Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as such: “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
That statement couldn’t be truer in describing the trials and experiences of Andy Liebner.
The cross-country skier and biathlete spent his youth skiing in Soldotna, training on Tsalteshi Trails, and working his way up to the upper tiers of the sport, eventually finding his way to Europe to compete with the best of them.
Liebner, a 2001 graduate of Soldotna High School, details his experiences in a new book he has written, entitled “Wild Shot.”
“‘Wild Shot’ is a snapshot of a very intense and exciting two years of my life,” Liebner wrote in an email. “After becoming rundown, living the student-athlete lifestyle at UAA for a few years, I flew to Europe to meet and train with the best skiers and biathletes in the world. This would be an extreme change in anyone’s life and I felt it was something I had to do. During the experience I kept a journal and periodically emailed family and friends about the amazing people I’d meet and crazy (sometimes life threatening) predicaments I’d find myself in.”
The sport of biathlon differs from Nordic skiing solely in the fact that the art of marksmanship is added to the mix. Competitors carry a rifle in a sling on their back in races, and typically are confronted with two to four shooting stages, at which point they must be able to relax and control their heart rate as they attempt to hit five targets, all about the size of a half dollar. They either shoot standing up or lying down on their stomach — known as prone position.
“I was able to go back and revisit stuff and think about things and add stuff to it and take things out that weren’t necessary,” Liebner said, referring to the process of writing the book. “I didn’t write it after the trip, it was during the trip, but I didn’t do it thinking it was going to be a book. I thought that it was pretty cool to put down in writing, with the stuff I was doing and people I was meeting.”
While the 29-year-old never made to the top level of racing in the ski world, the World Cup circuit, he managed to find his way into lower levels of racing that usually still get wide coverage. The Bieg Piastow, for example, is a 30-kilometer ski marathon in Poland that Liebner entered in March 2009. With the elements against him, Liebner managed to win under unusual circumstances, as he started two minutes behind the lead group in a different wave.
Another big accomplishment for Liebner came after his stay in Europe, when he captured the 2010 Men’s American Ski Marathon series. Liebner won four races total — the Pepsi Challenge, City of Lakes Loppet, North American Vasa and the Minnesota Finlandia.
Liebner currently resides in Michigan, and is an international sales representative involved with many of the ski, boot, binding and pole manufacturers in Europe. He plans on making the move to New York state soon to pursue a career opportunity, and currently considers himself as temporarily retired from the sport of skiing.
In two weeks, he’ll be on the southernmost tip of Argentina, the closest you can get to Antarctica. A week after that, he plans on visiting New Zealand, and Australia a week later.
“I took a year off last year and lived in Wyoming, started a masters ski program there, and ended up working for a company in Washington,” Liebner said. “I don’t want to go back to school unless I’m ready to compete again, because I have a year of eligibility left on the team. When I’m ready to race, then I’ll take classes and finish.”
Liebner competed for Northern Michigan University during the 2009-2010 academic year, racking up impressive results — All-American awards and the Central Collegiate Ski Association Skier of the Year award.
In his book, Liebner recounts his experiences living and training in Obertilliach, a small village in Austria. There, many of the world’s top biathletes come to train year-round.
Obertilliach, or “O-Town,” as Liebner calls it, is near the border of Austria and Italy, and is a haven for some of the top names in the sport of biathlon, including Ole Einar Bjorndalen, who is known as the Biathlon King. Bjorndalen owns an outstanding 93 victories on the World Cup circuit in biathlon, six Olympic gold medals and 18 World Championship wins.
Growing up in Soldotna
“I feel that Soldotna will always be a warm homecoming in my heart, and a place where I can always feel at home, and it was a great place to get that start, to build confidence to be able to do anything,” Liebner said. “Sure, I miss it there, but there are things for me to do.”
Living on the Kenai Peninsula has certainly played a big role in who Andy Liebner is today, and he is first to credit many people who have supported him, one of the most important being Mark Devenney, his former cross-country running coach at Soldotna High School.
“He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had,” Liebner said.
Liebner said due to his success early on in his middle school years, Devenney noticed him and was expecting to coach Liebner in high school.
“My whole life revolved around racing, but I didn’t want to deal with the pressure anymore, so I decided to not do sports my eighth-grade year,” Liebner said. “Coach Devenney came over to my house and invited me to come train with the high school team, in my eighth-grade year. I didn’t think anyone would care that much, but he had heard about me, and he just knew I was going to be something.”
Devenney, a former Division I athlete himself, coached at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for many years. With Devenney’s coaching, Liebner was a part of the three-time Class 4A state championship running team.
“The Tsalteshi Trails were a key training ground to build my athletic career from,” Liebner recalls. “In high school I’d run on the trails three to four days per week all summer long with my teammates. Our state championship titles were a direct result of that and I must credit the influence of our coach, and our leader Brandon Newbould, and the rest of the team.”
Throughout his book, Liebner meets a wide variety of athletes who find themselves in the same position as he, trying to make their way to the top level of racing. Learning from the various people has helped to mold Liebner’s goals and find out why Americans struggle against the world superpower countries.
Why Americans struggle in skiing
Liebner’s training coach throughout his time in Europe was Joe Obererlacher, and while “Joe” would write up Liebner’s training log for him, Liebner often found himself giving tips and instruction to other athletes. He was so good at the art of waxing skis, in fact, that countries such as Great Britain wanted to hire him.
In the process, Liebner attempted to find out exactly why countries such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Austria are consistently dominating the sport, while America is lagging far behind.
“It was fun trying to figure that out, almost entertaining,” he said. “I’d ask national team coaches, ‘What do you do to train skiers, and what’s wrong with American skiing?’
“They don’t usually think about that, they’re thinking about their own country, and how they fit in, and how they can get better, and they don’t realize how much Americans are struggling to fit in the world. It was fun keeping an open mind and comparing the different systems.”
Liebner discovered that, working with the likes of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, that different countries compete for the love of the sport, not to merely rack up medals and accolades.
“I realized there’s no formula here (in America), everyone has different strategies, and did things out of fear,” he said. “Once I figured it out, I didn’t do things out of fear, I did things out of love. I had a passion and love for the sport, and I wanted to do it.
“The idea here is if the Norwegians are doing something and are being successful, then we should do it. But the Americans are doing something that the Norwegians were doing 10 years ago, and now they’re doing different, and that’s not the right mind-set to have. Once I figured that out, it took a huge lift off my shoulders.”
Struggles with authority
Competing in Europe was not easy for Andy. It was far from it.
“It was a constant external struggle I was dealing with, and I already had enough struggles going on internally, and they kind of balanced each other out because if I wasn’t dealing with one it was the other I was dealing with,” he said.
Liebner details the numerous difficulties he experienced in his book, most of which were a result of carrying a rifle to compete with. Because he is an American, Liebner was unable to obtain the proper certification to possess firearms, and the German authorities were firm in their stance to keep him from it.
“It’s so easy to become ticked off with the system, and it was like, what else can be shoveled on top of this, and how can this possibly become any worse?” he said. “I just had to laugh at it. It became ridiculous, and there were too many things that any reasonable person would walk away from, but I came away with positive thinking over the negative thoughts.”
Between that and the United States Biathlon Association not granting him eligibility to race in Europe, Liebner found that the experiences paid off when he returned to the States.
“After all that struggling, I felt it was worth it because of what I accomplished at NMU and in the marathon series here in the Unites States. I couldn’t ask for much more than that.”
In the summer of 2009, Liebner wound up training in Australia, an experience that presented him with unexpected obstacles.
While down under, Liebner began reading a book entitled “In Search Of,” by Alistair Smith.
“He’s almost like a father figure, a supportive figure to fill a certain role in my life, and the words in his book spoke to me,” Liebner said. “He’s helped me out with the business work nowadays, and he’s really helped me solve the mysteries of myself.”
Liebner said the unexpected connection to Smith led him to find the positives in life, and has since then met up with Smith in person.
“Alistair has filled a very important role in my life, especially in exploring reason within positives and negative feelings and emotions. He’s a figure of wisdom, much like Dumbledore to Harry Potter,” Liebner said.
Liebner realizes that the lessons he learned through his journey he would not trade for anything, and is part of the reason he wrote “Wild Shot.”
“I let life take its course and the detailed events in ‘Wild Shot’ stand as knowledge any athletically inclined person can benefit from and enjoy,” he said. “I’ve received many comments from readers all over the world, and most people seem to be in shock to the amount of things I get involved with and feel it is impossible to manage everything with such consistency, balance, and accuracy to continue persistence and successful progress.”
Copies of “Wild Shot” are available at Beemun’s.