• For complete Olympics coverage, visit our Olympics page.
• Matias Saari is in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Get the Alaska perspective here.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK — Erik Flora’s dream of skiing in the Winter Olympics never panned out. It’s satisfying, however, that he’s made it as a coach.
Flora, the director and head coach of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center in Anchorage, was invited to join the U.S. Ski Team’s coaching corps for one simple reason.
“Because my athletes have been skiing fast,” Flora said Saturday after one of his APU skiers, James Southam, took a decent 34th in the 30-kilometer pursuit.
His other athletes are Kikkan Randall, who duals as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, and Olympic rookie Holly Brooks.
Randall’s eighth place in the classic sprint — the best American women’s Nordic result ever — is the highlight of the games for the team so far.
“To watch Kikkan the other day I think was exceptional,” Flora said, adding that the two sat down last spring and came up with a plan to improve her classic sprinting for these Olympics.
Brooks is the only skier on the 11-member team that has done all three races so far.
“It’ll be good for her to have a few days to rest and throw down a good 30K classic,” Flora said.
Flora, 37, said he has worn many hats at APU since taking over four years ago. At the Olympics,
however, his responsibilities are more specific. He’s been helping prepare the team for training, working in particular with the APU trio and assisting with tasks such as wax testing on race days.
He’s getting tanned in the face from all of Whistler’s sun, and he’s not sleeping much.
“My job at APU I work 16-18 hours a day (during competitions),” Flora said. “Here it’s the same; it’s just the work is different. You’re working with a large team of coaches.”
Flora, who came to APU in 1998 when it was run by three-time Olympian Jim Galanes, dreamed of making the Olympics at a young age.
“Probably since 10 years old — that was something I thought about,” he said.
He went to Norway to learn about ski training, brought that knowledge back to America, and nearly used it to return to Norway for the Olympics in Lillehammer 16 years ago.
“Probably my best run at it was from 1994. I was two places off, ” he said.
Flora, whose younger brother Lars competed at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, had his career derailed in 1997.
“I was in a car accident and kind of left ski racing before I wanted to,” Erik said.
But that helped lead him into coaching.
“When it didn’t work out for me ... I turned that energy and passion on others,” he said.
Flora isn’t the only Alaskan on the U.S. team’s coaching staff.
Chris Grover, a 1989 West Anchorage High School graduate, is in his ninth year as the team’s sprint coach. He works specifically with Andy Newell and Torin Koos, who have each reached the podium in World Cup events.
In a disappointment, Newell crashed during the classic sprint qualification round and Koos struggled. Neither had the top 30 finish needed to advance to the heats.
“We’ve been talking about this day for four years,” Grover said by phone the night before the sprint race.
However, the pair likely will get another chance on Monday in the team sprint event.
Grover was mostly a wax technician at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and is enjoying these games because of his closer involvement with the skiers.
“The fun part for me is being the personal coach of some of these athletes. It makes you feel that much more important,” Grover said.
After high school, Grover attended Dartmouth College and began coaching at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont in 1993.
He lives in Hailey, Idaho, and is married with two young daughters.
“I don’t get to Alaska a lot, but my parents still live in Anchorage,” said Grover, adding that he attended his 20th high school reunion last summer.
Contact staff writer Matias Saari at firstname.lastname@example.org.