Erik Flora: Coach of Champions
Flora is also a man who sees skiing as a lifetime sport and knows there's more to it than what happens on the race track. In fact, it's clear he views skiing through altruistic eyes.
by Peter Graves
It's clear in his 42 years that Erik Flora has achieved a great deal in the sport of cross-country skiing, and also in life.
He was a nationally ranked racer back in the day, worked with some of the sport's elite (such as three-time FIS World Sprint Cup champion Kikkan Randall) and was named the USOC coach of the year in 2013. For nine years now, he's served as head coach at Alaska Pacific University's (APU) highly regarded program that regularly turns out some of this country's best cross-country skiers.
But if you thought that his amazing resume was all about turning out
“We all grew up skiing; so much good came out of it. It's hard to fully explain, but the beauty of skiing is a big part of our lives.”
driven champions and getting the world's best results, you'd be mistaken. Flora is also a man who sees skiing as a lifetime sport and knows there's more to it than what happens on the race track. In fact, it's clear he views skiing through altruistic eyes.
Flora was born in Nashville, Tenn., but grew up in Portland, Ore. He developed his thoughts on the sport and its purpose through his parents. Mother, Berit, is a native Norwegian and father, Sam, a strong collegiate baseball player. He has two other brothers: Bjorn, now a physician in pulmonary and critical care, who skied for a time at University of Denver, and well-known younger brother, Lars, who was on a pair of U.S. Olympic Teams in 2002 and 2006. “We all grew up skiing: so much good came out of it. It's hard to fully explain, but the beauty of skiing is a big part of our lives,” he explained.
Flora was bitten by the Nordic bug while living in Portland, Ore., as his family would spend weekends in the nearby mountains not just training, but also skiing. His nascent drive for the sport continued when the family moved to Nordic hot-spot Bend, Ore., where he began regular training with Coach John Underwood when he was 17. “John talked to my parents about his program there, and so I went up and began training with him.” The sport sent his heart soaring: “I just loved it,” said Flora.
Armed with some sound training and racing under his belt, Flora skied from 1993-1995 at University of Alaska Anchorage with well-known coach Bill Spencer. He was an NCAA All-american there and made the U.S. Junior Nordic Worlds team. Clearly, he was on his way up the ladder.
Later, he spent time working with renowned coach Sten Fleldheim at the USOC Residence Program in Marquette, Mich. From there, he went to Meraker, Norway and trained with a club there. In 1997, Flora continued to improve and build his fitness, believing he could aim for the podium at the Nagano 2002 Olympic Games.
Then a cruel twist of fate changed everything and altered his world. On a blustery day in October 1997, Flora, along with a pair of hitchhikers he'd picked up, were in a serious car accident coming back to Anchorage from Hatcher Pass. They were rear-ended in a near-whiteout. The accident severely injured Flora's back, a thoracic spine injury that doctors said could sideline his promising skiing career. It was a crushing moment and a period of nadir. He tried to come back, ignoring the pain and continued to train, but finally it became too much. “I was pretty upset about not being able to pursue my dream,” he recalls. “I had to take that season off, and so at the advice of my [physiotherapists], I decided to retire. It was a while before I experienced much joy again.”
Unexpectedly, the accident provided a turning point for him, but it was not yet self-evident. Flora explained that it was his dream to be an Elite ski racer and later become a coach, but being unable to pursue either, he turned his mind to flying. “One of my other dreams growing up was to be a bush pilot, so I took a chance on it. I got my pilot's license and became a certified aircraft mechanic,” he exclaimed.
He quickly got a job working for Alaska Air Taxi, based in Anchorage. He loved it and equates much of the vibe of flying to skiing, saying, “Flying in Alaska is so beautiful, and in many ways, the skiing and flying communities are similar. Pilots love to fly, and up here, it's easy to experience a keen sense of adventure.” He still flies occasionally now, and he and his wife, Gretchen, own a 1952 Pacer aircraft that they have completely rebuilt.
While flying was still in his blood, Flora felt a need to demonstrate the skiing talent he knew he still had. “So I made a comeback . . . at 30 years old. I wanted to be involved and I wanted to race and not let that slip away while I still had the chance,” he continued.
So in fall of 2003, he joined the APU Nordic Ski Center program and raced for another season, coached by Jim Galanes. He went to the U.S. Nationals that year, yet he was not producing the results he felt he could. “It was still frustrating to me to have had that accident,” he said. He was now married with a child on the way, and there were other responsibil-
ities. Though he had to leave his dream of a comeback behind, he had it in the proper perspective: “I had already really retired in '97; this was just another opportunity to keep racing for a while. I wasn't crushed, as it gave me closure.” Now he and his wife have three children ages 13, 10 and eight years old.
“I guess you could say that my comeback didn't go as planned, but it helped me clarify my thinking, it all provided huge fuel to my desire to be a coach, something that I always wanted to do. I could no longer compete, but I carved out a way to stay involved,” he said. He knew he had to find ways of getting around his back pain and that he had to use the gift of motivation to help others.
“I learned that things can change in the blink of an eye from my own racing and because of the accident. Now I was really becoming invested as a coach and working full time and trying to help others find their own dreams,” Flora noted. Time passed and dreams of gold at the 2002 Olympics had since morphed into APU, where he became the program's head coach in 2006.
“There was a time that I used to think it was all about winning races. Helping people achieve their goals, ...that's important, but it's not the only thing in life. It's not just about pushing a three- or four-year agenda,” said Flora. “I like people to be in it for the long haul and to see the sport as a big part of their lives . . . to see the beauty in it.” It was all making such perfect sense to Flora, who had gained not only sport knowledge, but also wisdom and clarity from his own experiences.
It was about that time that he had the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with extraordinary American athlete Kikkan Randall. Together, they would embark on a fantastic journey together, one that is still underway. “I've been coaching Kikkan for nine years now. It's been an honour, it's been a great pleasure and an awesome challenge, and the entire process has been incredibly rewarding.”
Randall echoes Flora's thoughts: “He has been a very important influ- ence in my career. When we started working together nine years ago, he taught me to challenge my boundaries and encouraged me to train at a level that allowed me to breakthrough on the world stage. He's one of the most positive and optimistic coaches I've ever worked with,” said Randall.
Flora works closely with the U.S. National Team staff and notes that they have a great working relationship. “Interfacing with the National Team has been very successful. We are involved in all the steps along the way with them; this is a very good time of cooperation with the team and the clubs,” he explained.
The phenomenon that is Randall has seen great things and enormous success, including World Championship medals and a World Sprint crown, yet they both experienced one period that was not as radiant, and that was the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Flora remembers it well. “Everything we did together had been done well. We believed we were in a position to take a huge step forward. Without a question, Olympic medals were possible,” he commented.
But when it didn't work out that way, there was great disappointment. “My heart just sank,” Flora offered. “All the goals, all the hard work, it can just be gone in a split-second. And we lived on all different sides of what happened. What can you do? I can tell you that I learned more from that season than I did in the past 10 years,” he said.
It was clear that Randall went into the Games as a favourite. There was a massive amount of pressure, Flora explained, his voice lowered: “Listen, going in as a favourite doesn't mean you will leave with a medal, and we looked at every angle of the Sochi experience and we said, `Okay, what's next.' We have such a great relationship and look at the amount of exposure Kikkan got for the sport, so there was a positive that came out of that. Let's just say, often times, the really hard parts of the sport are the most productive to learning.” Clearly, Randall moved on and “showed the world how strong she was. It was inspiring,” he added.
“Erik has become a close friend and has seen me through many highs and lows in my life. He has always been supportive and has helped me through many setbacks. Together, we have learned a lot and we make a great team,” she told Skitrax recently.
This year, Randall and all U.S. Team members, along with the Elite skiers of APU will continue to apply what they've learned. Flora says they have had a really great summer, with six men and six women in his Elite group. They've had three camps on the Eagle Glacier, and with Randall as the inspiration leader of the pack, Flora calls the vibe just right. “This is a group that works very well together. It's really a team; they are improving every year. It is amazing, and they have made such huge strides in their training, and everybody else has too [Flora also coaches approximately 25 athletes with coaching assistance from Mike Matteson]. I think when the athletes understand the training program, they buy in in a big way. As for Kikkan, well, she helps push and motivate everybody with the most positive energy. I have to say that the process is really a lot of fun. I feel very lucky.”
Fortunately for the sport, and for those who love it as well, Erik Flora has transcended his accident – and his own doubts – and forged a path that is not measured solely by results, but also by ethics, leadership and joy. He has made his life, and the athletes around him, his own work of art where everybody can shine.
“There was a time that I used to think it was all about winning races. Helping people achieve their goals, ...that's important, but it's not the only thing in life.