When a high school senior and the rest of her team in a tiny school in a remote community wins a state title in a non-classed competition, you know there’s more behind the victory than meets the eye. Such is certainly the case with the Ely girls Nordic ski team, and Erin Bianco, in particular, who took first place in last Thursday’s state ski meet at Giants Ridge.
Naturally, there are outstanding coaches, like Paula Anderson, who provide students with the skills and the encouragement necessary to excel. That’s typically backed up by committed parents, who so often follow their kids’ success with a devotion that can’t help but inspire.
In the case of Ely, of course, there is another factor behind the perennial strength of Ely’s Nordic ski program— and that’s the exceptional community commitment to the sport of cross-country skiing, reflected in the work of the Ely Nordic Ski Club.
Many kids in Ely practically grow up on skis, and they get to hone their skills on one of the finest and most lovingly-maintained ski trail systems anywhere in the Midwest. Skiing has long been part of the Ely tradition, but the Ely Nordic Ski Club, founded by Bob Cary and Bob Sommers in the late 1980s, has helped keep that tradition strong, even as enthusiasm for the sport has waned in some other places.
With 25-kilometers of exquisitely groomed trails, the Hidden Valley Recreation Area, maintained by the club with help from the city, provides an outstanding training facility for Ely’s student athletes. It helps that the North Country enjoys a significantly longer snow season, which means the community’s young athletes can get a jump on their training, often two to three weeks ahead of their competition.
The community’s very active chapter of the Minnesota Youth Ski League also contributes, as it gets young people, starting as early as age four, out skiing on a regular basis. The program, which emphasizes skiing for fun and fitness as a lifelong activity, meets on Sundays in January and February. Last year, over 120 Ely kids took part in the program. That’s astonishing for a community the size of Ely, and almost certainly represents a higher percentage of community youth participation in skiing than in any other city in the state, maybe even the nation.
And it all plays an important role in helping Ely’s youth to excel in a valuable, lifetime sport. Unlike football and baseball, and other large team sports, which most of us rarely, if ever, play again outside of grade school competition, Nordic skiing is an exceptional fitness activity in which young and old can take part.Thanks to the efforts of the Ely Nordic Ski Club, the community has exceptional facilities for those who do take part.
Ely’s phenomenal student skiers have a lot for which to be proud. And as they savor their state championship performance, they should reflect and remember to say thanks to all those who helped them reach the pinnacle of success. When it comes to Nordic ski competition, Ely’s success is a true community effort.