AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This February, the U.S. women's cross country ski team will head to Sochi, Russia, hoping to win an Olympic medal. It would be their first. The team boasts the best sprint skier in the world and an expanding roster of world-class talent. Summer training usually involves giving up on snow. But as Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports, the U.S. women have a secret weapon, a pristine glacier high above the mountains of Anchorage.
ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: The helicopter flight to Eagle Glacier is the most dramatic elevator ride of your life, 6,000 feet nearly straight up. On the ground, it's summer. But as soon as the helicopter crests the mountain: winter. The snowy white glacier stretches out for miles, rimmed by rocky peaks. We land next to a neatly groomed cross-country ski course.
ERIK FLORA: All right, ladies.
FEIDT: Coach Erik Flora stands at the edge of the course, offering pointers to skiers during a practice speed relay.
FLORA: Go, go, go, go, go.
FEIDT: Alaska Pacific University runs training camps on the glacier every summer for its Olympic development team and other elite cross-country skiers. The athletes spend a week at a time on the glacier, sleeping and eating in a dorm that sits on shale rock just beyond the snow. They put in long hours skiing each day. On this morning, Flora is watching to see how poppy, as he puts it, the skiers look in the legs, among other things.
FLORA: In the downhills, we're looking for how they take the turns, like the lines they pick, body position, you know, just trying to find different ways to find that extra 2 or 3 percent and then just pure racing skills.
FEIDT: The glacier course is carefully probed to make sure there are no crevasses underneath. Flora designed it to mimic the Olympic venue in Russia. The snow is soft, sugary and wet after baking in the summer sun. It's not exactly first rate skiing. But Alaska Pacific University skier Kikkan Randall says when the team had a chance to test the Sochi course on the World Cup last winter, it felt very familiar.
KIKKAN RANDALL: We all kind of looked at each other and went this looks just like Eagle Glacier snow. So I think even though it's maybe not the most glorious conditions to ski in, learning how to be technically efficient in this kind of softer snow is going to help us out tremendously. And then if you've done your good work and you just get out there and do what you always do, and hopefully, it's a gold medal moment.
FEIDT: Randall is the best sprint cross-country skier in the world and the favorite for a gold medal in Sochi. A decade ago, a top 30 finish for the U.S. was a cause for celebration. Now, a handful of the U.S. women could medal at the Olympics. The team proved its depth last winter when it won bronze in a four-person relay at a World Cup event in Sweden. Anchorage skier Holly Brooks says it was an incredible moment.
HOLLY BROOKS: It's funny because you go around town and people are like, yeah, that race you guys won. It's like, well, actually, we didn't win. We got third, but in our minds, we won because nothing like that had ever happened before.
FEIDT: If the U.S. team does bring home an Olympic medal, Eagle Glacier can take some credit. It's one of the only places in the world where cross-country skiers can train on snow in the summer. The weather can be awful. The glacier attracts fog and clouds, along with wind, sleet, rain and snow. But Brooks says Coach Erik Flora sees that as an asset, since so many of the most important ski races happen in horrible weather.
BROOKS: Eric's favorite thing to say when it's crappy outside, guys, it's championship day.
FEIDT: At the practice championship relay on the glacier, the skiers cross the finish within seconds of each other. As they catch their breath, Flora scoops up an armload of snow and begins an impromptu awards ceremony.
FLORA: In first place being awarded a massive piece of Eagle Glacier ice. Now, you're going to have to hold this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FEIDT: The skiers don't get much time to enjoy their victory, though. Flora quickly has them back out on the course, putting in more training time on Eagle Glacier.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.