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‘Once an Olympian, always an Olympian’: Betsy Youngman loves her winters of content in Sun Valley

Betsy Youngman competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics. Today, she and her husband Bob are avid cross country skiers and endurance athletes in Sun Valley.
Courtesy Betsy Youngman
Betsy Youngman competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics. Today, she and her husband Bob are avid cross country skiers and endurance athletes in Sun Valley.

Like much of America, Betsy Youngman’s love for cross country skiing began in the 1970s. The huge difference is that Youngman took it to a global level, competing in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics.

“You may remember Bill Koch won the silver medal for the U.S. in the 1976 Olympics, and that really inspired me,” said Youngman. “If a kid from Vermont could do it, why couldn’t a kid from Ohio? So, that’s where my Olympics spark started.”

Along with her husband Bob, the Youngmans are avid cross country skiers and endurance sports athletes in Sun Valley. She’s also a mentor for the next generation of Olympians and world-class skiers. Visiting with Morning Edition host George Prentice, they talked about Youngman’s Olympic journey, the new book, “Trail to Gold,” and a big cross-country competition coming to Sun Valley this weekend.

“It’s awesome when kids can come here to experience our wonderful snow. I get excited whenever we can bring a big event to Sun Valley.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We are now just three weeks until the beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Idaho has a rich history connected to the Olympics, in particular the Winter Games, and perhaps our biggest link to the Olympic rings is in Sun Valley. Betsy Youngman is here. She competed in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. She and her husband, Bob, are avid cross-country skiers and endurance sport athletes in Sun Valley. I am proud to consider myself a Winter Olympic enthusiast. I’ve attended and or covered Winter Games going back to the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, so this is a particular pleasure for me. Betsy. Good morning.

BETSY YOUNGMAN: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Once an Olympian, always an Olympian, right?

YOUNGMAN: Yes, it does. It comes and goes as you have other pieces of your career. But I think it's something in your spirit that makes you an Olympian, and it's something we're all very proud of and proud to connect with one another. And as Olympians, it is. It's totally a special bond.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about your journey which brought you to national championships and two Olympic Games at a time when cross-country skiing was evolving.

YOUNGMAN: I got started in cross-country skiing in the mid nineteen seventies, roughly 1972. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, which at the time had lots of snow. We were in  ofwhat's known as the snow belt and just south of Lake Erie. And when it would snow, you'd get these big Alberta Clipper events. It would come across the lake and it would snow, and we lived in what could be called the buckle of the snow belt. We lived in the snow every day after school. You went and played in the snow in some form or another. Once cross-country skis are introduced in this country, which is in the early 1970s, we all got cross-country skis for Christmas and it was so much easier and more fun, more controllable for all of us. That alpine skiing sort of went by the wayside when I was in middle school. In high school, we still skied occasionally, but we mostly were cross-country skiers.

PRENTICE: And the idea of skate-skiing is the cross-country skiing that most spectators are accustomed to.

YOUNGMAN: Right. I started classic skiing, which is what everyone did. That's all there was. And as you remember, Bill Koch won a silver medal for the U.S. in the 1976 Olympics, and that really inspired me that if a kid from Vermont could do it, why couldn't a kid from Ohio? So that's where my Olympics spark started…it was with his winning the silver medal. But then during that period of time in the late 70s, early 80s, skate skiing was coming about and again it was Bill Koch and those Vermonters that came up with the idea of, well, if your wax wasn't working and your kick wasn't great. How about taking one foot out of the track and doing what's known as marathon skating? So they invented the marathon skate, started the change in skiing that we know today.

PRENTICE: Talk to me a bit about this new book, “Trail to Gold.” It's great. It chronicles the journey of a U.S. Olympic women cross-country skiers, including yourself, from the 70s, all the way into the 21st century.

YOUNGMAN: Right. I wrote one of the chapters I wrote Chapter 5, which is about the birth of what are now known as club teams. My club team that I got started was the Bonnie Bell team, sponsored by Bonnie Bell Cosmetics and Cleveland, Ohio. Then it grew from just a personal sponsorship to I brought the whole team I was training with together. And then all the women and men that we were training together with were then sponsored by Bonnie Bell, and we were the first club team in this country, which is now again the paradigm for how people evolve. They move from high school to college and then on into club teams, and those club teams support them through their development. I helped edit a couple of other chapters just because it was it was a team effort. Once again, it was a very collaborative group of people that got together,

PRENTICE: And the book is just rich with archival photographs for any fan of winter sports. It's fabulous. I hope you're very proud of this.

YOUNGMAN: I am. I think it turned out a lot better than any of us expected.

PRENTICE: It's great for a spectator to attend Winter Games overseas, because that's when you recognize that cross-country skiers are superstars in a number of nations and they are the equivalent of of NBA or NFL athletes in our nation. And I don't know if television does the sport justice. I think television does a better job in covering cross country now. That said, in person, it is heart racing. It is thrilling.

YOUNGMAN: The other thing that's really changed, so we started skating in the 88 Olympics, that was the first Olympics where there was there were skate events in those days you went off in the woods by yourself and came back half an hour later. Yeah. So they really couldn't film what was going on. So inspectors have no idea of the drama out in the woods. Today, they've shortened the courses down to two to three kilometer courses. They do multiple laps. They have cameras everywhere. Now we have drones, so spectators can get a sense of all the exciting moments that happen in these ski races, and I think it's really allowed people to understand what cross-country skiing is like. You said, it doesn't really show doesn't show the spirit of what cross-country skiing is in nations like Finland and Norway. Sweden, you go places where you're just overwhelmed with people wanting your autograph. It's it's amazing and and seeing people just moving about on cross-country skis. I think that was a huge paradigm shift for me too was like when my first trip to Europe to race, just seeing people getting from place to place on cross-country cross-country skis, little children, old ladies. It's a lifestyle.

PRENTICE: And the cowbells, of course, right?. The fans and their cowbells. By the way. I've got to ask what you think about a Winter Games in a part of China that averages about three inches of snow a year.

YOUNGMAN: From what I've read, it's going to be 100 percent manmade snow, which is different kind of snow. Yeah, it makes it much more difficult for the wax preparation, but that's where again, thanks to global warming, I think and climate change, more and more courses now are ribbons of white. So that's kind of sad in a way how much skiing has changed all around the world. Athletes are used to it. It's not freaking them out, but it's going to be hard.

PRENTICE: This weekend, there’s a pretty big event in Sun Valley: The Super Tour. What can you tell us about that?

YOUNGMAN: So this weekend in Sun Valley, all of the top athletes in our country that are still vying for places on the Olympic team vying for places on the World Championship, junior world championship teams vying to be the recognized as some of the top skiers in the country will be here racing on to races on one on Saturday, one on Sunday. So it'll be a really exciting event for spectators to come to Sun Valley if they want to come see it. It's awesome when kids can come here to experience our courses, experience our wonderful snow and it's the spillover is a lot of our young athletes and master skiers and get to go watch some of the best in the country and get a sense of what racing looks like and how much fun kids are having. So I get excited whenever we can bring a big event to Sun Valley.

PRENTICE: And what a rare opportunity for Idahoans to see the best of the best and future Olympians.

YOUNGMAN: That's what's really fun. I mean, you see all the little ones, but you see the high school and college kids are finally making it to the world level.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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