Andrew Morehouse had the best seat in the house for the women’s cross-country team sprint at last month’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The 30-year-old North Creek native stood in the middle of the Alpensia cross-country stadium, alongside his longtime friend Tim Baucom, as they witnessed Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins win the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in cross-country skiing.
And they were paid to be there.
Morehouse, a 2005 Johnsburg graduate and former varsity Nordic team member, is one of five full-time wax technicians on the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team. This marked his first Olympics, and he worked the event with Baucom, his former teammate on the University of New Hampshire ski team, who’s another full-time tech and also his roommate in Bozeman, Montana.
While the two didn’t directly contribute to Diggins’ speedy skis on the last downhill, which helped her slingshot from third to first place (that credit goes to Diggins’s tech and personal coach, Jason Cork), Morehouse and Baucom were an integral part of Team USA’s unprecedented success in PyeongChang. Until the team sprint on Feb. 21, the U.S. cross-country team hadn’t won an Olympic medal since 1976. Randall and Diggins ended the drought and one-upped Bill Koch’s previous best of silver at the 1976 Games.
“Jessie (Diggins)’s skis were so good that day that we knew if she was within contact coming down that last hill that she had a really good chance of moving around those girls,” Morehouse said in a recent phone interview. Part of a two-person team with Randall, Diggins anchored the U.S. to gold by just 0.19 seconds over Sweden.
“It was also kind of nerve-racking because it was kind of a feisty downhill … there was a lot of contact … and they were all jostling for position,” Morehouse recalled. “We were just like, ‘Just don’t fall! Just don’t fall!’ ”
Diggins didn’t fall, and the U.S. team rejoiced around the two women at the finish. But for Morehouse and Baucom in the moments that followed, it was a quick turnaround. They had just a few minutes before the start of the men’s team sprint final, which both of “their” skiers were in.
Throughout the World Cup season, which lasts from November to late March, Morehouse is responsible for waxing skis for two U.S. Ski Team athletes: Erik Bjornsen and Rosie Brennan. Bjornsen was in the men’s final, along with one of Baucom’s skiers: Simi Hamilton.
“Tim and I kind of hugged it out and ran over and congratulated Jason (Cork) and Marek (Sander, Randall’s wax tech) and (head coach) Chris Grover,” Morehouse said of the three staff members who had been “in the pit” during the race, prepping skis for Diggins and Randall.
In a team sprint, each racer skis three short laps slightly longer than a kilometer, with each lap taking about 2 1/2 minutes to complete. As a two-person relay, athletes tag their teammates between laps, getting roughly 2 1/2 minutes of rest before heading back out on course. Between each lap, wax techs work at warp speed to swap out and prepare the fastest set of skis for the next round.
That was the job of Morehouse and Baucom for the men’s team sprint. Soon after the women’s race, Morehouse handed Bjornsen his skis and brought another pair into the pit in the middle of the stadium. Then the team turned its focus to that race, which was considered the U.S. men’s team best chance at a medal.
Sixteen minutes later, the men’s team sprint was over. Bjornsen and Hamilton had finished sixth. It wasn’t a bad result, but not the top five or even the podium they had hoped for. Last year at Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland, the duo placed fifth in the team sprint.
“The mens’ race was good, but they got a little bit unlucky,” Morehouse said of their Olympic race. “Erik got tripped up in his second [lap], which sort of took them out of any contention there, so that was definitely a little bit disappointing.”
It didn’t take long for the entire team to get back to celebrating the women’s victory.
“It was a really cool moment for the team,” Morehouse said of the gold medal. “It was just a big moment for nordic skiing in the U.S. … You don’t really know the impact that it’s going to have, but you know in that in moment that something special just happened.”
Despite challenging snow conditions, with almost entirely manmade snow that Morehouse described as “old”, “really, really dirty” and “really slow” (“It sort of felt like styrofoam,” he said), the U.S. service team consistently produced some of the fastest skis on the trails — sometimes even faster than the Norwegian and Swedish teams, which have waxing staffs at least three times the size of the U.S. team.
“From a service point of view, we just worked super hard over there and we left there feeling pretty good about the job that we did,” Morehouse said.
On a typical race day, which was every day of the Olympics except for one, he estimated he worked 10 to 12 hours. Each day would begin with two hours of preparing skis in a wax container (also known as a wax “cabin”), followed by another two hours of testing skis or skiing with athletes on the course.
Once an athlete picks the skis they want to race on, the techs have 20 to 30 minutes to wax their race skis before the start. After that, the techs head out on the course, standing in coaching zones and “feed” zones to offer replacement poles or liquid nutrition to their athletes if needed.
“We get to get out on course and see the race, too, which is good,” Morehouse said.
As a contracted U.S. Ski Team technician for the past three winters, Morehouse has traveled all over Europe and to places like South Korea. In December, the U.S. team joined the Nordic-powerhouse nations by purchasing its own wax truck (to the tune of about $600,000 dollars) to carry roughly 700 pairs of skis between World Cup venues. Previously, the team’s techs worked in wax containers provided by race organizers, but their own truck gives them the benefits of state-of-the-art technology and air ventilation.
Morehouse, who earned his Class A commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive the truck across Europe, a responsibility he shares with Baucom, said he’s been healthier this winter since working in it.
“I don’t know if that’s directly related to the wax truck, but I think it definitely plays a part, just breathing in good air and at the end of the weekend, not having a cough from inhaling so many wax fumes,” he said.
At the Olympics, every nation had to use designated wax containers and leave their wax trucks at home, or in the Americans’ case, in their Estonian head tech’s driveway. Teams were assigned several shipping containers; the U.S. team had five and used two for waxing. As opposed to working together in their truck’s 30-square-meter indoor space, the U.S. techs had to split up in PyeongChang. They dedicated one cabin to preparing race skis on a given day and the other to working on training skis and testing wax products on the notoriously funky snow.
And while they couldn’t flip a switch to blow fresh air into the containers, like their truck allows, Morehouse said PyeongChang’s wax-cabin ventilation systems were adequate.
“You can definitely smell it in the air in the waxes that we’re burning,” he added. “You can see it. If the sun is beaming through the windows, you’ll see all this particulate in the air and you’re just like, ‘Oh God, that’s just getting caked into my lungs.’ … In the wax cabins, you have to open all of the doors and windows to try to clear it out. We use masks that cover our face and filter the air so when we’re burning powders, we’re wearing those, but yeah, it’s noticeable.”
On the upside, Morehouse, who raced at UNH and spent two years as an assistant nordic coach at St. Lawrence University while earning his master’s in education, said he skis every day, even if it’s in short bursts.
“We kind of joke that we have this tech speed,” he said. “You’re kind of sprinting for 30 seconds and then you stop and change skis or glide down a hill to test wax. You rarely go out for a two-hour mellow ski. Usually, you’re hammering for 30 minutes then you go back and change the products, then you go hammer for another 30 minutes then you go back and wax race skis.”
For Morehouse, who made his way into the U.S. Ski Team ranks by waxing for several athletes at the Bridger Ski Foundation in Bozeman, the wax-tech life wasn’t one he deliberately pursued. He had enjoyed coaching at the college level then stayed involved with skiing as a coach at the Bridger Ski Foundation, where he worked with top-level skiers like Olympian Torin Koos. During the 2013/2014 season, he traveled with Koos to Europe as his personal wax tech.
“That’s when I really learned the nuances of choosing a good ski for race day and working with athletes closely to do that,” Morehouse explained in an email. “I would say that it was my time coaching in Bozeman where I realized how much I enjoyed the service side of skiing and thought to do it more full time.”
He contacted the U.S. Ski Team coaches after the 2014 Olympics to see if they were hiring any wax techs. They weren’t, but a year later, in the spring of 2015, they gave him a call.
After closing out the season at the remaining World Cups in Norway and Sweden this month, Morehouse plans to return to Bozeman, where he spends most of his offseason working in outdoor education for the Montana Wilderness School and the National Outdoor Leadership School. He also does carpentry work and plays gigs with Baucom in their band, Walcrik.
“I really enjoy working with young people, whether it’s leading outdoor-ed trips or coaching, so I see myself working as an educator in some capacity,” he wrote. “I have always had a dream to start an adventure sports academy or ski program of sorts but the details are still hazy. Ultimately I love being outside and whatever I end up doing will hopefully help kids find an appreciation for the outdoors as well.”
As for his path with the U.S. Ski Team, he said he’ll see how that plays out. It’s a tough lifestyle, being on your feet most of the time and on the road, away from home, four to five months out of the year, he explained.
“I’m definitely committed at least through next year, through (2019) World Championships,” Morehouse said. “I’m sort of on a year-to-year basis at this point. I really love the job. It gets a little challenging, just the amount of travel that we do. It’s just hard to put roots down or anything … I’ll kind of reassess and decide if I want to go through another Olympics or if I want to do something else, get back into coaching or whatever.
“It’s also really fun and rewarding, too, and the people that we work with are awesome,” he added. “I never dread going to work. I look forward to it every day.”