Cross-Country Ski Duo Bring Sibling Power To Winter Olympics

Jan 6, 2014

Athletes headed to next month's Winter Olympics in Russia can be expected to leverage any advantage that nature or nurture provides, though only a select few could bring the advantage of having a sibling teammate.

Siblings Erik and Sadie Bjornsen grew up in Washington’s Methow Valley, flanked by former Olympic skiers as neighbors. An enviable 120-mile Nordic trail system starts practically at their doorstep.  

Sadie, 24, remembers when her Olympic dream took root. Speaking via Skype from France, she recalled a welcome home parade after the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The parade down the Western-themed main street of Winthrop, Washington honored another local Olympic skier.

“I remember distinctly Laura McCabe riding in on a fire truck, the whole valley lining the streets and clapping. That was the moment. It was like, 'This is so neat.' It's such an honor. I knew I was going to be an Olympian,” she said.

‘Everything Was A Competition’

Sadie Bjornsen skied in the 2013 Nordic World Championships at Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Sadie Bjornsen skied in the 2013 Nordic World Championships at Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Credit Sarah Brunson / U.S. Ski Team

Mary Bjornsen, the mother in this close-knit family, says all three of her kids had an athletic upbringing with constant friendly competition.

"I can remember people wondering when Erik was going to start beating Sadie. It took a while, actually. Sadie was fast," she said with a chuckle. 

"Everything was a competition, from running to the car — the first one there, or balancing at [our dad's] job site on a beam as long as you could,” said Sadie.

‘I Think I Can Post Better Results When She Is Around’

Erik and Sadie are spurring each other on to this day. During the off-season, the Bjornsen duo lives together and trains at Alaska Pacific University, where both are upperclassmen. Erik, 22, says he and his sister both really want to go to the Olympics together.

“It would just be nice. I think I can post better results when she is around, cheering for me. I feel more comfortable just on the road with her. If I ever have any problems, there is someone I can go to,” he said.

Erik Bjornsen pulls ahead on the way to a first place finish in the 15km classic race at the 2014 U.S. National Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah on Saturday.
Erik Bjornsen pulls ahead on the way to a first place finish in the 15km classic race at the 2014 U.S. National Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah on Saturday.
Credit Courtesy FasterSkier.com

"As a sibling, you always have a little more of an open connection,” said Sadie. “It's easy to get feedback from a sibling and not be threatened. Erik has been awesome for that, because he has encouragement when I need it and also a reminder when I need it."

The U.S. Ski Team hasn't yet finalized its Sochi Olympic squad, but Sadie secured a spot on the team on Monday.  Earlier this winter, she posted career-best World Cup finishes twice in a row against the planet's best cross-country skiers — seventh place in a 5 km classic and seventh again in a 10 km classic race.

Erik needs to continue to ski well at U.S. Nationals this week to clinch his spot. He helped his case by winning the opening 15 km classic race on Saturday. 

‘To Have Two Exceptional Athletes Is Not That Unusual’

How rare would it be to send siblings to the Winter Games? Neighbor and ex-Olympic skier Leslie Thompson Hall says it happens more often than you might think.

"You know, certainly once someone is involved in a sport, it is easy to have another kid in the family join the sport, too. To have two exceptional athletes is not that unusual,” she said.

Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Mahre in skiing and Eric and Beth Heiden in speedskating are earlier examples of sibling success at the Winter Games (1980 and 1984 Olympics). This year, the U.S. Olympic ice hockey teams feature two sibling pairs. 

The field of Olympic hopefuls in snowboard halfpipe, snowboardcross, freestyle moguls and Nordic combined also include sibling duos. There's even another pair with ties to Bjornsen's own hometown, though that duo of hopefuls is a husband-and-wife team: cross country skiers Brian and Caitlin Gregg. 

The Bjornsens and the other ski and snowboard hopefuls will learn for sure who is on Team USA during the week of Jan. 20.