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Originally published February 6, 2014 at 6:15 PM | Page modified February 7, 2014 at 5:34 AM

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Washington’s Olympic hopefuls led by 5 on cross-country ski team

A remarkable five athletes with Washington ties were named to the 14-person U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team — more than one-third of the squad and one more than traditional Olympic Nordic supplier Vermont.


Special to The Seattle Times

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A couple weeks ago, on the remote family ranch in the Methow Valley, proud dad Jim Gregg dug for buried treasure.

In 1998, he had fashioned five Olympic rings from Christmas tree lights, and hung them on the ranch entrance in support of local Nordic ski coach Laura McCabe, competing in her second Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, half a world away.

At the time, McCabe coached Brian Gregg, 13, Jim and Jan Gregg’s son, and numerous other kids in the Methow Valley’s junior ski program. In the valley, nordic skiing is not only the recreational lifeblood of the community, but a literal part of the region’s infrastructure — a 120-mile trail network that provides world-class training and also links valley towns.

Jim Gregg hadn’t seen those lights in 16 years and had an even better reason now to find them. Earlier in the day, he found out his son, now 29, made the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympic team for the first time. So did two others from the sparsely populated valley, siblings Sadie and Erik Bjornsen. They’ll compete in cross-country skiing in the Olympics that began Thursday in Sochi, Russia.

The trio are among a remarkable five athletes (Wenatchee’s Torin Koos and Seattle-born Holly Brooks are the others) with Washington ties named to the 14-person U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team — more than one-third of the squad and one more than traditional Olympic Nordic supplier Vermont.

“It’s crazy,” said Koos, named to his fourth Olympic team and who raced Gregg when both were kids. “I’m sure that never happened before.”

The Winter Olympics have always been smaller, quainter, with more small-town connections then their Summer Games’ cousin. While growing, Winter is a family reunion, Summer a big-party blowout approaching unmanageability. This time, with unprecedented security concerns and a staggering $50 billion budget, Sochi is an uneasy reminder that the Winter Games are not what they used to be.

Then you look at our Washington athletes, and think they still are. Most of the cross-country contingent grew up racing and training together. Short-track speedskating star J.R. Celski skated at the same hometown rink as the sport’s icon, Apolo Ohno. Moguls skier Patrick Deneen’s dad is still his coach. Brian Gregg’s high school coach, Scott Johnston, has coached him the past two years.

Jim Gregg wound up finding the Olympic rings and put them up in the same spot he did all those years ago, on the ranch’s wooden archway above the property’s entrance. People stopped their cars to take pictures of him up on the big ladder.

In 2010, Washington athletes had the Games in Vancouver, practically in their own backyard. Now, from half a world away, the families who sent them from tight-knit communities like the Methow and Seattle’s short-track rink will be watching. Cue the lights.

U.S. athletes with Washington connections:

Name: J.R. Celski, 23

Sport: Short-track speedskating

Washington tie: Grew up in Federal Way

Story: After a career competing in the shadows of Apolo Ohno, Celski is expected to forge his own identity at these Games. (The most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with eight medals, Ohno retired and will be providing NBC commentary in Sochi.) Celski dominated at all distances, 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters in the Olympic Trials.

He’ll get competition from former Ohno rival Ahn Hyun-Soo, the South Korean now competing for Russia as Viktor Ahn. But as the American go-to short-tracker, Celski will be considered a favorite for individual medals and the relay, where the U.S. men are ranked first overall in World Cup standings.

Celski won two Olympic bronze medals in 2010 (1,500 meters, team relay) after an inspiring and speedy comeback from a gruesome skate-blade injury suffered in the 2009 trials, which made for a suspenseful lead-in to Vancouver. His recovery, fueled by songs and lyrics from Seattle hip-hop musicians, resulted in his documentary project on the local hip-hop scene that included Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, now big international stars. With a good run in Sochi, Celski might become the same.

Name: Ashley Wagner, 21

Sport: Figure skating

Washington tie: Seabeck, where she spent summers growing up

Story: It has been a dramatic run-up to these Games for Wagner, who dumped her long program music less than a month before Sochi because of poor performances in the 2013 Grand Prix in December and the U.S. Championships last month. The 2012 and 2013 U.S. champion was central to a controversy at nationals after being named to the three-person team after a fourth-place finish. Bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu was left off the team in favor of Wagner’s loaded resume. Working in Wagner’s favor: She was largely responsible for winning back a third Olympic slot for the U.S. women at the world championships. Looking to recapture the mojo of a successful 2012-13 campaign, she’ll revert to the same music and costume.

Name: Patrick Deneen, 26

Sport: Men’s freestyle moguls

Washington tie: Lives in Cle Elum

Story: Deneen, whose dad put him on skis at 11 months, has spent the past four years building consistency after crashing on the final jump of his 2010 Olympics. The top American in the sport, he medaled in eight World Cup events last year and currently is third overall in the World Cup standings. Known as one of the fastest skiers on tour, Deneen is working on a new jump that he hopes will be the ticket. Deneen grew up on a horse-and-hay farm, where he and his dad (his coach), dug a pit to set up a ground-level trampoline in the back yard. In winter, he has trained on a homemade jump near the driveway.

Name: Angeli VanLaanen, 28

Sport: Freestyle skiing half-pipe

Washington tie: Born and raised in Bellingham

Story: Competing in one of the Games’ new events, VanLaanen had no clue she’d be participating in the Olympics when she left Bellingham after high school graduation to pursue what would become a successful career as a freeskiing professional. But when the Olympics added freestyle skiing in 2009 — skiers are judged on highflying tricks in a superpipe, similar to snowboarding — she was all in. This, despite being in remission from Lyme disease, a debilitating condition that can cause vertigo and muscle fatigue. She estimates she contracted the condition 14 years before her 2009 diagnosis.

Name: Christian Niccum, 36

Sport: Luge doubles

Washington tie: Lives in Woodinville

Story: Three-time Olympian was sixth with partner Dan Joye in 2010 Games, but he is now sliding with Jayson Terdiman. They are ranked No. 13 in the world. Forced to win a runoff for the team’s final Olympic spot, they skipped a World Cup event late in the season to work out equipment problems with their sled.

Niccum won 2010 World Cup bronze with Terdiman, setting a record for longest time between World Cup medals. In November, the pair was part of the U.S. team that won silver in luge team relay, a new Olympic event.

This might be the last Olympics for Niccum, father to three young children, who has managed to stay in the sport despite financial and physical hardship that included back problems and a ruptured Achilles, suffered in December 2012.

Name: T.J. Oshie, 27

Sport: Men’s hockey

Washington tie: Lived in Stanwood until age 15

Story: Known as a high-energy forward with St. Louis, one of three Blues on the U.S. team, the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Oshie was on the bubble to make the Olympic squad, his first. But a multiple skill set — and possibly the fact the tournament will be held on the larger international ice sheet — got him a roster spot. Oshie is known for his puck-chasing, speed, shootout skill and chemistry with linemate and Blues captain David Backes, also an Olympian. The 24th pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, Oshie left Stanwood as a teen with his dad to move to hockeytown Warroad, Minn. His second cousin, Henry “The Chief” Boucha, played on the 1972 Olympics squad that won silver. First cousin Gary Sargent played in the NHL from 1975-83.

Name: Sadie Bjornsen, 24

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Washington tie: Born in Omak, grew up in Winthrop

Story: One of a brother-sister duo (brother Erik) to make the U.S. Olympic team, Bjornsen came up through the Methow youth racing program and later was a charter member of Methow Olympic Development — the MOD Squad. Illness has limited her skiing this season, but she is a likely candidate for the 10K classic individual race in Sochi after two breakthrough top-10 World Cup finishes earlier this season and is a possibility for the individual skate sprint. Bjornsen was coached by former Olympians Leslie Thompson Hall and Laura McCabe. After leaving the Methow, where her parents still reside, she skis on the prominent Alaska Pacific University team in Anchorage, home to Olympic medal favorite and World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall, and attends classes there. Bjornsen made her World Cup debut in 2011 and was part of the team that placed fourth at the 2013 World Championships.

Name: Erik Bjornsen, 22

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Washington tie: Born in Omak, grew up in Winthrop

Story: One of three cross-country Olympians to come up through the Methow Valley program — including his older sister, Sadie, and Brian Gregg — Bjornsen is a young talent that has national team coaches buzzing about his versatility at both sprints and distance that could mean lots of starts in Sochi.

He scored his first World Cup points in late January, finishing 18th in the 15k classic. He also won the 15k national championship earlier in the month. He attends Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

Name: Brian Gregg, 29

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Washington tie: Grew up in Winthrop

Sport: A member of the First Couple of U.S. cross-country skiing, Gregg is the only skier named to the Olympic team who has never been a member of the U.S. national team. His wife, 2010 Olympian Caitlin, narrowly missed being selected for Sochi. Gregg, like the Bjornsens, is a product of the Methow Valley program, and excels at long distance, providing balance on an Olympic team strong in sprints. Gregg is expected to race the 50K (30-mile) skate race, the Winter Olympics version of the marathon that is held on the Games’ final day and “the event I have focused on for the last eight years,” Gregg said. He is also a likely candidate for the 30K skiatholon, combining classic (diagonal) and freestyle (skate) techniques, and hopes to earn a spot on the freestyle relay team.

Name: Holly Brooks, 31

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Washington tie: Born in Seattle, attended Whitman College

Story: Named to her second Olympic team, Brooks was part of the U.S.’s 4X5 relay team that finished 11th in the 2010 Games. Since then, she was a member of the U.S. 4X5 relay team that won two bronze medals in 2013 — one a World Cup and another at the world championships, making the U.S. team a contender for a history-making first cross-country women’s medal in Sochi.

Her journey to the Olympics has been unconventional. After retiring from competition in 2004 to become a part-time coach at Alaska Pacific University, she got the racing bug again in 2009. A breakthrough season made her a late addition to the Olympic team in 2010. Currently, she is working toward her master’s in counseling psychology.

Name: Torin Koos, 33

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Washington tie: Grew up in Leavenworth, currently is a part-time resident of Wenatchee

Story: Making his fourth Olympic team was the hardest after Koos was dropped from the U.S. national team shortly after the U.S. failed to win a cross-country medal at the 2010 Games. A sprint specialist, he made this year’s team by finishing third among Americans in the international federation’s points system, one of the top criteria to make the U.S. Olympic team.

Koos, who has been racing internationally since 2001, was part of a team that finished ninth in the team sprint at the 2010 Games. After training in the Methow Valley in 2010, Koos spent time training with national teams in Switzerland and Norway.



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