Birkie’s New All-Women Ski Race Breaks Barriers to Entry

When Jacques “Jackie” Lindskoog raced in the first American Birkebeiner in 1973 as the only woman of 35 skiers, she wasn’t trying to make a statement. She was simply there to compete. 

While the Wisconsin event known as the “Birkie”—the largest cross-country ski race in North America, and the third largest in the world—has attracted more female skiers in the 49 years since Lindskoog’s historic venture from Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable, women are still vastly underrepresented among competitors.  

But a new race series—the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation’s Ski de She—aims to change that, inviting more women to ski. On January 28, 2023, women of all ages, abilities, and skills, can compete in the 30-kilometer skate ski, 20-kilometer classic ski, or 10-kilometer freestyle ski race. A three-day camp preceding the race encourages women to build camaraderie while developing their ski skills, gaining more confidence, and preparing to compete. 

There’s as much fun to be had in the winter as in the summer, and we can continue to build women’s enthusiasm about winter sports.Jan Guenther, founder of Ski de She and owner of Gear West in Long Lake, Minnesota 

Within the first few hours of registration opening last September, the camp was filled—with a waitlist adding names of interested women by the day, officials say. 

“It’s going to continue to bring women to a different kind of health and fitness,” says race founder Jan Guenther, owner of Gear West in Long Lake, Minnesota. “Skiing—[compared to] summer sports—requires a lot more energy. … There’s as much fun to be had in the winter as in the summer, and we can continue to build women’s enthusiasm about winter sports.” 

The Ski de She solidifies the Upper Midwest as a nationwide hot spot (… or cold spot?) for skiing, as there are few to none of its kind in the continental U.S. Most women-exclusive ski races take place abroad, specifically in Europe. 

“We’re [considered] flyover country,” says Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. “[But] the greatest ski culture is right here. … Minneapolis, St. Paul cements the ski community right here in the Midwest.” 

Changing Demographics 

Since its inception, the Birkie has consistently continued to attract a middle-aged, white, male demographic, according to Popp. Almost 80% of all competitors are male. “We as an organization looked at ourselves and really challenged ourselves that we can do better than that,” Popp says. 

Coaches from around the country will fly into Cable—a nearly three-hour drive from Minneapolis—for the camp, including accoladed U.S. Olympic athlete and breast cancer survivor Kikkan Randall, who will help women learn to choose waxes for their skis, practice proper ski techniques, and feel more confident in their abilities—confident enough to tackle the Birkie. 

“If you’re considering learning to ski, the camp is really exciting for people who want to get out and build their skills, build community especially,” says Blair Flickinger, marketing director for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. “So it’s not just about coming and learning to ski, but finding people you want to ski with.” 

Women-exclusive races aren’t new, but the U.S. has been surprisingly slow at adopting the inclusive effort. A comparable event is located more than 3,000 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, where the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage presents the Alaska Ski for Women—North America’s largest women’s cross-country ski event, where about 1,000 women race to support non-profit organizations dedicated to ending domestic violence in Alaska. 

Guenther and Cindy Swift, owner of Riverbrook Bike and Ski in Hayward, Wisconsin, have tried to emulate inclusion efforts more locally, launching their Wine and Chocolate Weekends, which attract women who bond over mutual life experiences (and wine, and chocolate). 

“Women tend to put everyone first in their lives, and so they never prioritize themselves,” Swift says, “and so we make them a priority for the weekend, and we roll out the red carpet for them.” 

Gearing Up for Change

When Eden Prairie High School grad Abby Drach heard from Olympic athlete Jessie Diggins about her struggle to find spandex shorts that wouldn’t ride up—shorts that wouldn’t cause her thighs to chafe, Drach could relate. As a former competitive Nordic skier for Dartmouth College, Drach experienced the shortcomings of women’s athletic clothing early in her ski career.

And she isn’t alone. Whether it’s activewear or ski gear, women struggle to find proper equipment and clothes that fit and feel comfortable for their bodies. And the ski industry is no help; it historically hasn’t developed products with women in mind, local skiers and retailers say. Boots aren’t designed for women’s shoe sizes and calf shape, and skis aren’t created with women’s weight distribution in mind.

Drach—who is currently taking sewing classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College—addresses the systemic problem of poorly designed activewear for women with her Minneapolis-based business Indura Athletic. 

“I started Indura Athletic because I felt like … as an athlete and hearing from other athletes, that there wasn’t a lot of clothing—actually athletic clothing—that fit female athletes,” she says. 

Drach recently partnered with Northeast Minneapolis-based manufacturer A&A Sewing Services to produce her all-sport athletic wear, allowing her to expand her business. Her target clientele? The same women who will compete in the Ski de She: female athletes, from amateurs to experts, who are in need of comfortable activewear.  

Leading the Way 

While some women skiers seek to address the systemic problems that lead to the lack of representation in skiing, others look to improve the representation more directly: by leading. 

Minneapolis-based skier Caitlin Gregg is one example. The Olympic athlete has done what no other skier can say they’ve done: win an American Birkebeiner championship title five times. She broke course record in the 2011 women’s freestyle with a winning time of 2:15:26.0. She has competed in the Olympics, the World Championships five times, and the World Cup for 10 years. She notably won bronze at the 2015 International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Ski Championships in the 10-kilometer freestyle. 

And, perhaps most significantly, she trained herself—and her husband, fellow cross-country skier Brian Gregg. 

I felt like sometimes I had to almost hide behind my husband and pretend I didn’t know because I didn’t want to be a threat. Caitlin Gregg, Olympic athlete and head coach of Team Birkie 

“At that time, there were no other women coaches, and for the male coaches to really respect that I was writing my own training and I knew what I was talking about … I felt like sometimes I had to almost hide behind my husband and pretend like I didn’t know,” she says, “because I didn’t want to be a threat and because I felt like, if it came from me, they wouldn’t trust me.” 

Now head coach for Team Birkie (sponsored by Central Cross Country Skiing, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, and Minneapolis-based The Loppet Foundation)—with three women and five men in the World Cup development team and four women and four men on their marathon team—she says she wishes she would have been more steadfast in herself early in her career. 

“Since I’ve become a coach, I’ve reflected and said, ‘Gosh, why did I feel that I couldn’t stand tall?’” she says. 

She continues to be challenged—now as a mom. She recalls her own mother, an engineer, who inspired Gregg to not be intimidated by male-dominated fields. She hopes to inspire her own three-year-old daughter to do the same, while recognizing the barriers that the ski community has for women—and particularly mothers. 

“I oftentimes see that moms are the ones that end up staying with [their] kid while the husband gets to race,” she says. “So there’s that balance that needs to be achieved.”

Gregg is the first—and only—female head coach and mother to lead a professional, competitive team like Team Birkie in the country. Though she says she is disappointed to miss the inaugural Ski de She race, it’s not without good reason; Gregg has been selected among five female coaches in the U.S. to coach the U.S. Ski Team at the FIS World Cup in Livigno, Italy, and Les Rousses, France, in January. 

“People ski for all different reasons, and I think that’s the best thing possible,” Gregg says, “but I personally, I love to race—I don’t know why. I just love pushing myself. Honestly, sometimes I even love the process of coming up short and not meeting my goals and expectations and having to go back and re-evaluate and readjust and see where I can improve.” 

Learn more about the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation’s new all-women ski race, the Ski de She, at Watch the race for yourself from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, January 28, in Cable, Wisconsin. Get involved with the local ski community through Minnesota-based ski clubs for all gender identities.

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