Provoking passion: SoHi grad Liebner returns to Olympics as cross-country ski coach

Andy Liebner, a 2001 Soldotna High School graduate, and German Madrazo, a Mexican Olympic cross-country skier coached by Liebner, stand together at FIS races in Cerro Catedral, Argentina, in September 2017. (Photo provided by Andy Liebner)

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

 

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

German Madrazo, a 43-year-old born and raised in unsnowy Mexico and now living in equally unsnowy Texas, originally came to 2001 Soldotna High School graduate Andy Liebner for expertise in cross-country ski technique and equipment.

But what Madrazo also got from Liebner is passion.

That’s why Madrazo, a little over a year after introducing snow and skis into his life, will be a cross-country skier carrying the Mexican flag at the opening ceremonies for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Friday, with a tape-delayed version being shown at 4 p.m. AST on NBC. That’s why Liebner, now of Cheboygan, Michigan, will be a cross-country ski coach at a second-straight Olympics.

“Andy is so passionate about the sport and loves the sport so much,” Madrazo said Saturday as he prepared to board a flight to South Korea. “He taught me to love the sport and not go after a goal.”

The Olympic cross-country whisperer

Madrazo has extensive experience in endurance sports like swimming, running and cycling. He competed at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October 2017, fulfilling a longtime goal.

Even while competing in Hawaii, though, Madrazo had his eye on a different prize.

“I first got the idea of making the Olympics in cross-country skiing when a friend sent me an article describing skiing as the hardest sport,” Madrazo said. “A guy tried the Sochi loop and hadn’t been able to finish. He was dying.”

The article also told about Roberto Carcelen of Peru, a cross-country skier who competed in those Sochi Olympics in 2014 as a 43-year-old.

Madrazo learned that skiers from Bermuda and Kenya had been in the Olympics. Why not a Mexican? He knew Liebner had coached Carcelen, so he called the SoHi grad.

“I didn’t know who Andy was,” Madrazo said. “It was the craziest decision of my life, but it turned out to be one of the best.”

Liebner is one of the best endurance athletes to come from the Kenai Peninsula. In 2000, he became the first runner from the peninsula to win the Class 4A cross-country running boys state title. He’s also the first skier from the peninsula to win the Besh Cup, awarded after a six-race series featuring the state’s top prep skiers.

Liebner went on to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage and Northern Michigan University, earning four NCAA All-American titles in cross-country skiing. He also won the 2009-10 American Ski Marathon series.

He founded the United States Ski Pole Company in 2012, and the Cheboygan business has seen a 20 percent sales increase every year since rolling out product in 2014.

He also has a niche as an Olympic ski coach, with about 25 athletes having contacted him from various countries wanting to follow in Carcelen’s tracks.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people in random countries wanting to achieve the Olympic dream as well,” Liebner said. “I filtered them all out and there were three that stuck, and (Madrazo) was the best to come out of it.”

‘What a beautiful sun’

Madrazo called Liebner in December 2016, and didn’t actually ski until early January 2017. On Jan. 21 of this year, he qualified for the Olympics after finishing seventh in a 15-kilometer classic race in Iceland.

“He put in a monstrous amount of hours and was extremely dedicated,” Liebner said. “He had an extensive background as an endurance athlete.”

Because he is from a country with no developed ski program, Madrazo did not have to hit the standards of, say, a Norwegian or Italian to make the Olympics. Regardless, he still had only a year to hit qualifying standards in a sport he had never done before.

And he had to do it without help from the Mexican Olympic Committee. Liebner said the committee deemed Madrazo too old to start an Olympic skiing career, so Madrazo was responsible for coming up with all the traveling and training funds himself.

Madrazo grew up in Mexico City and harbored ambitions of making the Olympics as a swimmer. When his parents moved to a smaller town, those dreams faded.

As he went through college and got a job in investment banking, working 10 hours a day and pulling an all-nighter at least once a week, Madrazo began running more and more because it was more convenient than swimming.

Then Madrazo had an epiphany, getting tired of, as Elton John once sang, having to “turn around and say good morning to the night.”

“After four or five years of investment banking, on a Sunday I was in a car with a rooftop window. I opened it and thought, ‘What a beautiful sun. What an idiot I am. How many days have I been inside?’” he said. “I said, ‘No more. I’m not made for money. I’m made for living and doing different things.’”

Madrazo moved to another city to help his dad with a cattle business and kicked his triathlon training into overdrive. In 2011, with the violence in northern Mexico increasing due to the drug wars, he moved to McAllen, Texas, on an investor visa and opened up a running store.

“The Olympic dream went to the back of my mind and stayed there forever, until I met Andy,” Madrazo said.

An assist from a SoHi legend

How did Liebner turn Madrazo into an Olympic skier in a little over a year?

The answer begins at Soldotna High School, where Liebner had the late Mark Devenney as his coach. Devenney spent 14 years at Soldotna before stepping down as cross-country and track coach in 2005. Devenney won three Class 4A state titles in cross-country and three more in track, at the time the only 4A titles in both sports won by a peninsula school.

Liebner has often said his goal as a coach is to make the same difference in his athletes’ lives as Devenney made in Liebner’s life.

“I’d like to be as good as Devenney, but I’m not there yet,” Liebner said.

Devenney’s athletes said the coach’s success came down to bond between athlete and coach, an infectious passion for the sport, an unending quest by the coach to understand the technique of the sport, and the ability to watch an athlete and communicate the needed improvements in the way the athlete can understand and apply with success.

Soldotna football coach Galen Brantley Jr. is Devenney’s first state champion at Soldotna, winning the shot put in 1992. At the time of Devenney’s retirement, Brantley Jr. called Devenney “without a doubt, the best coach that’s ever been in this state in any sport.”

That was before Brantley Jr. took over the SoHi football program, ran up a record of 107-5, and put together current win streaks of 59 games and six straight state titles. Fans of the Stars will not have to look very hard at the way Brantley Jr. runs his program to see a lot of Devenney.

So, as simple as it sounds, the way Liebner created an Olympian in a year and the way Brantley Jr. sustains a juggernaut is by applying lessons learned from their high school coach.

The passion and the gift

Liebner has extensive competition and coaching experience in the United States. He also spent two years in Europe learning from some of the best skiers and biathletes, a journey chronicled in his book “Wild Shot.”

“I kind of have a gift for seeing the technique,” Liebner said. “I have an eye for it and know what needs to be corrected.”

Liebner still trains an hour a day and won the 50-kilometer freestyle at the Noquemanon Ski Marathon in Marquette, Michigan, at the end of January.

“At the end, it was three guys plus me,” Liebner said. “I knew how it was going to play out by watching their technique. This guy’s going to be second, third and fourth.

“I almost wanted to give them tips.”

Liebner loves the story about how Devenney saw Joel Mahaffey walking the hallway and said he would be an elite triple jumper. Mahaffey would set the state triple jump record in 1993 and the mark would stand until 2016. Liebner used the same sense to pick out skiing ability in Madrazo upon first sight, even as Madrazo was getting pulled off the course for being too slow in two of three races at U.S. Nationals in Soldier Hollow, Utah, in early January 2017.

That latent ability and body type would not be enough, though. Madrazo said he vividly remembers a frank assessment Liebner gave after U.S. Nationals, about how hard it would be to make the Olympics, and Liebner asking if Madrazo wanted to drive back to Michigan, skiing along the way, or not. Madrazo passed the desire test.

“I said, ‘Hell yea, I want to drive back with you to Michigan,’” Madrazo said.

From there, a worldwide odyssey ensued with roller-skiing in places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and ski racing in places like Argentina and Iceland, with Liebner traveling to promote his poles and Madrazo coming along to race and soak up technique advice from Liebner.

While those technique tips served Madrazo well, he said it was passion that was most important when he went to Europe early this winter to train and race in places like Turkey and Armenia. Liebner could not go with him, but Madrazo said Liebner’s technique advice and passion did.

“110 percent, without Andy I wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” Madrazo said. “When I was in Europe without Andy, I was thinking about what Andy told me the whole time. I’d see it and feel it and that was what Andy had told me the whole time.”

After three weeks in Europe, Madrazo called his wife and told her he wanted to stay because his Olympic dream was within reach.

“She told me, ‘You still have a wife and three kids,’” Madrazo said. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry. That’s the only thing I think about. That’s what keeps me going each day.’”

At the end of all that training and racing came qualification day in Iceland. Madrazo had been disqualified the day before for receiving assistance after he fell down in what he called a “snow tornado” and a friend helped him up, so he was ready and angry when the 15K classic — his favorite technique — came around.

Even better, the conditions were perfect for his only pair of classic skis. Top World Cup skiers can have over 30 pairs of skis to be ready for all ski conditions. In Madrazo’s case, the conditions must be ready for him.

“I flew through the course, giving it my all that day, and when I finished, a friend told me I had qualified,” Madrazo said. “I was like, ‘No way.’”

The goal: Consciousness, but not so much

Madrazo will be the second cross-country skier from Mexico to ski in the Olympics and the first to qualify. The first Mexican skier competed in 1988, when qualification was not necessary.

Of the four Mexicans at the Olympics, Madrazo is the only one born and raised in Mexico. So he gets to carry the flag.

“It’s stupid cool,” Madrazo said of the honor. “I’m beyond excited.”

Not only does Liebner get to watch with pride as another of his athletes competes at an Olympics, but he gets to learn from all the ski talent assembled there and talk up his pole company. Madrazo will ski with USSPC poles with his picture on them.

The Mexican will compete in the 15-kilometer freestyle at 9 p.m. AST Thursday, an event that will be shown live on NBCSN, as well as available on the NBC livestream website and NBC sports app.

Liebner said Madrazo is strongest in classic, and the 50K classic would have been ideal, but rules put in regarding getting lapped out of a race eliminated the possibility of a 50K.

Starting skiing at such a late age, Madrazo has little chance against Europeans and Americans that have been skiing their whole lives and have teams of specialists behind them to finely tune body, technique and ski.

Madrazo is OK with that. He just doesn’t want to finish last and thinks back to his qualification race in Iceland.

“When I finished that race in Iceland, I was blinded for 30 minutes and couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe. The officials were asking me to stand up but I couldn’t.

“It was a state of being conscious, but then again not so much. I want that feeling again at the Olympics and know I gave it my all. I want to make Andy proud and the only way I’m going to make him proud is to go out there and give it everything I’ve got.”

Reach Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak at jeff.helminiak@peninsulaclarion.com.

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