CURATOR’S NOTE- Success has many fathers so there are a number of people you can point to who deserve credit for the USA Nordic combined medals but I think many would agree that one of the first rungs on the ladder was Steve Gaskill who cobbled a tiny budget and a bunch of passionate kids into something that caught the world’s attention. To read a brief interview with Steve, now a professor at the University of Montana, click here, To check out Steve’s TEDx talk on on the connection between movement and learning, click here.
STEVE GASKILL Missoula, MT Steven.Gaskill@mso.umt.edu
BUSTED FOR DRUGS 1978 was the year of the Nordic World Championship in Lahti, Finland. It was also a few years after the advent of CERA F, the mystical SWIX powder wax that could be really fast in snow near 32˚ F. I was packing the night before our departure for Lahti when I received a call from the owner of an American ski wax company. He wanted to know if I would like to try the new CERA F like fluor wax that he had developed. “Of course,” I quickly answered. Who wouldn’t love a substitute for the $100 small Swix vials when I was operating on a shoestring budget.
The problem was, he was in Buffalo, New York, and I was leaving for Finland the next morning. No problem he said. He would have the package sent overnight to the Pan Am Ticket counter in New York where I could pick it up during our transfer. The plan worked perfectly! I arrived in New York with about 300 pounds of gear: Three large wax boxes, two very large skis bags, a Polavision viewer and camera (instant polaroid movie film pre-video or digital), radios, my luggage, wax benches and misc. team gear. I had managed to get this far with no overweight and checked all of the bags through except one wax box that had some room in it for the wax samples.
Talk about wax samples. There was a large box filled with about 20 pounds of the stuff in large plastic containers and large, heavy duty plastic bags. I stuffed what I could into the wax box and sent it down the checked bag chute. The rest I carefully put into my carry-on bag. If this stuff worked I was sitting on thousands of dollars of wax. For once we might actually be able to afford wax for the typical southern Scandinavian snow.
The flight was uneventful. On arrival in Helsinki customs were well prepared for the many skiers and teams arriving. A band was playing and the skiers were all waved through pushing their carts with skis and personal gear. At the end of the line I was pushing two large carts. The customs agent laughed and commented that he could always tell the coaches. I thought he would simply wave me through, but jokingly he said he had to do his job and at least check one bag. A token check back when flying was much more casual. My stuffed wax box just happened to be on top.
It happened quickly and with Finnish efficiency. Bags of unmarked white powder stuffed into the top of a wax box. Within seconds I was surrounded by security guards and hustled off with all my gear: me to one room and my gear down a long hall. I was able to confirm that the skiers would all be put on the bus to Lahti and checked in. After what seemed like hours in the sterile white room my previously friendly agent walked in holding one of the bags of ski wax. His English was impeccable and while now a bit cold, he remained very profession and courteous. I explained that the powder was ski wax. He looked at me and laughed. He surprised me with the comment, “Like CERA F I suppose.” He was obviously a skier, but then many Finns are so why should I be surprised. I agreed and further explained it was an American company that had made it and sent it with us for the Championships. “We’ll see,” was all he said as he left me alone again.
It again seemed like a long time, but in reality it was only about an hour from starting through customs. Mr. Customs agent returned, this time he was smiling and laughed. “You were not lying, it is not cocaine and it appears to be some kind of wax. We have repacked your bags and are free to go. A vehicle has been arranged to transport you to Lahti.” That should have been the end of the story, but it was not….
Three days later, the night before the first cross country race (Nordic Combined would come later), I was working late after dinner in the wax trailer. There was a soft knock on the trailer door which I answered. Pekka (name changed), one of the Finnish coaches, was at the door and asked to talk. He was obviously a bit embarrassed but finally got to the point. A friend had given him some white powder wax which apparently I knew something about. It turns out the friend was the customs agent, a former Finnish XC national team member, who discreetly had borrowed one of my many bags of wax and passed it along. The Finns had been testing it and could not get it to work at all. Pekka was willing to exchange some local wax information and tips for info on our ‘special wax.’ I didn’t at first tell him that we had had the same results with the wax. He gave me a bar of their special mix and in return I told him the story of the wax and that we hadn’t a clue either. It was a good laugh and started a long term friendship that lasts to this day. On a side note – their glide wax was a step up from what we had been testing, but by the time the Nordic Combined races came along it had all been used an XC team skis and the weather had turned colder and we did just fine.
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