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Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Liz Stephen holds U.S. ski team together

By Michelle Smith

For an athlete competing in an individual sport, one who can dive deeper into the "pain cave" than anyone else her coach has seen, Liz Stephen is all about the group effort.

"If there weren't five other girls here, I think she'd be doing something else," said U.S. Nordic ski team coach Matt Whitcomb.

Stephen concedes that's probably true. She spends more time with her teammates than with anyone else. They travel together, train together, eat together, live together and compete together. Often far from home, they are her family.

"I love being a part of a team and I guess that's why I do this," Stephen said. "The team aspect is why I love sport. I have amazing teammates. We all support each other. My teammates know more about me than anyone else on the planet."

And what they know, they appreciate.

"She is the most team-oriented person I know," said Kikkan Randall, Stephen's teammate on the U.S. Nordic team and a top American cross-country racer. "She's such a people person and she gets along with everybody. We are all always going to her for advice, or to get her perspective."

Whitcomb calls the petite 26-year-old the "glue" of his team, which is currently training in France in preparation for the world championships that begin Feb. 21 in Italy. The Olympic Games, in Sochi, Russia, are a year away.

Stephen began her career as an Alpine skier, leaving home in East Montpelier, Vt., in the eighth grade to attend Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vt.

"I raced Alpine from the time that I was 6 until I was about 14 or 15," Stephen said.

She was not "in love" with Alpine racing, and her times did not improve enough for her race at an elite level. Her small stature -- she's 5-foot-2, 100 pounds -- also was holding her back on the mountain.

"I loved school, but I did not want to be an Alpine racer," Stephen said. "I'm a runner, I love endurance sports."

So, she tried out for the Nordic team, coached by Whitcomb. It just fit.

"I love the ability that Nordic gives you to be outside, in the quiet beauty of the woods, but you're warm because you are working hard," Stephen said. "I just love it."

Stephen is a distance racer in cross-country skiing. She has competed in 30K and 15K races, as well as in the 10K. If she were running competitively, she'd be a marathoner.

"I don't have as much speed and pure power as other people," Stephen said. "I'm more of a go-for-a-long-time girl, and mentally I'm used to that. The longer it is, the more I thrive."

She is particularly strong in the uphill portions of a race.

"It's less about tactics for me. I tend to struggle with things that are tactical," Stephen said. "It's better for me to just go out and endure, get in my zone and push and push."

Stephen won a U.S. title at 19 and was 22 when she competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, an experience that she called "eye-opening," and not in the best way.

"I was training like it was Alpine and it just didn't work," said Stephen, whose plan going into the Games was to become a strong, heavier, more powerful skier. "I was not in the shape I wanted to be in, training did not go the way I wanted. I was a little bit injured and I just didn't do it right."

Plantar fasciitis also held her back in Vancouver (she finished 50th in the 10K and 58th in the 15K mixed pursuit) and prevented her from running and jumping for a year and a half.

In the time since, Stephen has gone back to running and bounding and training for distance and endurance.

"The only thing that stayed the same was that was I training a lot," Stephen said.

Stephen has had some of the best results of her career in recent weeks, including her best career finish -- 15th -- in the Tour de Ski on Jan. 6 (including a top-10 finish in the hill-climb finale) and a career-best 15th place at a World Cup 10K event on Jan. 19.

"The harder the race, the better Liz is likely to do," Whitcomb said. "The more mentally challenging, the better. She can go into that pain cave and stay there for a long time."

Randall said she marvels at Stephen's ability to "dig so deep."

"She can find every ounce of energy in those legs," Randall said.

Stephen is training up to 30 hours a week, but tapering as she gets closer to competition. She plans to compete in Sochi and beyond.

The upcoming world championships will be a measuring stick for Stephen and the entire U.S. team. The thing Stephen would like to do most in Sochi, not surprisingly, is medal in a relay event. That way, she could share in the experience with her teammates.

"I get to do these things with my best friends and be supported by the U.S.," Stephen said. "I have a really sweet life."