A former NCAA champion and retired pro, source says Leah Lange is “lighting a fire of stoke” for the young athletes of Big Sky
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Even for former pro Leah Lange, it’s all fun and games.
The Park City product won three NCAA championships at the University of Utah before spending two years as a member of the Bridger Ski Foundation Pro Team in Bozeman. However, looking to explore interests like running and traveling, Lange stepped back from competition and in November 2021, became director of the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation’s Nordic skiing program. Now entering her second season as the leader of a rapidly growing program that might send multiple skiers to junior nationals, she hopes not to put too much pressure on them. She says her biggest goal is to spread the joy of Nordic skiing and keep kids engaged.
“Big Sky was looking for a director for their program. I got thrown in pretty fast [last] November. I only planned on coaching for one year, but the kids were so fun and the families were amazing. So here we are,” said Lange, whose only prior experience with kids was a considerable amount of babysitting.
She expected to focus on the older, more competitive skiers when she took the job, but found she loves working with the younger kids.
Last February, she realized that 75% of the entire fifth grade was involved in the Nordic program. This year, she’s almost overwhelmed by how many kids are interested. She recently had to cap the program because it was getting too full.
“To have so many kids this young is so encouraging,” Lange said.
This year’s program has 70 kids, and there’s only one 15-year-old. She said the competitive side of Nordic skiing can be intimidating for older athletes.
“I just want to foster a love for the sport.”
Lange said that when she started, Big Sky was a community interested in cross-country skiing, but lacked influence and direction. She “made up all the rules” with help from some parents and the BSSEF, which she credits for being highly supportive; she’s managed to get skiers to try Nordic without giving up their downhill pursuits, as well as allowing extra-committed kids to combine alpine racing and freestyle on top of Nordic.
BSSEF program director Jeremy Ueland believes in supporting athletes involved with multiple sports, both inside BSSEF and elsewhere in the warmer months.
“It’s a huge thing for those kids doing both [Nordic and alpine or freeride] programs—it’s a huge commitment from those kids and family. But we support our kids. We want multi-sport athletes; baseball, soccer, football, track, whatever it is… that makes a really strong athlete,” he said.
The Nordic program is mostly active midweek, freeing up weekends for downhill snowsports. Ueland also believes that kids won’t stick with any winter program unless they’re having fun.
“It’s great that [Leah] came on and already had that mindset as well,” Ueland said.
Lange emphasized that cross-country skiing is a social sport, where athletes improve while hanging out with friends. Especially with the youngest kids, she loves to play games or build a jump during practice. She even recalls spending a team practice frog hunting. She’ll often combine the younger kids in the “devo” (development) program with the older, more serious “comp” (competition) program. That way, the young kids can see how strong they could be in a couple years. Of course, these joint practices aren’t full of intimidating interval workouts.
“We play games,” Lange said.
The blossoming program is more popular with girls, who comprise roughly 60% of 11-to-14-year-olds. Lange said there’s only one boy in the youngest group, but she believes that kids just do what their friends do and noted that there’s a big group of boys between seventh and eighth grade.
Aside from Lange’s biggest goal for the 2022-23 season of keeping the kids engaged, she said BSSEF has a pretty good comp team.
“I went them all to have fun, but they’re also such good skiers and I think we are going to compete well,” Lange said. “I hope some will qualify for junior nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska. We have a lot more who would qualify but they aren’t old enough [for the U16 division].
“I hope we can keep the pressure off them enough they can keep enjoying it,” Lange added. “At the end of the day, they’re 11-to-14 [years old], this should be fun.”
A coaching culture
The Nordic program has struggled to find coaches in the past.
Last year, Lange recruited help from her network in Bozeman—in fact, “bribed” and “begged” with some success. Lange joked that they had a top-caliber staff of skiers, yet they spent much of the season playing games with elementary school kids.
“This year, I am so excited because I have hired 17 coaches for the winter,” she said, adding that many are working part-time. “The numbers will work. We’ll have enough coaches for kids, which is a huge deal to keep it fun.”
Another program leader is Anna Fake. Now the Nordic program’s assistant director, she came from Telluride, Colorado to race at Montana State University where she earned All-American honors in 2018.
Last year, Lange convinced Fake to coach one day per week. After spending time away from Nordic action due to burnout from NCAA competition, Fake said she started getting back into it last winter. She was “thrill seeking in the Nordic skiing world after work hours” until she started helping Lange with BSSEF.
“Once I went to a couple practices I was hooked. We work really well as a team,” Fake said. With a college degree in elementary education, she always hoped to get into outdoor teaching and coaching.
In order to work at the Montana Outdoor Science School in Bozeman this past summer, Fake left her job as a residential experience coordinator with the Yellowstone Club. She now works full-time during the winter with BSSEF and said the assistant Nordic director was an opportunity that “just feels right.
“Learning how to have fun at a young age will help so much with burnout,” Fake said. “They can choose how they want Nordic skiing to be in their life.”
Plus, this coaching opportunity has allowed Fake to balance skiing in her own life. She’ll ski with coaches before most practices or sometimes afterwards in the moonlight, “and then we go home happy, stoked and tired,” she said. “We have a cool group of people that are stoked to be outside with kids.”
As for Lange, Fake offered nothing but praise.
“Oh my gosh. She has, like, lit a fire of stoke under every board member, athlete and family in the program,” Fake said. “She gets the kids amped, makes it fun and sees the potential in all the kids from club to devo to comp. She’s really the driving force that’s bringing this thing to life.”
Entering his 21st season with BSSEF, program director Jeremy Ueland acknowledged past leaders of the Nordic program. He credits Denise Wade, former Nordic and Trails Director at Lone Mountain Ranch, and Tom Owen, owner of Gallatin Alpine Sports for volunteering their time to keep the small program going.
But now, Ueland said Fake and Lange have the network and experience to make a huge impact and build a strong program.
Fake added, “it’s pretty badass that it’s two retired collegiate women coaching this group. I think it’s pretty powerful.”
Vikings and masters
BSSEF is hoping to spread the sport to entire families as local kids give it a go.
With their new “Masters” program, skiers of all ages can participate once per week for six weeks, beginning Jan. 26. Lange and Fake will teach beginners, guide intermediates and provide high-level training plans for competitive skiers.
“It’s such a great sport for adults,” said Lange, who believes that more parents in Big Sky should know how to cross-country ski. “I just sent out an email and got so many responses.”
Another growing event in the community, Viking Races are a BSSEF series which offer events open to the public. The weeknight events will take place at the golf course at 4 p.m. on Jan. 17 (classic skiing), Jan. 31. (skate), and a pink-themed Feb. 14 (classic).
Lange said the Viking Series gets young kids excited about racing in a fun, low-pressure environment.
“We get kids who totally come out of their shell and realize how good they are at it,” she said. “It shows the whole community what a wholesome sport [Nordic skiing] is, and how each individual can grow. That’s the goal this winter; get everyone excited for Viking races. I want to see more of the community involved.”
Lange expects March 16 to showcase the most popular community race: the Viking Relay.