In some ways, Orono’s Matt Liebsch is just like many other young adults his age—energetic, overscheduled, and trying to balance a hectic work schedule with the thrills of an 8-year marriage and the spills of fathering two busy toddlers. But when you throw in the tiny detail that Liebsch is also training for a spot on the US Nordic Ski Team for the 2014 Winter Olympics, suddenly, his life doesn’t seem so average after all.
In fact, Liebsch’s skiing career has been unusual from the get go. Instead of growing up with a ski pole in each hand—as most elite-level Nordic competitors seem to—Liebsch spent his adolescence concentrating on hockey and soccer. However, after a scheduling conflict snuffed out his skating dreams, Liebsch was left with an athletic void to fill—one that Brad Rosch, Osseo’s then-Nordic ski coach, was quick to recognize.
“[I saw] in Matt a drive that I see in few athletes,” recalls Rosch, “and I was impressed with his hard work and positive attitude [in other areas of interest].” It was no surprise, then, that these admirable characteristics transitioned seamlessly into Liebsch’s subsequent Nordic skiing career—propelling him to All Conference standing as a sophomore and the Minnesota state competition by the end of his high school career.
Unlike many of his peers, Liebsch decided to continue skiing competitively after graduation, and over the next several years—through informal practice with the University of Minnesota’s club team and dedicated, higher-level training with Piotr Bednarski of GO! Training—Liebsch dialed in on the technical aspects and subtle nuances of the sport, and began to fully realize his athletic potential. “I started getting faster because I was understanding the sport more completely,” explains Liebsch, “how the skis worked, how to wax, how to train, when to sleep, when to eat, how to recover—it all just came together.”
As Liebsch’s speed and form continued to improve, others around him began to recognize his developing potential, as well—including CXC, the regional governing body and Olympic development program for cross country skiers across the Midwest. In 2006, Liebsch signed on with the CXC Elite Team, training under Brian Fish, and positioning himself as an irrefutable contender for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Over the next couple years, Liebsch repeatedly proved his skiing prowess, scooping up first place finishes at the Mora Vasaloppet and the American Birkebeiner in 2009 (the latter being the largest cross country ski marathon in North America), placing third in the 2009 U.S. Nationals, and placing second of the U.S. men and 29th overall in Canada’s Canmore World Cup distance races in 2010.
Despite his obvious talent—as evidenced by a fantastic array of awards—Liebsch’s late start and status as a relative “unknown” in the sport still dogged his Olympic aspirations. “Since I didn’t have that formal training right away, I never really got in the U.S. ski team pipeline,” explains Liebsch. “And since I wasn’t in their system, I [realized that I] have to put myself in a position where they’re forced to recognize me. I can’t be [on the cusp]; I have to be the obvious choice.”
And according to Liebsch, being the “obvious choice” for the 2014 Olympics means nothing less than asserting himself as the top distance skier in the country—a lofty goal—but something Liebsch feels is definitely possible “with the right support structure.”
Topping that list of support essentials are the blessings of his wife and children. “Family is always first,” Liebsch notes sagely, “but there is definitely some sacrifice [with this training regimen], and they’ve already been through this once.” By tailoring his work-out schedule around important family events, spending more time with his kids during “recovery” days, and keeping his travel schedule “concise and focused,” however, Liebsch hopes to minimize any negative impact that his Olympic aspirations may have on his family. He also works hard to keep his training close to home whenever possible—practicing at Baker and Elm Creek parks through the Three Rivers Park District, and competing in local races, like those hosted by Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis and Battle Creek in St. Paul.
Financial support is Liebsch’s next biggest hurdle, but luckily, he has found a workplace that pays for his passion. After spending a year working part-time at Gear West, a local Nordic skiing and running outfitter in Long Lake, Liebsch was recently promoted to a full-time position as their director of race services. Though his training schedule does obviously cut into work availability, Jan Guenther, co-owner of Gear West, is quick to point out the benefits of their symbiotic arrangement.
“[Matt] brings new life, new knowledge and cutting-edge information [to Gear West],” she effuses, “and he gains a lot of that from being out in the ski world and on top of what’s happening in the racing circuit—so with that,” she continues, “comes an excitement for us to work with him, to make sure that he continues to be able to reach his goals [outside the store].”
And not only does Gear West support Liebsch through flexible employment, they are also one of Liebsch’s major sponsors—along with family-owned Fischer skis, Team Strong Heart, Swenor Rollerskis, Swix poles, Casco eyewear, and Minneapolis’ The Fix Studio—and have been instrumental in the financial aspect of keeping Liebsch’s Olympic dreams afloat.
Once he’s out there on those skis, however, it will be Liebsch’s own electrifying passion and steely determination that will determine how far he goes, and whether our community will be afforded the opportunity to cheer for the hometown hero in the 2014 Olympics.
But regardless of the outcome, concludes Rosch, Liebsch has been—and will continued being—“an inspiration to the entire Minnesota skiing community.”