Champion Q&A: Matt Liebsch

Back in 2005, I needed a new pair of classic boots. I found a listing on Skinnyski, et voila! I bought a pair of boots from some guy at the U of M named Matt Liebsch.

Since then, I’ve skied my way in to the Elite Wave, finishing as high as 169th in the Birkie. Matt’s done the same. It’s just that he’s finished 168 places better, winning the race in 2009. I asked him where he’d rank selling his boots to me amongst the top reasons he’s done so well. He said it was between 1 (his wife) and 3 (the U of M, “for giving me enough course load to drive me nuts to want to train to give myself a mental break”). It’s nice to be on that list.

I caught Matt as he was putting his two kids to bed (a third is on the way). Let me repeat this: Matt Liebsch has two kids, and still manages to be one of the best distance skiers in the country. Is there anyone else skiing at that level with a family? Wow.

And here’s the thing: Matt probably shouldn’t be at the Birkie. He came oh-so-close to making the Olympic team. In a world of points lists and politics, Liebsch was left on the bubble. He got an email in late January. “It was the opposite of Christmas morning. It was painful. I went from a sure thing to being on the bubble spot.” His training partner Brian Gregg, with whom he’d been rollerskiing and traveling much of the year, made the team, one spot ahead of him on the lists. After a number of closes races this season, “we were identical twins on skis,” Liebsch said. “With the same wax we have the same. I’m super pumped for him; I told him, ‘if only one of us can go, you need to go.'”

It was hard at first, he said, but he’s put it in to more perspective. “I qualified for the Olympics but just didn’t get to go. I wasn’t going to be a medal contender so it doesn’t really matter.” Still, he feels that on a good day he could swing a top-20 finish, and “it hurts” to see the team spread thin enough that they might start sprint specialists in the distance races.

In addition to the silver lining of getting to ski the Birkie, Liebsch has been participating in other local races. There’s a little money involved, and a lot less travel. “It’s really good to be home. I’d been on the road twelve of the past sixteen weeks. It’s a lot of sacrifice, especially on my wife’s part, to chase it as hard as I could.” Instead of traveling abroad, Liebsch won the City of Lakes Loppet Challenge, which he said was “a little aggressive, [there was] some lost productivity from skiers who had to go to work on Monday.” Of the two races in a weekend, he said he was “bored out of my mind on the lakes, I’d double poke 2k, look up, more lake; I need some entertainment.” Liebsch led the classic race to put some time on the sprint leader, and was skiing alone; he was in more of a pack on Sunday.

As for the Birkie, Liebsch is excited. He wants to finish in the money, and make sure the Europeans don’t sweep the top positions. He sees Sylvan Ellefson—another distance skier who was left off the Olympic team even after winning the 30k at US Nationals—as a good partner. “Sylvan is skiing so well right now. I’m excitied to ski the Birkie with him, throw down on some Euros working together. I don’t want to have a Euro sweep of the money spots. I want to have some American dudes in those spots. These guys are fast, so it’s nice to have that level of competition.” Liebsch lost to the Italians at the Birkie last year, but beat three of four of them at the Engadin in Switzerland a few weeks later. “They’re not ridiculous fast, but it’s hard to compete [alone] against four of them working together.”

He hopes to ski with other Americans, too. “Mike Sinnott and Matt Gelso are skiing well, they’ll have good skis,” he said. “I think the American men will have a better showing. It will be a deep field. Ski smart, don’t break any poles.” As for the weather, he’s glad the blizzard is coming on Thursday night, not Friday. Still, he says he has it easy. “I’m glad I don’t have to be a race director … I just have to show up at the start line with my skis and chip and boots and bib and poles.”
When he looks back at those eight years since his fateful decision to sell me his classic boots (it’s a good time period to reflect upon; his event, the 50k freestyle, only comes around every eight years) he wouldn’t change much. “I did everything that I potentially could given my life constraints, barring a divorce and going and living in the mountains. With what my life situation was with family and kids and a job, I did as much as I could do. Looking back at the last eight years, there’s not any regrets.”

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