Eli Brown and Kikkan Randall Gold Medal

“Bearing Down:” Olympic Wax Tech takes us Behind-the-Scenes in PyongCheng

Eli Brown, a Northern Michigander and former Division I collegiate Nordic coach for University of Utah, reflects on his experience as a Wax and Service team member at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyongCheng. His role as Test Pilot and Wax Tech gave him a firsthand experience of what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal. The answer? It’s all about the team.

Eli Brown and Kikkan Randall
Eli Brown and Kikkan Randall, and Kikkan’s Gold Medal!

HQ: Was this your first time going to the winter Olympics?
EB: Yes

HQ: What was your official role?
EB: Test pilot and wax tech.

HQ: Were you actually testing skis?
EB: Yeah oh yeah. We have to help the athletes pick their skis.

HQ: How does that decision process work?
EB: Well, let me just say that for me. this is like coming full circle because I was an athlete who wanted to go to the Olympics and dreamed about it my whole life, and finally had the chance now in a role to give back, so I was more than happy to do it even though it was a big time commitment away from my job and my family.

HQ: How did you get the position of Wax Tech and Test Pilot?
EB: Well, this is the 5th year in a row that I’ve gone over to Europe for month. And I had the same role with the same exact team of guys at the last 2 championships where we medaled both times, so we call ourselves the A team. That included the fulltime guys, a couple Estonians, a Frenchman, and two American boys. And some of the coaches do double duty like Jason Cork, who is Jessie Diggins coach and the mens’ head coach. And he also is the only person who touches her skis.

HQ: So she has the one guy who does everything. That makes sense. Does he test her skis also?
EB: He tests her skis with her, yes.

HQ: Whose skis were you mostly waxing?
EB: Since I’m a volunteer guy, or have been – I’m actually taking on a position, instead of volunteering for the month I’m going to get a small stipend and go over to Europe five times next winter, including World Champs – but still I’m the new guy so I always get the up and comers. Which, back in Falun, was Caitlin Gregg, the winner of the Super Tour, and I was responsible for her when she got that Bronze medal in that 5k skate. Which had a little bit to do with weather, but we had good skis as well. At the Olympics, Paddy Caldwell was my responsibility, and Caitlin Patterson who I’ve worked with for a couple years now. We all end up working together on the testing process for sure. There’s a long standing one on one relationship with those top athletes and their techs. They spend the whole season building out the quiver of skis, pretty intimate with how to work with that specific athlete and whatnot.

HQ: Describe what it was like in South Korea after spending so much time in Europe. Any additional challenges or advantages to the athletes or to you being in South Korea?
EB: Compared to Europe, it was more unfamiliar to everyone – in Europe, everyone has their favorite coffee shops, favorite waxes they like to use in each country – so for all of us it was pretty much a clean slate. Not just my fellow A team members on the waxing and service staff, but for the other countries as well.

HQ: So you were all on the same playing field with getting adjusted?
EB: Right.

HQ: What was the biggest surprise in Pyong Cheng?
EB: Coming home with a gold medal. I wouldn’t have predicted that.

HQ: I have this vision in my mind that the US Nordic ski team is this big happy family. Is it really like that?
EB: Yeah after working together all day, we all crowd into one hotel room and drink whiskey and talk about the day. For the athletes it’s the same; when they’re done taking care of their bodies, their followers and their sponsors and all that, they end up doing dance videos together or playing board games. And I think that is attributed to the individual athletes, but also to the coaching staff. They have great leadership.

HQ: Any big difference in that team vibe before this year’s Olympics vs. after?
EB: I think there is a wave of new energy that’s not going to go away for a while.

HQ: Before races, did you guys have a pump up song that you used, or a special cheer or a chant?
EB: Every team meeting there’s a cheer that’s kind of thrown around last minute who gets to do that cheer – the everyone put your hands in the middle kind. We always try to relax on a Sunday morning by playing “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” in the wax cabin. Jason Cork, whenever he gets a podium, has a hardcore rap song that he plays at full volume but I can’t think of what it’s called.

HQ: What were the most challenging conditions your team had to wax for in Pyong Cheng?
EB: I think the trickiest thing was the fact that it never changed. I saw like 3 snowflakes the whole time I was there. When we got there – and we were early – we were staring to get set up and the venues were still getting dressed up for TV. They were actually blowing snow on the hillsides behind the camera angles, like on the Olympic rings up on the hill behind the biathlon range. They were blowing snow up there even though it wasn’t on the course, just to make it look better. But it was a golf course. It was super brutally windy, it was super dirty, sand and grit – I think it was one of the Canadians who was going around and sampling the snow, and they’d take little scoops of snow here and there along the course and then put it in a bucket and let it melt down to see what’s actually was in it. And there was just tons of dirt. But the challenge of this slow, sand paper snow that was super old, man-made snow, and the fact that it didn’t change, the challenge there is that it’s easy to get a little soft or complacent. Or make assumptions. And we stayed sharp, and the athletes stayed sharp. Diggins was seconds away from a medal four times. And that day of the team sprint, we knew we were really sharp because we this was our big last and best chance for a medal, and we ended up doing things a little bit differently that day, and I think it was to our advantage that it was seemingly the same, although little micro changes can mean different wax combinations or skis or structures to make incremental gains. But that day – and with the team sprint, they don’t show it on TV, but it actually starts in the morning with two semi-finals – and when those semi finals started, every nation was done testing except for the US and Russia. We missed the entire semi finals. One of the fulltime techs, Oleg, and I were hammering it out until the very last minute, we barely got on course to watch the actual race. And it’s an interesting race, because with the pit, it’s the one time you can kind of see what the other countries are doing, because each country has a box, and there are 2 dudes there who are racing to get a pair of skis done in the 3 minutes that the other athlete is racing. So it’s interesting that we used a new combination an method on that day, and we were basically the only people who were still testing and found something different, and it was verified by the fact that in the pits there, every other country was doing some kind of liquid application and mechanical roto-cork or roto-brush, and we were using powder that we hand corked in and hand brushed out, and I can’t take anything away from those athletes, and how strong they are, especially Diggins how aggressive and how good she is at downhills, but we had good skis that day, and I’m proud to have played a part in that by just bearing down; you know, everyone’s been there for 2 weeks, they’re eating the same food, everything’s the same, except for that day, that evening race, the snow might have been a little bit different, I’m not sure why but when we find something that works that’s what we use and we don’t try to second guess it. It happened to be a different wax and a different method, and so that was pretty cool.

HQ: Did Kikkan and Jessie have the same wax job?
EB: All the athletes always do. We as a team show up 8 hours before the race, and are preparing all kinds of different fleets of skis. And you go out with the guy that’s closest in size to you, take two pairs of skis and double pole a couple times, hold hands down a hill, and once you’re going the same speed you let go and drop in a tuck and see who accelerates in front of who, and then you switch skis and do the same thing to verify it. And you kind of go through a bracket until you have the best couple skis and a winner, and report it back to the wax cabin. And we have no idea what we’re testing so we’re not bais, and that’s how you figure out not only the actual product or the mix of products that you’re going to put on the skis, but the method – we actually also, one of the final tests is should we hand brush this out or should we roto-fleece it out. Should we put a liquid or a powder together, or what. We try to take out all the variables and mostly just try not to screw it up.

The tricky thing about Pyong Cheng too, was that at the Tour de Ski in early January, the teams were finalizing all their wax orders from all these companies. Likee, what are they actually going to bring, and how are they going to pack, and if they have to ship it there. What a crazy thing that a month out and half way around the world you have to decide what you’re going to bring for wax. And then at that point when the games are almost over, you’re getting low on stuff, and each wax company is there but they’re getting low on stuff too. It’s all pretty crazy.

HQ: Do Olympians adjust their bindings?
EB: Yeah, but generally not very often. It’s either someone’s preference or for certain conditions. So your cold soft ski is going to be set up and you’re probably not going to move the binding. But it can also be a variable to try for sure, just to go ski and see what feels better. So they have their preferences with that, and you know Caitlin Gregg is like the only person who still uses the wedges anymore underneath the old style bindings, everyone is pretty dialed.

HQ: Since Jessie is on Salomon, which doesn’t adjust, are all of Jessie’s skis mounted in the same spot?
EB: I don’t know for sure. But I do know that the relationship that she has with Salomon is huge. There are two guys who are probably the best representatives of a ski company, of all the different companies, and it’s the two Salomon guys. They’re fit, they work hard, and Jessie Diggins is obviously number one in the world for their brand, so they’re always bringing new stuff over. And Cork, with his mathematical mind, is helping keep track of it all. She’s on new stuff all the time that looks different than anybody else’s skis. Translucent, see-through, multiple different kinds of base materials, halfway-done paint jobs, all kinds of crazy stuff. Actually she uses a length of ski that you can’t buy.

HQ: Do you know what length it is? Can you say?
EB: I do know, but I can’t say. It’s an in between size.

HQ: Describe the Team Sprint relay from your perspective.
EB: For me, I actually was in a spot where I couldn’t see anything at all. All the main coaches stations were covered, so I scrambled last minute to a place where I wasn’t supposed to be. I was hiding behind a camera ready to pop out with a pole. At the top of that last hill there was absolutely no one up there, which seemed to me like the most important place to have poles. And if you watched real closely you can see me hop out and sprint down to hand a Russian girl – Natalia Napareva – a pole on Kikkan’s last leg. Talk about collusion.

HQ: How about the rest of the race?
EB: I had no idea what was going on, I didn’t know we won the race until people ran up and found me. Everyone was talking on the radio so you couldn’t hear anything, but obviously I knew it was a medal because the three of them got away, so for me the excitement was a little bit different – standing at the top of that hill screaming my lungs out and getting reprimanded for stepping onto the edge of the trail by the cameras, but it didn’t matter at all – it was overwhelming.

HQ: You guys obviously partied that night, right? Was it a crazy huge celebration?
EB: We didn’t get out of there until 10:00, but yeah we went to the one bar and everyone showed up and bought pitchers for us – the head coach of China, all the Norwegian coaches, the Germans, ski jumpers. It was maybe a little anti-climactic compared to what people might have imagined it to be, because the gold medals weren’t there and neither were the athletes. They were busy and had to get ready for another race.

HQ: I have to ask, what kind of wax was used on Jessie’s skis?
EB: I appreciate the question, and the answer is I don’t know. It was a mix. Our team hand mixed a couple different waxes for some reason.

HQ: Aside from the Team Sprint gold medal, what in your opinion was the most impressive performance by a US athlete?
EB: What should have gotten more publicity was Jessie Diggins doing every single race. The only other person to do that was Krista Parmakoski (Finland). Both of them crushed it. There wasn’t any of the back of the pack people who happened to participate all the time or something like that, it was actually just two players that did that.

HQ: Talk about the momentum leaving the Olympics. What does this gold medal mean for the sport?
EB: When someone on your team breaks the barriers, it makes it easier for you. That’s what’s happened on this womens team. There’s going to be more medals now for sure. It’s easier now because they did it. So that momentum is a real thing. There’s a big World Championships coming up on a course that Sophie did well on last year in Seefeld, so I’m pretty excited about that.

HQ: Do you foresee an upsurge in Nordic participation across the country as a result?
EB: It’s been refreshing to see how many people followed this story outside of the ski fan closed group, so the sport is bound to grow I think.

HQ: How many techs are on the Wax and Service Team?
EB: There’s Oleg, he’s Estonian and he’s the boss. He’s been in charge of Liz Stephens for a while as well as Sophie Caldwell. He’s been around for a long time and is kind of the magic glue that holds us all together. He’s a full on wizard, one of the world’s best, when it comes to kick wax. He likes guys like me that don’t know anything and are stupid enough just to go hammer it out and tell him that my left foot feels better than my right. He’s a good leader. There’s a Frenchman, J.P., who’s in charge of Sadie, and he also worked with Noah for a while. Then there’s another Estonians, Marek, there’s two American boys from Montana, Tim and Andrew, and then the volunteer, myself, a volunteer from Canada, Patrick Moore, and then a couple coaches that do double duty like Jason Cork, Matt Whitcomb always gets in the mix, Chris Grover gets in the mix, and then the one outside coach that always is there at big championships is Erik Flora from APU, and he really leads the charge when it comes to testing, because he’s the only one of us who can ski hard and long.

It’s kind of an interesting thing that this really important, behind-the-scenes team is not all carrying American passports. But it’s such a specialty field that, to get the experience… these guys live and breath the team, and they’re all in. They’re not going to get scooped up by another country, they’re too proud to be part of this team, and it doesn’t really matter what their passport says.

HQ: What’s the pressure like for the Wax Team?
EB: It’s huge, and we just try to keep each other in check, because the pressure can get the best of you and take away from your focus. The main thing is that this is the athlete’s big moment and you just don’t want to screw it up. We like being the underdogs, and I think our strength is not having egos get in the way, and no one’s offended by people questioning each other and letting the testing speak for itself. We get to work straight from breakfast, usually 6-8 hours before the race on a race day, or 3-4 hours on a training day, and start with some organizing and thinking, then go into a meeting and then just split up the work. We all show up together, we all leave together, we all live or die together by the results of the athletes. So it’s super high adrenaline and stressful, and super fun to be right there in the mix.

HQ: What was the biggest lesson you learned being over there?
EB: I was really touched by the Olympic movement. Being over there and seeing the local people embrace it, all these special moments where people get to know each other from different countries, and the winners waiting for the slowest person to come across the line. This one day I was walking along this long busy highway to get to our hotel downtown, I’m walking along this river valley and I look down and I see some movement down there, and I see someone skating on this 2 foot deep frozen river with boulders around it. I get closer and there’s this random dude, completely out of sight of anyone but me, skating in the Olympic rings on this little patch of ice. It just captured the excitement of the whole thing, everyone fully immersed in the whole thing. I think it has the power to change people too – the Olympic movement is bigger than any sport. That’s what has happened for me. I’m hooked and I’m already committed for 2022 in Beijing, I think about it every day and what I can do to become better and to help those athletes become better.

One of the most amazing things I saw there was the day before the team sprint, and seeing the team go through this 2 day process right up until the event where everyone was just so dialed. I wish people could have seen that. Starting with the super hard talks and meetings with Sadie and the coaches and Kikkan, because Sadie could have been on that team.

HQ: So they picked that team there?
EB: No, they picked the 2 nights before, and nobody knew but us until the night before. But because it’s a busy venue and the TV crews have to have a dress rehearsal for every single event, and the athletes have to have basically a dress rehearsal, which for this was called the official training for the team sprint, which took place the day before, from like 4-5PM, and the athletes are the only ones allowed on the course for an hour. Well, right after that 4-5PM window was the team meeting where all the head coaches go and they submit their actual teams and order. Nobody knows what anybody else is doing, so it’s kind of all top secret going into that. But we already knew the news from Sadie, and I’m sure it was super hard for her and hopefully it motivates her, and I know she’ll have many more chances for glory. But when it came around to this team training session, which the US girls have kind of led the charge on how this goes, and the other countries have hopped on the band wagon of really making it seem like a dress rehearsal. So in the actual physical training the day before the race, they’re getting up to race speed as part of their intervals. So they probably do like a level 3 lap, and then a full race lap, or some version of that, but what they’re actually doing when they’re out there is also practicing their tag offs and seeing where their wax tables can be set up, and the coaches are actually at their stations. So we had this whole orchestrated thing – imagine this – every single coach’s station on the track was covered with coaches who had extra poles, even though it was a training session, there’s video taping going on, and Kikkan and Jessie were surrounded by 5 of their teammates who were racing around full bore, including Sadie, because you know Sadie’s mission changed two days before that race from “I’m going to go with Jessie and get a medal” to “I’m going to do whatever I can now, this is my last chance in official training to push these girls so that they can be their best tomorrow so that the team can win a medal.” And watching her go up that hill, just fiercely fighting with those other girls, pushing Kikkan and Jessie – it was amazing to see. And other countries were doing it too: there’s groups of 4 or 5 going around, and you have no idea who’s actually preparing for the race. The atmosphere was just so focused and orchestrated. I wish there would have been a camera filming it.

HQ: Is that level of preparation status quo for every event?
EB: No it’s always different. On the World Cup, sometimes you have a 4 hour window, and usually we’re testing that whole and the workout isn’t quite as intense as it was that day. Also testing is usually a bigger part of official training, but with the team sprint, because the course was so short and we only had that small window for official training, testing was pretty much done by the time it started, so the athletes were more focused on the workout and just went out there full-bore.

So the tone was really set for the team sprint the day before at official training. Oh yeah.  And I hadn’t seen them do an official training like that before. It’s been a process for them. Matt Whitcomb, who is just such a great leader of this womens team, they’re all in it for each other. When you see the vignettes of the team acting like a super close, tightknit bunch, it really is like that. It sounds cheesy, but it takes a team to do what they did.

HQ: Do you think that camaraderie sets the US team apart?
EB: Oh yeah. There is a history of our coaches being invited to speak at coaches conferecnces in other countries, or other teams wanting to come train with the American girls to try to see what its all about. It really is like the other countries are trying to be hip and cool by painting their flags on their cheeks like we’ve been doing all along. We got the glitter though, nobody else can have the glitter.

HQ: What’s one piece of advice you would give to, say, a Michigan Cup ski racer in regards to race wax prep?
EB: Keep it simple.

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