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A Team of Retired Olympians and World Cup Skiers Take on the Birkie for Fun

For all of the years that Simi Hamilton and Sophie Caldwell (now Hamilton) were on the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team, there was one iconic race they never got to do: the American Birkebeiner. That’s because they were always over in Europe competing in World Cup races at the end of February.

Mountain Flow’s team that is skiing the American Birkebeiner. [Photo] Courtesy Mountain Flow

This year, they are finally getting their chance. Along with fellow Olympians Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen and Liz Stephen, plus former World Cup skiers Sylvan Ellefson and Matt Gelso, the Hamiltons are part of a team skiing the Birkie that’s sponsored by Mountain Flow, a growing Colorado company specializing in plant-based ski waxes.

“We’re incredibly excited to finally take part in such a fun, great event that has so much history,” said Hamilton a few days before the Birkie, speaking for himself and Sophie. They are most looking forward to the race’s unique vibe. “The finish stretch is quite well known for being insane,” he added. “And we’ve heard stories about the snowmobilers that come out and drink beer in one place and cheer. It’s like a perfect slice of the Midwest—we’re able to ski through all these little bubbles of culture.”

As a sprint specialist, Hamilton didn’t often race 50km distances, but his strategy for the Birkie is simple: to have a good time. “It’s awesome to be able to approach a high-caliber race with zero pressure and zero expectations,” he said. 

“What you hear most about the Birkie is that it’s super fun because of the community,” said Stephen, who was a U.S. Ski Team member from 2006 to 2018 and is also skiing the race for the first time. A bonus: the reunion with former teammates, most of whom she hadn’t seen since they all retired. 

Stephen added that she wouldn’t be skiing the Birkie were it not for Mountain Flow and Hamilton’s outreach in getting the team together. She’s avoided participating in cross country races since retirement. “It’s a little emotionally painful to jump in as this new me,” she explained. The transition from elite-level athlete in competitive shape to a more everyday life that doesn’t involve intensive exercise and throwing off intervals all the time has been challenging. “You remember what it feels like to be fit, and it’s hard to go back in this different body and mindset and fitness level,” said Stephen. 

But speaking from the Birkie Bash on Thursday night, she shared, “What got me here was knowing I was going to be with the people I value most on the planet.” And any hesitancy she felt about racing again had disappeared. “I just care about being with my friends,” Stephen said.

The team will be easy to spot: Hamilton worked with Podiumwear to come up with neon race suits, which he calls “a kick-back to the ’80s.”

Mountain Flow is based in the Roaring Fork Valley, where Hamilton grew up and where he and Sophie now live. A former ski patroller and ski tech, company founder Peter Arlein started tinkering with waxes at home in his kitchen to develop a plant-based product, which wouldn’t leave any petroleum-based residue in the snowpack. Ultimately, it took two years and 200 formulations to arrive at a product he was happy with.

In 2019, Mountain Flow filed for patents and launched its first line of eco waxes, which are also fluoro free. In 2020, it introduced a race wax that includes a ceramic nano powder originally developed by the Department of Defense for use in bulletproof jackets, said Arlein. Similar to fluorine but non-toxic, the powder is hydrophobic and durable.  The U.S. Olympic bobsled and luge teams found that it works well when applied to sled runners. Mountain Flow bought the exclusive rights to use the powder in ski wax.

Of course, it’s not the only non-toxic, fluoro-free ski wax available. Swix’s newest line of glide wax, Swix Pro, is available in three formulations that eschew fluorine. Among Toko’s fluoro-free options is its Natural Wax, which is plant based and biodegradable. And Fast Wax is promoting its new “flower-carbon” initiative at the Birkie, which the company’s Casey Kirt calls “an industry-wide reset of what we choose to use in our products.” The wax incorporates micronized plant husk for glide and durability.

Arlein welcomes the competition. “It’s a good thing,” he said. “We want people to have a good-experience with plant-based wax, whether it’s ours or somebody else’s.”

If you’re at the Birkie this weekend, visit the demo to try one of these new waxes. And keep an eye out for the neon-clad skiers—they’ll be among the ones having the most fun.