Strong European contingent is back in the Birkie

The American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon commemorates the rescue of Norwegian baby Prince Haakon by Viking warriors in 1206, and each year the race serves as a festival of cultures.

The American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon commemorates the rescue of Norwegian baby Prince Haakon by Viking warriors in 1206, and each year the race serves as a festival of cultures.

The Birkie wouldn't be quite the same without some European flavor, but this year's elite field may have more of it than the American competitors want. That's because the Italians are back.

Italians dominated the Birkie during the past decade, winning six straight men's titles and four straight women's titles before skipping the race the past three years after the Birkie dropped its affiliation with the FIS Marathon Cup in a cost-saving move. The Birkie decided to give that affiliation another shot this year and increased its purse from $20,000 to $27,000, with the winners now receiving roughly $7,000 compared to $5,000 last year. More money means more competition.

Two-time Birkie champion Marco Cattaneo (2005, 2006) is expected to compete, as well as countrymen Fabio Santus and Bruno Carrara. The trio is third, second and eighth, respectively, in the FIS Marathon Cup standings.

"We obviously try to get a strong field here because it makes for a great race, but I also think it's one of the reasons the Birkie is popular is that you can walk around and hear people speaking different languages," said Ned Zuelsdorff, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. "It just brings that whole international feel to the event."


Zuelsdorff said adding the FIS Marathon Cup affiliation costs the Birkie about $12,000, with part of that going to the increased prize money, and he was skeptical if it was worth it for the handful of elite skiers that affiliation brings. The other 10 Cup events are all in Europe, so it's expensive and difficult for the top skiers to break from their training regimens and come to the U.S. for a single race, especially during an Olympic year. But even adding a few world class skiers makes for a much more competitive field.

This year a record 8,000 skiers representing 20 countries are registered for the American Birkebeiner and its support race, the Kortelopet, topping the total of 7,880 in 1997. About 200 are international skiers, including elite Norwegians Espen Harald Bjerke and Morten Eide Pedersen, who won the men's Elite Sprints on Thursday in Hayward.

Defending Birkie champions Matt Liebsch of Plymouth, Minn., and Rebecca Dussault of Gunnison, Colo., could lead the American contingent. Liebsch is only the second American to win the full-length Birkie freestyle title since 1975, and he was so dominant last year that he was able to carry his infant son, Grant, across the finish line last year.

"I think Matt Liebsch is going to have a race on his hands this year," Zuelsdorff said, "but if you want to be your best, you have to compete against the best."

Elite skiers are difficult to reach this week because they are in transit, but Liebsch posted on his Web site, mattlie, that he was looking forward to the race.

"This time of year the ski community gets a 'fever,' and the craziness that ensues can only be brought upon by the Birkie," Liebsch wrote. "People panic about skis, waxing, feeds and logistics. I try to put off the fever as long as possible. I try to fly under the radar and remain as relaxed as possible."

With the Italians looming, that might be more difficult.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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