Ever since the College of Saint Scholastica began its NCAA ski team, the face of the program has been one man: head coach Chad Salmela. Over the last decade, his squad notched its first men’s and women’s team wins and saw its first NCAA qualifiers. And on the way, he changed the lives of dozens of young athletes.
Now Salmela is shifting roles at the college and will coach the cross-country running team. Taking the reins of the ski team is a new coach coach who is just as excited to build on the program’s burgeoning legacy in Duluth, Minnesota.
Maria Stuber, a Wisconsin native, has developed her coaching chops over several assignments, most recently in Colorado with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC). In three seasons with the club Stuber increased the size of the team and worked with a variety of athletes, from those who just picked up skiing in high school to those who competed in Europe.
“At AVSC, coaches made sure we were encouraging brand new skiers to jump into the sport at any age,” she wrote in an email. “If you decided to join our high school team you get to train right alongside the best athletes in the country… This environment gives every athlete the opportunity to make a quick jump and be the best skier they can be. It can be so fun when it works, as our top male skier last year didn’t get into the sport until he was a sophomore in high school.”
That attitude seems to be a perfect match for the College of Saint Scholastica (CSS), a school which sent two men to NCAA’s in 2012 and two women in 2015 – but which also has a development team and provides growth opportunities for skiers coming in with a variety of backgrounds.
“Chad didn’t really impact my ski career, he started it,” Paul Schommer, an NCAA All-American in 2014 now pursuing elite biathlon, told FasterSkier this spring.
“CSS is unique in that it has a development team serving this purpose at the college level,” Stuber wrote. “Kids with college skiing aspirations that are not quite ready to make that jump can come and work hard, get faster, and have the opportunity to reach the same level as the top junior national athletes we recruit.”
Taking athletes from those two tracks, Saint Scholastica has built teams that compete with the best in the NCAA Central division.
And international success is on the radar too: grad Anita Kirvesniemi made the sprint heats in season-opening FIS racing in Muonio, Finland, last season; Schommer has caught the eye of the U.S. biathlon team; and current team member Kelsey Dickinson, who pursued biathlon full-time for a year at the Maine Winter Sports Center, was back competing again at U.S. Rollerski Biathlon Championships.
“CSS wants to be a competitive team in the Central Collegiate Ski Associaion conference,” Stuber explained. “In order to do that, we need to be competitive at the national level. What’s really cool about skiing in 2016 is that you need to have international ambitions to be competitive at the national level.”
Salmela used sports science and lab testing to make that happen, and it’s one of the opportunities that drew Stuber to the program. She received a masters degree in exercise science from Northern Michigan University and relishes a data-based approach.
“I love that St. Scholastica’s training is all based on science and sound research,” Stuber wrote. “The college has an exercise science lab and the professors are willing to share the space and knowledge with coaches to give the student-athletes more opportunities for success.”
But more than anything, she is pleased to be part of a framework which will make it possible to integrate running and skiing into a cohesive college athletic career. In explaining his job shift, Salmela was clear that he wanted to see more – and smoother – crossover between the two sports at Saint Scholastica, for those athletes who have dual ambitions.
“The biggest program draws for me at CSS are Chad & Don Olson’s (athletic director’s) vision to create a collegiate endurance sport epicenter where student-athletes can choose to pursue xc running, skiing or both at a very high level,” Stuber wrote. “Linking endurance sports together will create well rounded, big picture athletes that have the support of a bigger peer group and more coaches and resources. I think CSS is on the verge of something huge.”
Stuber has seen how a variety of teams achieve success. First, as an athlete: she captained the Northern Michigan University (NMU) ski team for three years.
“My time at NMU had a huge impact on my life path and decision to pursue a career in ski coaching,” Stuber explained. “The running and skiing coaches there, Sten Fjeldheim and Jenny Ryan, have both contributed significantly to my coaching philosophy, training methodology and personal values. They have continued to be mentors, advocates and references for me as I find my way. I will feel extremely proud to consider Sten and Jenny peers and to go up against the Wildcats in December and I hope that they feel like a part of our success at CSS. They both know me well enough to not expect any mercy from us on the trails.”
After college, Stuber raced for the Central Cross Country Elite Team and then the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. In her senior career, Stuber was a runner-up at U.S. National Championships in 2009.
But since retiring from competition, Stuber has been consumed by coaching. She began her career at Alverno College in Wisconsin, before taking over as head men’s and women’s cross-country running coach for Southern Vermont College for two years. Under her leadership, the men’s squad had their best team results ever.
At AVSC, where the roster eventually neared 200 skiers, Stuber led a team of other coaches. Every year the club sent skiers to Junior National Championships as well as to World Junior Championships or the J1 Scandinavian Cup trip.
“I will never forget our amazing coaching staff at AVSC that welcomed me to the community that they had carefully built over the past 20+ years,” Stuber wrote. “There is no other ski club in the country with the amazing mix of background, knowledge, energy, perspective and compassion. Working with this group of people will be a life-long career highlight for me… I am so proud of the club’s growing numbers and participation in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Aspen. The way these three communities work together towards a common goal in Nordic skiing is phenomenal.”
AVSC runs summer training programs and last season organized an end-of-winter race event called Tour de Sea which drew junior skiers from all over Colorado, as well as rave reviews. (You can see a taste of the event through this video.)
It was difficult for her to decide whether to uproot herself from the Roaring Fork Valley, where she and husband Bryan Cook had just bought a condo. They had been “very happy” in the Elk Mountains.
“We were not feeling 100% certain that we had made the right call until Monday when the CSS announcement was made,” Stuber wrote. “For days straight my phone and email were pinging and beeping non-stop with messages from friends, family, former teammates, fellow coaches and upcoming Midwest skiers and parents from clinics past. The Midwest ski community is a truly special group of people that we are incredibly proud to be a part of. During our racing careers, we leaned on this community for support and they delivered for us big time. I think we missed the Midwest ski culture more than we knew.”
The couple will move in the first week of September and Stuber is looking forward to getting started with her new team; Cook will enter an MBA program at Saint Scholastica.
And besides the general homecoming, Stuber knows that the athletes she will be working with in Duluth – as well as those on the teams her skiers compete against – embody the same characteristics of the community which is welcoming her back.
“The CCSA is definitely a powerhouse Nordic conference…. consistently dominating at the US National Championship and NCAA Championship,” Stuber wrote. “The CCSA attracts down-to-earth athletes that want to be great skiers and are willing to work hard to get there. This intrinsic motivation is a recipe for making fast cross country skiers. Midwest kids are tough and they are backed by outstanding club coaches that are looking at the big picture. I can’t imagine a better atmosphere for athlete development.”