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Michigan skier paves road to Olympic podium with wax

Eli Brown spent years training for the Winter Olympics, and now he’s finally going. But Brown isn’t competing as an athlete. Instead, he’s making sure the U.S. cross-country ski team has the fastest skis possible.

Credit DAVID CASSLEMAN / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Eli Brown applies some wax to one of his personal skis with a hot iron.

On race days, one of the first things Eli Brown does is go outside and make a snowball. If the snow sticks together, that means there’s humidity in the snow. 

“Which means you need to use more water phobic waxes,” he explains. 

Eli Brown is a ski tech for Team USA’s cross-country ski teams. He helps pick the right kind of wax to use on skis for a given race.

“Tenths of a second matter,” he says. “Whatever we can do to help out there.”

Not only do tenths of a second matter, but Brown says the right kind of wax on a pair of skis could shave minutes off a skier’s time.

During the winter months, Eli Brown spends much of his time in a cabin just off the VASA Trail in Traverse City.

“Everyone has their crutch,” he says. “Mine is collecting skis.”

He has a ski trailer parked in the front yard. Inside, he’s got about 20 pairs of skis, an assortment of poles and a bunch of containers filled with different wax. Some wax is hard as a rock, some is soft and some is powdery.

Credit DAVID CASSLEMAN / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Eli Brown rifles through one of his containers filled with different types of ski wax.

After high school, Eli Brown landed a scholarship to ski at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He went on to race in a couple Olympic trials, but he never made the cut.

After years of coaching college skiers, Brown now volunteers as ski support for the U.S. cross-country ski team. Part of that job includes testing different kinds of wax right before a race starts.

To help keep track of everything, Eli and the ski support team make brackets, almost like a tournament. The fastest skis advance, the slow ones do not. 

Since snow conditions change rapidly, it’s important to test the skis as close to the start of the race as possible. Brown says he’s constantly looking at his watch to make sure he’s on schedule.

“We gotta be on the racecourse as close to start as possible," he says. "We’re kind of procrastinating and preparing and racing to make decisions in as scientific a way as we can.”

Eli Brown doesn’t make the final decision on what wax to use for that day — that’s up to a more experienced coach to decide. But once the coach does, Brown hustles to bring the right skis to the skiers waiting at the start line.

“That’s the last thing we do is lace up our running shoes," Brown says. "I get that job sometimes of sprinting ... behind the grandstands, and then trying to put a calm face on the last minute where you hand the athlete the skis, pat them on the back and then catch your breath.”

Credit DAVID CASSLEMAN / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Eli Brown glides across the snow on the Timber Ridge Resort in Traverse City.

After the handoff, Brown heads back to the wax trailer to clean up. He listens to the play by play of the race on the radio, and he says that’s when everything sets in.

“For the first time, you’re catching your breath and kind of sad that the excitement’s over, but looking forward to the next day,” he says.  

When it comes to cross-country skiing, the United States are big underdogs. In fact the team has only medalled once on the Olympic stage — men’s or women’s. That was back in 1976.

Credit DAVID CASSLEMAN / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Eli Brown always wanted to race in the Olympics, but he says helping others participate is just as meaningful.

“We don’t have the resources," Brown says. "We’re this David and Goliath type of thing, compared to Norway."

Despite being outspent by other countries, the U.S. women’s team especially has had some recent success at the World Championships. Brown thinks this could finally be the Olympics where they get back on the podium again.

“The gold is going to be very elusive, but the bronze might be in reach,” he says.

When he’s watching TV, sometimes Eli Brown sees a commercial for the upcoming Winter Olympics and that gets him pumped up.

“It’s weird because I wanted to be there as an athlete," says Brown, "but now being there as a support staff feels just as exciting and meaningful to me.”

On February 9th, Eli Brown will walk with the rest of Team USA during the opening ceremonies in South Korea — his Olympic dreams finally realized.

Daniel Wanschura is an arts and culture reporter and producer for Interlochen Public Radio.