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.

SkiTrax - - Contents - By Peter Graves

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.

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