Forty-two years old, the American Birkebeiner has engendered a third generation of cross country ski racers. The Birkie truly is the grandmother of all ski races in the U.S.
"Third generation ski families are new to the Midwest, new to America," said Amy Cichanowski, whose father Mike and Uncle Gerry will ski their 37th Birkies this February. Cichanowski’s daughters, Ursula and Mila, have skied in the Barnebirkie and this year will graduate to the Junior Birkie.
When Mike and Gerry, both members of the Spirit of 35, started skiing the Birkie in the 70s, it was "definitely in jeans," said Cichanowski, the executive director of the Minnesota Youth Ski League (MYSL). Her dad and uncle tell stories of skiers tangling skis in the large baskets of the poles used in the 70s.
Ted Theyerl, another third generation Birkie skiers, says that he plans to ski the race on the wood skis his father Walt used in his first three Birkies in the 70s, an old pair of Sigmund Ruuds. Walt, who no longer skis the race, retired with 26 Birkies to his credit, while Ted will ski number 29 this February. Ted has also skied in five Korteloppets, the shorter, 24-kilometer version of the Birkebeiner. In fact, Theyerl has skied in every race since he was 13 in 1981 except for when he qualified for the Junior Olympics in Lake Placid as a sophomore in high school.
"Skiing is what my family did in the winter" said Theyerl, who started Chippewa Valley Nordic in the Eau Claire area. They would ski out the back door, down the snowmobile trail and over to the golf course near their home in Elkhart Lake, Wis. "It kept us active and was something we could all do as a family."
Theyerl's wife, Denise, has skied a combined 16 Birkebeiners and Korteloppets and continues to ski the race. Their sons, Ben and Christian, are active in Chippewa Valley Nordic and Birkie skiers. With that many skiers in the family, getting to the start line has been a "unique problem" for the Theyerls. "For the first time me, my wife and Christian all get to start in the first wave," said Theyerl. He hopes this lessens the race day chaos.
Cichanowski, who won three Korteloppets, also has fond memories of starting in the same wave as her father. When the race started in Hayward, the Korteloppet finished at OO. "I used to ski the race with my dad, and then peel off for the Korte finish," said Cichanowski. "There were some really fun years in there. This is no longer possible now that the Birkie and Korteloppet separate eight kilometers into the race."
In her position with the MYSL, Cichanowski hopes to create skiing families. "We want to foster a love of skiing, a love of winter," she said, noting this was important in a frozen state such as Minnesota.
The Cichanowski and Theyerl family/Birkie connections continue to broaden, as do the hundreds of other family/Birkie connections formed in the 42 years of the race. Theyerl’s sister, Tracey, no longer skis the Birkie, finishing 2nd four times in the Korteloppet, but she has coached the cross country ski team at Colby College in Maine the last 18 years. Tracey’s husband, Pat Cote, is a former director for New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA). Their three sons are all skiers.
Cichanowksi married Marc Beitz, another elite skier. The pair met as members of Team Birkie, a developmental team the ABSF sponsored in the 90s coached by Steve Gaskill. Amy’s sister, Heather, also skis, and at the time of this interview was in Japan with her father and uncle preparing to ski the Worldloppet race in Sapporo.
"I'm more interested in developing skiers rather than focusing on myself," said Theyerl. "That’s what motivates me."
That and the Birkie itself. "The Birkie is the one thing I throw on my calendar each year. It’s a motivator."
The American Birkebeiner offers a number of family events during Birkie Week, particularly the Barnebirkie (children’s race), the Junior Birkie and the 5K/10K Family Fun Ski. See birkie.com for more details.