Cross-country skiing is not for the faint of heart. While many skiers look to joy-ride gravity and ascend mountains by way of chairlifts, cross-country skiers are working hard both physically and mentally for each gliding moment.
Perhaps this is why our local Nordic community has so much heart and pride for JC Schoonmaker, who grew up in Tahoe and now races on the US Ski Team. Schoonmaker began his cross-country skiing career with Tahoe XC’s Strider Gliders program. While attending North Tahoe High School, Schoonmaker skied for Auburn Ski Club, and later for Sugar Bowl Academy.
In 2022, Schoonmaker brought his years of collegiate training to a memorable finish by placing third at the NCAA championships. That same year, he made it onto the U.S. Olympic Team and raced at the Beijing Olympics.
“It was a lifelong dream to be named an Olympian and compete at this level, definitely one of my proudest moments,” Schoonmaker wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink.
On Dec. 9, Schoonmaker accomplished yet another career highlight by placing third in the men’s sprint at the FIS Cross-Country World Cup in Ostersund, Sweden, and stood on a world cup podium for the first time.
On Jan. 31, just back from Europe, Schoonmaker returned to Tahoe XC to give a talk about this experience. He was accompanied by his girlfriend Emma Ribom, who skis for Sweden. Together, the two shared insights, strategies, stories, and health tips from their recent world cup adventures. It was a heartwarming event that made clear how Schoonmaker and his childhood community are still connected. For those of you who missed the intimate talk, we asked him to answer 10 questions to help us better understand his passion and journey to the elite level of Nordic skiing.
What initially turned you on to the sport?
I began cross-country skiing before I can even remember. I’m pretty sure my mom would drag me around the trail at Tahoe XC in a sled before I could even walk. She was definitely the reason I got into it as she signed me up for Strider Gliders at Tahoe XC and would take me skiing with her once I was able to.
When did you become passionate and motivated for competitive cross-country skiing?
The moment I remember when I really started to love cross-skiing was my first middle school race that I did because the feeling of competing was so fun, and from that moment it was my thing that I was super passionate about. Before that I mostly just did it to hang out with friends and I had fun but I liked other sports more. Once I realized that you actually raced and there were competitions was when I got fired up to do more.
When did you recognize your potential to be an Olympian and world cup athlete?
I first realized my potential to race on the international stage in 2020 when I qualified for my first world cup by racing well at the U.S. Nationals in Houghton, Michigan. I won the skate sprint qualifier there completely unexpectedly to myself and everyone else there. Before that, I had always dreamed of racing world cups and making the U.S. Ski Team but that moment was when I realized I could actually do it. From there I knew that I had what it took to make the Olympic team and be a world cup skier.
What aspects of your story have contributed to your success as an elite athlete?
I think that growing up in a fun and playful culture surrounding cross-country skiing has contributed to me becoming the athlete that I am today. As a kid my parents and coaches encouraged me to have fun with what I was doing so I developed a love for the sport. With that love I was able to create dedication and work to be the best that I could. Building jumps and skiing off the groomers when I was in junior programs taught me to enjoy this sport, and I think I have been able to carry that with me to the world cup, which helps when things get tough. There are lots of ups and downs in this sport and moments where you feel incredibly far from the skier you want to be, but remembering why I ski and having fun with it keeps me going.
What strategies do you implement when preparing for big competitions such as the Olympic Games and world cup races?
Preparing for big competitions like the Olympics and world champs is done by training year round basically every day, twice a day. People always say that skiers are made in the summer and that holds true. Training for the big races happens just like it does for any other race because the preparation is put in months in advance on rollerskis, running trails, in the gym, and anywhere else you can get fitter.
What stands out to you about how the Tahoe Nordic programs influenced and shaped you?
The programs here shaped me by creating such a fun and light atmosphere where I could simply have fun skiing. My earliest coaches, Ben Grasseschi and Gus Johnson, were all about getting us kids outside to enjoy going fast on Nordic skis and having a good time. They taught me to have fun and value that above results, which I still try to stick to today. Will Sweetser, my most recent coach, also helped me in a great way as he was a huge reason for the leaps in development I made when I first started qualifying for world cups. He has an immense knowledge for this sport and I was able to learn so much from him and start making huge strides to the top level. All of my coaches and the members of this community played a huge role in getting me to where I am today and I am extremely grateful for that. They continue to support me today, which means a great deal to know I have the support of this community.
What have your Olympic and world cup experiences been like?
My Olympic and world cup experiences have been all over the place. I have had lots of amazing moments and also moments where I felt like I didn’t belong or deserve to be there. The world stage of cross-country skiing is extremely competitive and it took me some years to feel fully comfortable racing there. I have had breakthroughs and special moments but have also gotten my butt kicked pretty hard. When I look at the overall ride with my teammates and coaches, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It has been truly special and I feel so lucky to be living this lifestyle. Getting my first podium in Ostersund was the culmination of having a great team around me and just believing that it was possible. Without the support system I have and the belief that I could do it, it wouldn’t have been possible.
What’s next for JC Schoonmaker?
What’s next is to keep pushing and keep racing the best that I can. I want to win world cup and Olympic and world championship medals, but most importantly, I want to be the best skier that I can be. I believe I can be one of the best in the world but I just have to keep pushing myself to be the best that I can be because at the end of the day, that’s all I can control.
What would you say to all of the local youth who dream about following your path and competing in global competitions?
My advice to any junior who dreams of racing at the highest level would be to just enjoy what you’re doing and believe in yourself. Trust your process and your journey because you have to do it in your own way that works for you.
What types of non-skiing activities do you like to engage in?
I love playing hockey outside of skiing. Up in Anchorage I play tons of pond hockey with my teammates every chance I get. I also love backcountry skiing and basically any other outdoor activity.