadian Cross Country Championships in his hometown. The local hero earned his wins against two Torino Olympians — and clinched the Canada Cup. This title secures him a place in next year’s World Cup.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, but I really enjoy where I am right now,” the Nishikawa says. “Hopefully I can stay injury-free and make it to the Olympics one day.”

Twenty-two may seem young to be competing at such a high level, but it’s nothing Nishikawa hasn’t experienced before. At 16, he came onto his Yukon Backpacking course as one of the youngest students. “I think it definitely strengthened him and helped him to explore and understand his own limits,” his mother, Joan Stanton, says. “The whole experience helped him to explore different kinds of leadership and find his own style.”

If Nishikawa and Konrad keep pushing for their limits, they might just push themselves all the way to Vancouver in 2010.

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