Cross country skiing in Minneapolis is different because the city is one school district with many schools and many ski teams, all training and racing together at Theodore Wirth Park. For 36 years Gary Wald coached skiing at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis, starting the first girls program in the mid-1970’s and coaching over 20 boys and girls teams to state section titles. He also coached cross-country running for over a decade.
Like most ski coaches in the early days of the sport, Mr. Wald, a Washburn English teacher, began coaching because of his passion for youth: “The position was open and paid $90 a year. I was available and young,” said Mr. Wald.
Today cross-country skiing is an established American sport. But in 1963 when Mr. Wald began coaching, to coach skiing was counter-cultural. “I had no training and no cross-country skiing background so I learned by doing it. Skiing then wasn’t all cross-country. High school skiing was cross-country, slalom and jumping,” he points out.
Past skiers credit Mr. Wald’s love for kids and skiing with inspiring his skiers to be their best. “He didn’t yell and scream. We wanted to work for him,” one recalled. He coached, even with three children at home, and in coaching circles was well-respected state-wide, starting the Minneapolis invitational, now a 20-year plus racing tradition. He originally started it to create a race in which girls and boys could compete on the same relay team.
Mr. Wald’s 36 coaching years spanned the infancy of Nordic as a competitive sport, and ended in 1999, in what could be called modern ski-times. What was the skate revolution like? Mr. Wald points out that Bill Koch, who first popularized the skate technique, did not skate like people skate today. “Skating at first complicated things for coaches; you did not know which way the sport was going. Skating was fancy, it was flashy and it was faster. Kids picked it up very quickly and in a few years there was no way anyone could hold back the tide,” he recalls. For many years high school races ceased to feature classic skiing and the Minneapolis Park Board created a separate skating course at Wirth Park.
“The most important thing as a coach is to be able to teach while allowing the kids to have fun,” Mr. Wald believes. His most memorable experience occurred at the 1983 State Meet in Grand Rapids. The Washburn girls were excited because then more than any time before or since the team had a good chance to win state. The meet was all-classic ski technique, as skating had not yet taken over. “All was going as we hoped until a voice on the loudspeaker summoned me to the woods: our number-three skier had collapsed,” Mr. Wald remembers. The team was small, and with one skier down, out went all hope for state. Mr. Wald’s Washburn teams won over 20 section titles, including 17 out of 20 between the boys and girls teams in the 1980’s, but this Grand Rapids meet was the closest one of his teams came to winning a state title.
Mr. Wald taught high school English in Minneapolis for 32 years, and continued to coach for ten more years after retiring as a teacher. Even in his last year as a coach at 63 years, his skiers maintain he could still out-run them in a three-mile time-trial around Lake Harriet. If so, he said, “It was only because they were slackers – although I always could catch most of them in a game of skate tag.”