FL grad Leif Nordgren’s family recalls early aspirations
In 2007, Leif Nordgren returned home from school during the spring of his senior year at Forest Lake High School and told his parents he planned to forego college to pursue a career as a biathlete. His father, Carl, had choice words for his youngest child.
“I can’t repeat what I said then, but I more or less told him ‘I don’t think so,’” Carl said.
Nearly seven years later, Carl and wife, Sue, laugh in the kitchen of their home in Marine on St. Croix while discussing Nordgren’s start in Nordic skiing and biathlons on his road to making the 2014 U.S. Olympic biathlon team.
“It’s a really hard decision for kids and for parents,” Carl said. “But it’s his life and he got to choose. It’s not like he said ‘I’m going to go be a bum.’ He works hard and is very focused.”
With Nordgren having arrived in Sochi, Russia on Sunday with the rest of the men’s team, his parents were eager to reminisce on Leif’s march to the top and how Forest Lake provided the perfect atmosphere for him to train.
Nordgren is the first Forest Lake graduate to become an Olympian.
Nordgren, 24, began skiing at age 2 while living in Colorado. He watched his older brothers Eric (now 35) and Kirk (33), and sister Sonne (30) compete in Nordic skiing in both Colorado and Minnesota.
Sonne had attended Stillwater High School and competed with the Ponies’ Nordic ski program before pursuing biathlons. By the time Nordgren reached seventh grade at Stillwater Junior High as a young, talented skier, who was also interested in shooting, Carl and Sue knew they may run into issues with an inflexible Pony program.
For the next four years, Nordgren was home-schooled at his request.
“Let’s just say we had a philosophical disagreement with the Stillwater school district’s philosophy on coaching,” Carl said, chuckling. “One day we were at a conference meet and I said to Deno (Johnson), ‘How would you like to gain another Forest Lake skier?’ Well, Deno had been salivating over him for awhile, so you can imagine his response.”
Johnson, the longtime Nordic skiing coach at Forest Lake, said he recalls the first time he watched Leif ski.
“The first time I set eyes on Leif was when he was in third or fourth grade,” Johnson said. “He was skiing at O’Brien State Park in a little designer ski outfit and plastic poles with just beautiful technique. I remember thinking, ‘Give it a couple of years, Deno, and that kid is going to ski for Stillwater and terrorize you.’”
From ninth grade on, Nordgren competed for the Forest Lake Nordic ski team and trained with Johnson’s NordicWerks program while also training in biathlons.
Carl said he thinks the four to five years spent with Johnson, who allowed for a flexible schedule, was an especially important time in Nordgren’s training.
“It’s an amusing story,” Carl said. “You can kind of say that thanks to the Stillwater coaching staff, Leif would never be where he is today.”
After placing second at the 2007 state Nordic meet and aiding the Rangers in a second-place team finish and then qualifying for the World Junior Championships in biathlon, funding their son’s biathlon quest didn’t seem unreasonable.
To the top
Since then, Nordgren worked his way up the International circuit while recording some highlight finishes this season: eighth place in the mixed relay in the 2013 World Championships, 12th in the relay, 22nd in the individual the same year and 53rd in the sprint biathlon.
Lowell Bailey, of Lake Placid, N.Y., and Tim Burke, of Paul Smiths, N.Y., earned the first two spots of the five-member team by gaining two top-15 finishes in the World Cup. Nordgren was the third man, based on his scores in the first three World Cup races starting in November 2013 in Sweden, Germany and France.
Also joining the men’s team is 26-year-old Russell Currier, of Stockholm, Maine, and 19-year-old Sean Doherty, of Conway Center, N.H.
Nordgren could compete in five races in Sochi, depending on his performance.
Men’s biathlon events commence on Saturday, Feb. 8, with the sprint, a 10K race where biathletes shoot twice. The top 60 competitors then ski pursuit, a 15K race and four shooting stops, on Monday, Feb. 10, before the individual 20K on Thursday, Feb. 13. The top 30 athletes from the individual race then compete in a mass start 15K race on Sunday, Feb. 16, with biathlon events ending with the four-member men’s relay on Saturday, Feb. 22.
“He’d have to be having a really good race to make it to the top 30,” Carl said. “But he could do it, and in biathlon, anything can happen.”
Carl said that coming into the shooting mat, taking out the gun, discarding an old magazine, reloading, shooting five targets and packing the gun away should take about 25 seconds for a biathlete of Nordgren’s caliber.
“Picture having 20,000 people behind you screaming, heart pounding, legs shaking, cameras pointed directly at you while trying to shoot,” Carl said. “You can’t duplicate that noise and level of scrutiny in practice no matter how hard you try.”
Watching from home
Nordgren’s brother, Kirk, and his wife will make the trip to Sochi, but Carl and Sue opted to support Nordgren from their home at Nordgren’s encouragement, saying his already-strict training schedule wouldn’t allow for much down time.
“I want to be there and I want to see him, but we can see more of the race from the TV and can follow along right away,” Sue said.
Johnson said he will be watching as well, this being the third Olympian he’s trained and the first to come out of the Forest Lake program.
“Leif is pretty much the coolest kid I’ve ever coached,” Johnson said. “It’s really awesome, and it’s a just a good feeling that he made it — he’s so laid back, is such a kind human being and just really deserves it.”
As for Carl, when asked if it has sunk in that his son is an Olympian, he laughed and said, “Eh, not really.”