Skiing: Novice skier steps up to coach Falmouth Nordic team

Jan. 12—FALMOUTH — On the day of the first scheduled meet of the Nordic skiing season, Isaac Seeker unhitched his roller skis in the parking lot and joined the rest of his teammates outside the Falmouth High weight room.

The meet, of course, had been canceled. A lack of snow has made dryland training — always a rather mundane precursor to the racing season — even longer this winter.

On the other hand, the delay allowed Falmouth's new Nordic coach, Heidi Richards, more time to get comfortable guiding athletes in a sport about which she knew almost nothing before agreeing to take the job in early December. That was after Seeker and the other Falmouth skiers had begun to forge ahead, uncertain of their future.

"That first week, it was pretty hard because we didn't have any word of any (possible) coaches," Seeker said. "Then she came into the picture and that was nice. It took (pressure) off of me and the other captains to have to run practice."

Richards has been a social worker at Falmouth Elementary School and assisted with the high school track and field program. She also coached at Leavitt Area High in Turner for five years. Originally from New York, she ran NCAA Division I cross country and track at Marist College and is taking time off from her career to build a house.

"I didn't want to see the kids without a season or a coach," Richards said. "I've been very honest with them: I've never done this, but I'm willing to take this on so you can still have a season. But this really needs to be a team effort where we're all supporting each other."

Until this winter, her only experience with cross-country skiing had been a brief shuffle on a fifth-grade field trip more than a quarter century ago.

"I wouldn't even call it skiing," she said. "I do not remember moving very far from where I put on the skis."

All of which makes Abby Murdick, another Falmouth senior captain, chuckle with empathy. Murdick also has a running background and only took up Nordic skiing a year ago.

She said she worried she would embarrass herself. Instead, Murdick discovered a welcoming community and a wide range of skill level. Both teammates and competitors helped her get up to speed.

"I just had so much fun," Murdick said. "I was laughing at myself as I was learning to do it. So watching Coach Richards go through the same process as me has been very fun."

In mid-December, Richards was able to get on snow with her team at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester for a few days. In the last week of December, the team traveled north to Fort Kent for a training camp, along with parent chaperones and three recently graduated Navigators.

Joey Rouhana, Ryan Gray and Lily Findlay — all of whom skied for Falmouth last winter — stepped into coaching roles at Fort Kent while the parents helped Richards get more comfortable on snow. Emily Cartwright, a Greely assistant who also coaches the Nonstop Nordic Ski Club, offered advice and provided a sounding board.

"The skiing is foreign to me," Richards said, "but the endurance and the strength training and just the way the scoring is done is pretty similar to cross country (running)."

Skiing, for her, falls into the same category as hurdles and pole vault. Those are track and field events she learned to teach successfully despite never competing in them herself.

"As long as you understand the mechanics of what the form is supposed to look like and how to break it down," Richards said, "you can work on individual muscle groups and how to build speed in different areas. You can really help athletes get to where their goals are even though you've never done the sport."

Richards is the fourth Nordic head coach in the seven years James Coffey has served as Falmouth's athletic director. He said Nordic and Alpine skiing coaching positions are among the hardest to fill because the sports are so specialized.

Coffey said he had no qualms about hiring Richards, despite her lack of skiing knowledge.

"She certainly knows the conditioning and the dryland training and getting the kids in shape," he said. "I know she didn't have the (skiing) experience, but she's a great coach. And being a counselor, she's obviously good at working with kids."

Kevin Gray is one of the parents involved in Falmouth's ski booster group who made the trip to Fort Kent. He said he knows Nordic coaches are in short supply and that Richards had built up a good coaching reputation in track.

"One of the most important things is just building the culture of the team," Gray said, "making sure the kids are getting along, acting like a team and supporting one another. Those are the things we look at as being most important. It's been great having a consistent leader for the team and she's definitely earning their respect."

A week later than originally planned, Falmouth finally opened its Nordic season Wednesday afternoon at Stark's Mountain in Fryeburg. Richards brought five boys and seven girls to the 5-kilometer freestyle event and was content to remain in her non-skiing boots. Among 14 schools, Falmouth tied for fourth among girls and placed sixth for boys.

If nothing else, this season promises to be an educational experience for all involved.

"I've never heard of (a similar situation) before, because a lot of people aren't willing to take on the challenge like she was," said Seeker, a senior captain who bested a field of 76 boys Wednesday in Fryeburg. "It takes guts to do that."