Winter Sports Drives Green-Sports, Part 2: Andy Newell, U.S. Olympic Cross Country Skier, Climate Change Advocate for Protect Our Winters (POW)

GreenSportsBlog does not often get to write about eco-athletes. And we’ve never been able to write about a married couple who are both involved in environmental activism.

Until now, that is.

Last week, in the first edition of GSB’s new occasional series, Winter Sports Drives Green-Sports, we featured the story of Erika Flowers Newell, an American cross country skier who is pushing to make her first US Olympic team in 2018. She also works for Carol Cone On Purpose, an agency that helps companies do well by doing good. And, for Erika, doing good means taking positive action on the environment.

Today, in Part 2, we talk with her husband, Andy Newell, a three-time Olympian in cross country skiing about to start his campaign to qualify for the fourth time. He’s also a leading member of Protect Our Winters (POW), the group of elite winter sports athletes who advocate for climate action.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Your wife’s story starts out in Big Sky country, Montana. Are you from that part of the world, too?

Andy Newell: Nope. I grew up in Shastbury, VT, near Bennington and started skiing as early as I could walk.

 

Andy Newell Young Red Cap

Young Andy Newell (middle, red cap), skiing with his family in Vermont (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 

GSB: When I think of Vermont as far as skiing is concerned, I think of downhill and the other alpine events. Was it unusual for you to gravitate towards cross country?

AN: Not at all. Our area in particular is great for cross country. It’s a blue collar region and, as compared to alpine, cross country is more of a blue collar sport — alpine is much more expensive. I’ve been into it forever; I started racing when I was 5 years old.

GSB: Holy COW! So were you on an “elite” track from those early years?

AN: It turned out that way. I competed all the way through my teen years and attended Stratton Mountain High School, about 40 minutes from home. It’s a specialty school designed for skiers and snowboarders with an academy and a private ski school for kids in grades 8-12. It is tiny —there were 25 kids in my graduating class.

GSB: It sounds like the way many European countries handle top young athletes — by putting them in special sports academies — for top soccer and tennis players. Similar also to IMG Academy down in Florida. I didn’t know there was such a thing for winter sports here.

AN: I got a lot out of it. It was great preparation for my career as a pro skier, especially where time management was concerned. And the education was top quality. It was like I got a college education in a high school setting because I had to juggle academics and a full time training and racing schedule.

GSB: So I imagine you competed at a high level while at Stratton Mountain School…

AN: It was great. I got to travel in high school as part of the US Ski Team as I was named to the developmental squad when I was a senior.

GSB: Where did you ski in college?

AN: I never went to college, deciding to pursue professional skiing as a career. This is not unheard of. I jumped to the A-team in 2003 when I was 19.

GSB: Congratulations! That’s young for a cross country skier, I believe. The US was never a cross country power — I remember that Bill Koch of Vermont was the only Olympic medal winner and that was back in 1976…How did you deal with that?

AN: Well, things were starting to look up for the USA when I came of age. It’s a long process as cross country takes training, hard work, top coaching, along with strong athletes, patience and funding. In the mid 2000s, we started to have success as a team and I did as an individual, in the sprints. I was the first American male to make the medal platform at a World Cup race in 2006, taking third place in Changchun, China. I followed that up with a 5th place at the 2007 World Championships. And then, on the women’s side, Kikkan Randall made the podium in 2008, on her way to even greater success down the road at the Olympics. It was a fun, exciting time.

GSB: It sounds like you were on track to be on Olympian yourself…

AN: I went to my first Olympics in 2006 in Torino Italy. 4 years later at the Vancouver Games I was in the best shape of my life! I was a medal hopeful for sure but I crashed out of my sprint…

GSB: YIKES!

AN: Well, they say those kind of things are “character builders”…So I trained and worked…

GSB: …And built some character…

AN: Hopefully… It taught me a lot about the process of being an athlete. That there is a whole lot more to success than just winning medals, it’s about enjoying the process and also giving back. That perspective has a lot to do with why I got involved in environmentalism and later made the Olympic team in 2014 in Sochi.

 

Andy Newell Sochi

Andy Newell at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 

GSB: You mean the Olympics that were held in a tropical zone?

AN: The very same. But this time, I wasn’t in my best form, I didn’t stand out. So now we’re in 2017. I’ve done well in World Cup seasons, have made it to several podiums but I haven’t put it together in Olympic years. So I’m giving it another go for Pyeongchang 2018 — just like Erika is — to see if I can do my best at the highest profile event in my sport.

GSB: And, as a member of Protect Our Winters or POW, doing well at the Olympics will raise the profile of your environmental advocacy. When did that begin?

AN: Early on — during my high school days and into my early 20s, the environment was not something I focused on. At all. Now, when I speak to school audiences for POW, I show a picture of me in my 1990 Chevy Blazer which got 10 miles per gallon. As I say, I didn’t care about the environment, so it’s important to communicate to school kids that you can learn, you can change — at any age. I wish politicians could admit to, in fact, honor the idea that they can change. It’s very important.

GSB: So when did your change to environmentalism take place?

AN: Bill McKibben, the founder and driving force of the climate change fighting nonprofit, 350.org, is a big cross country skier who lives near Middlebury, VT. My older brother was also a Middlebury skier so I heard of Bill through him as well.. I had met Bill at some of the local ski races and really admired his work and writing, and his excitement for activisim. So around 2010 was when I got started volunteering for a few 350.org projects. Between 2010 and 2014 I got more and more involved and started working with Protect Our Winters. In advance of the Sochi Olympics I communicated with Bill and he voiced his concerns over the negative environmental impacts of the Olympics and the importance of the upcoming Paris Climate talks and how we could rally support internationally.

GSB: Oh it was bad alright — we’ve written about the environmental disaster that was Sochi 2014.

AN: You got that right. It was an awful decision by the IOC to give Sochi the Winter Olympics. The development there devastated the wetlands…they clear cut national forests. So, I spoke up about this in the run up to the 2014 Olympics. And, Bill and I drafted a letter for a group of snow sports athletes called Athletes for Action and that letter was addressed to world leaders, urging them to sign the Paris Climate Agreement.

GSB: …Which was signed in December 2015, about a year and a half after Sochi. Congratulations! Of course, the current U.S. President is planning to pull us out of the agreement. Regardless, it seems to me that you’re a natural advocate.

AN: For me, becoming an activist was a smooth transition. I like to say what I think, to take a stand. I’m definitely not afraid. In fact I tried to recruit other athletes to join Athletes for Action, to get athletes from other countries who might be able to impact political decisions in their countries.

GSB: How did that go?

AN: It went OK, not great. We got some Canadian, Finnish and Swiss athletes to join. Russians? Not so much. Since then, I’ve become much more involved with POW, which really fits my lifestyle…

GSB: That’s FANTASTIC! What has that activism looked like?

AN: Well, I helped lead POW’s participation in the People’s Climate March in New York City in April; one of many marches I’ve done. I’ve written OpEds, including one that ran in USA Today in 2014. I’m also one of the more active members of POW’s Ski and Riders Alliance.

GSB: What will POW’s presence be in Pyeongchang in February?

AN: Good question. They’ll have some presence, I’m just not sure what it will look like. The way I can be most effective will be to make the Olympic team, so that’s my focus heading into the qualifying season which starts in December.

GSB: All the best, of course. What do you plan on doing after your pro skiing career is over? And will environmental activism be a part of it?

AN: Well, I’m going to continue with pro skiing for as long as I can. And, for sure, my activism with POW will continue, especially on the grassroots level…making presentations, recruiting more athletes, lobbying members of Congress and other politicians on climate. On the recruiting, I figure if I, as a non-college graduate, can do this work, can lobby on Capitol Hill, so can many other winter sports athletes.

GSB: Have you lobbied Vermont’s two US senators?

AN: Absolutely…I’ve lobbied and talked with both Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, who are great. I also had a one-on-one meeting with Todd Stern, President Obama’s lead negotiator at the Paris Climate Talks. My position was that we as the winter sports community need you negotiate an agreement with real teeth. He heard me for sure.

 

Andy Newell with Bernie Sanders

Andy Newell (l), with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Also pictured, Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent, both of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 

Andy Newell w: Todd Stern

Andy Newell (l), with Todd Stern, the U.S. chief negotiator at the Paris Climate Talks in 2015, and Alex Deibold, also of POW (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 

GSB: Unfortunately, as mentioned above, our current President plans to pull the U.S. out of Paris.

AN: Well, it’s not a done deal yet. One of my favorite quotes from Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie about climate change, Before the Flood, is “we can create elected followers, not elected leaders.” Meaning if we citizens have a big enough cultural and economic shift toward sustainable energy the President and everyone else in DC has no choice but to follow. We have more power than we think. Senators, House members and the President will continue to hear from the winter sports community as to why staying in Paris is the only sane way to go.

GSB: I feel a bit better about it all now, I have to say.

 

Andy Newell & Erika

Andy and Erika (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 


 

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Winter Sports Drives Green-Sports: Erika Flowers Newell, US Olympic Cross-Country Skiing Hopeful and Advocate for the Environment

The Winter sports world, from the NHL to climate change-fighting Olympic skiers and snowboarders, plays an outsized role in the Green-Sports movement. This makes sense, when one considers that climate change is at least partly responsible for shortened outdoor pond hockey seasons, canceled ski races, and more. Over the next few months, GreenSportsBlog will take an in-depth look at the intersection of Green & Winter Sports, in a new, occasional series, “Winter Sports Drives Green-Sports.”

We begin the series with the first of two stories about a pair of world class cross country skiers from the United States preparing for the start of their respective qualifying campaigns for the 2018 US Olympic teams, Erika Flowers Newell and Andy Newell. Both are environmental activists and also are married to each other! 

Today, the focus is on Erika, her skiing career, environmental advocacy along with her work for one of the legends of cause-related marketing. Next week, we shift over to Andy and his climate change-fighting efforts with Protect Our Winters (POW).

GreenSportsBlog: Erika, thank you for taking the time out from your pre-Olympic qualification training to talk with us about your skiing career, your role as an eco-athlete, and more. So let’s get right to it. When did you get into cross country skiing? And were you always an environmentalist?

Erika Flowers Newell: Skiing definitely came first. I was born in Missoula, Montana. I was always into sports — soccer and running — as well as theatre. When I was 10, we moved over to Bozeman. It was the middle of 4th grade. I knew no one but saw that a bunch of kids were into skiing. So I connected with a bunch of girls who were into cross country — they remain among my best friends today.

 

Erika Flowers Reese Brown

Erika Flowers-Newell (Photo credit: Reese Brown)

 

GSB: So you got into from a social point of view?

EFN: Yes. And I was a terrible skier at first…

 

Erika Flowers youth

A young, self-proclaimed “terrible skier,” Erika Flowers (Photo credit: Erika Flowers’ mom and dad)

 

EFN: …Really, I wanted to play soccer. But, truthfully, I wasn’t that good at soccer either…The only reason I made the team my freshman year was because I could run really fast. And, as time went on, I saw that I wasn’t such a terrible skier after all and I — and this a real surprise to me — really liked it. I loved to train, loved the running part of the training, plus the actual skiing. So, as a high schooler I made my first international trip, to the Scandinavia Cup and had some decent results. While still in high school, I ranked as high as #6 among all junior skiers in the US.

GSB: That’s incredible!

EFN: Believe me, I was shocked. I went from thinking I wasn’t much good at cross country skiing to believing I could compete at a very high level, get to travel all over the world. I thought this was pretty cool. But then my mom passed away while I was  in my junior year.

GSB: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

EFN: Thanks. It was very tough. In fact, I was at a race at the time. But I tried to borrow some of her grit and toughness after she passed, and that helped me win my first international race in the spring of my junior year in high school.

GSB: You are certainly talented and tough. So was college next on the horizon?

EFN: Yes…I looked seriously at three schools: Utah, Princeton and Dartmouth. Utah has a strong ski program but going to college out East intrigued me. So I visited Princeton — I liked the idea of going to the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs but…

GSB: …there’s not much skiing in and around Princeton, NJ!

EFN: Exactly. And so after we visited Princeton, we headed up to Dartmouth. It was right on the Connecticut River, the skiing trails are pristine, the campus is beautiful and the women’s nordic team was very good — at the time, five women on the Dartmouth nordic squad also were on the US Ski Team.

GSB: So that made the decision easy…

EFN: No doubt about it. I loved Dartmouth; I bleed Dartmouth Green for sure. Was surrounded by smart, interesting people. It was challenging academically. I studied government, health policy and more. And the skiing was even more challenging. As a freshman, I was just trying to get to compete in “Carnival”…

GSB: What’s that?

EFN: They are a big part of college skiing’s regular season — combined alpine and nordic events.

GSB: The alpine events are the downhill and the various slaloms (slalom, giant slalom, and Super-G). Nordic is the umbrella term for cross country, biathlon and ski jumping.

EFN: You got it! There are six weekends of carnivals in each of three regions; East, Midwest and West. You need to be in the top six at Dartmouth to make the carnival roster and top three to be assured of competing. And, as I was able to make it to carnival as a freshman, my next goal was to make it to the NCAAs — I said to myself “If I can go to the NCAA’s once before I graduate, that will be good.”

GSB: And what does one have to do to make it to the NCAA’s?

EFN: You had to be in the top 15 in your region across the various cross country disciplines — skate style and classic, sprints and longer races, and relays. To make it even harder, only three skiers from any one school can make it and Dartmouth, along with the University of Vermont, are perennial eastern powerhouses…

GSB: So you could be in the top 15 in your region but if you were, say, the fifth best on Dartmouth, you’d be out of luck, NCAA-wise?

EFN: That’s right. But that tougher climb made me a better skier. So junior year I got to go to the NCAAs in Stowe, VT…

GSB: Home mountain advantage!

EFN: …and finished fourth. Before senior year, I spent time in Guatemala working in a health clinic — I was planning to apply to medical school — but I constantly was daydreaming about skiing…

GSB: Clearly you weren’t ready to give it up!

EFN: That’s what I learned about myself. So senior year, I went to the NCAAs one last time, finished sixth. I was content with that and was happier that the team did really well — that was the best part of it.  

 

Erika Flowers Dartmouth

Erika, while skiing for Dartmouth (Photo credit: Erika Flowers Newell)

 

GSB: So what about medical school?

EFN: Well, before that decision was made, I started to volunteer with Fast and Female, a nonprofit founded by Chandra Crawford, a Canadian nordic Olympic gold medal winner in Torino 2006. Kikkan Randall, the best US women’s cross country skier ever runs the US group. The organization hosts events in the US and Canada for girls, 8-18. It’s a combination of physical events, socializing, motivational talks, and more. I loved working with them and being an athlete role model of sorts, so that made the medical school choice even harder. So I decided to go for skiing full time, see where it would take me. This was my time.

 

Erika Flowers Fast Female

Erika Flowers Newell, inspiring young athletes through “Fast and Female” (Photo credit: Tom Kelley)

 

GSB: So how does that work, exactly? Who funds you?

EFN: Great questions. Thankfully, I came along at a time where, in addition to the US Ski Team, there were professional development programs for elite skiers in the US. One is in Stratton, VT. I went up there along with two other skiers in 2012 with two goals in mind:

  1. Race internationally every weekend in the World Cup events — the regular season of cross country — and,
  2. Make the US Ski Team

The latter is a big deal because that gives you more of a salary, coaching, and support staff.

GSB: How many make the US nordic Ski Team?

EFN: Five men and 10 women — there are more women because our team is stronger relative to the men.

GSB: So if you’re on one of those elite teams but not the US Ski Team, how do you support yourself?

EFN: They do give support — they pay for a coach which is huge. But I have to secure my own corporate sponsorship outreach and sales, which takes about 25 percent of my time. This pays for my living expenses and travel.

GSB: I had no idea you had to be a sponsorship sales pro in order to have a ski career. A good skill to have, though. So I imagine it’s a lot easier if you make the US Ski Team. How does that happen?

EFN: Of course that isn’t easy, especially if you’re an older skier and I’m now 28. I’ve been at it awhile: I tried out for the Olympic team for Sochi 2014 but didn’t make it. But I did qualify for the 2016-17 World Cup, which was fantastic. So now I’m going for the 2018 Pyeonchang Winter Olympics, with the first qualifying races the first weekend in December in Montana…

GSB: Another Home Mountain Advantage! So what do you have to do to make the Olympic team?

EFN: There are likely going to be between 10-13 slots on the women’s nordic team. My goal is to finish first or second among the non-US Ski Team qualifiers. That would pretty much guarantee me a spot on the team. So I am pushing on all cylinders.

GSB: I have no doubt about that! So, now that our readers are cross country skiing experts, we turn to the green part of your story…Where does that fit in?

EFN: Well, first of all, as a full-time skier, it’s been a challenge to keep my mind as active as it was in college. But I know I have to develop myself professionally for my post-skiing life and sustainability is at the top of my list. So it was a happy coincidence that a friend of mine from Bozeman, Elizabeth Davis, was starting a new purpose-driven agency with Carol Cone…

GSB: …A corporate social responsibility pioneer!

EFN: YES! So they started Carol Cone On Purpose

GSB: Love that name!

EFN: And I saw on Elizabeth’s Facebook feed that were looking for interns. I applied and got it. Let me tell you, it was a real eye-opener for me about the intersection of business and purpose, the idea of doing good and doing well. And I brought the sports angle. So they allowed to help expand Fast and Female and I also worked with the Women’s Sports Foundation. After awhile, they hired me as a part-time Purpose Associate. They’ve been great about me working remotely and to get the work done around my skiing schedule. I handle research, social media and writing. On the research side, I’m diving into what companies are doing, well, on purpose.

GSB: What has that research shown you, if anything, about companies, sports and sustainability?

EFN: Oh, there’s definitely a growing interest on the part of companies about the Green-Sports intersection. From hockey arenas to ski areas and the companies that sponsor those venues and those sports, they clearly get it. And then, as a skier, I see the effects of climate change up close. There’s no way to avoid it. In the 10 years since high school, a lot of places at which I used to ski are just not viable. I mean, that’s 10 years, which is really nothing from a climate perspective.

GSB: Can you give an example?

EFN: Easily. Glacier Ramsau in Austria for years was a summer training ground for nordic athletes. Early on, we could ski there. The last two years? Un-skiable. The glaciers are melting before our eyes.

 

Erika Flowers races canceled MW 2017 Julia Kern

Cross country skiing races were canceled during the 2016-17 season because of lack of snow in the US midwest (Photo credit: Julia Kern)

 

Erika Flowers no snowman

In fact, there wasn’t enough snow for Erika (r) and her teammates to make a snowman (Photo credit: Erika Flowers Newell)

 

GSB: So where do you do summer training?

EFN: For training in snow, we go New Zealand. Of course then we get fan criticism, not completely unjustified, that here we are, talking about climate change and yet we spend massive amounts of CO₂ to train in the Southern Hemisphere. Also the climate problem is coming close to home. We used to do early season training in Bozeman but not now. The snow just isn’t there.

 

Erika Flowers Summer Training Matt Whitcomb

Erika Flowers Newell (2nd place, in blue top) trains with Kikkan Randall (1st place) and others in Soldier Hollow, Utah last fall (Photo credit: Matt Whitcomb)

 

GSB: Are the effects of climate change the same for nordic and alpine?

EFN: It’s actually more acute for nordic. Alpine events typically are at higher altitudes where it’s often colder. And there’s more snow making for alpine because those events are seen as being more glamorous.

GSB: So with your work at Carol Cone On Purpose and your front row seat for climate change as a cross country skier, you are really positioned well to be an eco-athlete advocate. With that said, are you involved with Protect Our Winters (POW), the great group of winter sports, well, eco-athlete-advocates?

EFN: I’m not yet in POW, but my husband, Andy Newell, a member of the last three US Olympic men’s nordic teams, is very involved. I’ve had too much on my plate just yet with Carol Cone On Purpose and skiing to join. But with Andy taking a lead role, I can see that being part of my future. No matter what, I’ll be an eco-advocate. Athletes have a powerful platform to share our stories and influence a lot of people in positive ways. Climate change really needs to be a platform for almost every winter sports athlete. We need to continue to push for meaningful carbon reduction policies. Why? Because we see the effects of climate change EVERY. DAY. We cannot wait to take action. And as much as I want to make the Olympic team and even win a medal, making a positive impact on climate is even more important.

GSB: When you and Andy met, was environmentalism an important part of your connection? Does he up your green game or vice versa?

EFN: Andy and I both value and appreciate the opportunities we’ve had growing up to spend time in the outdoors. We both recognize that the viability and longevity of our sport depends on a healthy global climate as well as the local communities that support land stewardship and the preservation of parks and open spaces. While sustainability and environmentalism where not the things that brought us together at first, I do think our similar value systems allowed us to bond and develop an appreciation for each other and the way we interact with the natural world. I was also very impressed with Andy’s work with POW, and continue to be inspired by his dedication to the organization as he travels to meet with politicians and speak at universities to build support for the cause. He definitely “ups” my green game! I’m much more informed on the state of climate change and the politics involved with climate change and sustainability because of Andy. I think I have a better pulse on the business side of climate change and sustainability while Andy knows more of the politics but we are both working towards a greener future and I think will continue to be involved in climate action for a long time.

 

Andy Newell & Erika

Andy & Erika (Photo credit: Andy Newell)

 

GSB: Well, you and Andy make up an important eco-athlete combination. Good luck in your environmental athletes and, of course, with qualifying for Pyeongchang.

 

NEXT WEEK: Andy Newell on his work with Protect Our Winters…and more.

 

 


 

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