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Cross Country Ski Duo Bring Sibling Power To Winter Olympics

Athletes headed to next month's Winter Olympics in Russia can be expected to leverage any advantage that nature or nurture provides: Experience, a bigger body, or a higher tolerance for pain.

A few skiers, snowboarders and skaters could bring another advantage to the Games: a sibling teammate.

Last month, U.S. Nordic ski team member Erik Bjornsen took a day off from training to coach and inspire junior racers from his home valley, just like former champions once did for him.

Bjornsen would normally have help from his big sister Sadie to lead this annual clinic. But Sadie is on the World Cup ski racing circuit in Europe. So Erik demonstrates cross country racing techniques and finishing lunges by himself.

"I like to think of myself as a kangaroo sometimes," he tells the kids. "Bouncing off each foot in skiing, not working at all, just bouncing so I can go for 15 kilometers."

A class full of 8 to 13-year-olds mimics his every move. Later, many say they want to follow in the Bjornsens' path.

"I've always wanted to go to the Olympics as well," says seventh-grader Emerson Worrell. He gushes about learning "really cool" techniques from Erik that could help get him there.

The Olympic dream

Sadie Bjornsen remembers being even younger when her Olympic dream took root. Speaking from France, she recalls a welcome home parade after the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The parade down the Western-themed main street of Winthrop, Washington honored another local Olympic skier.

"I remember distinctly Laura McCabe riding in on a fire truck, the whole valley lining the streets and clapping," recalls Sadie. "That was the moment. It was like, 'This is so neat.' It's such an honor. I knew I was going to be an Olympian."

The Bjornsen kids eventually grew up with former Olympic skiers as neighbors on two sides. An enviable, 120-mile Nordic trail system starts practically at their doorstep.

Mary Bjornsen is the mother in this close-knit family. She says all three of her kids had an athletic upbringing with constant friendly competition.

"I can remember people wondering when Erik was going to start beating Sadie," she says.

"It took a while actually. Sadie was fast," she says with a chuckle.

Cheering for each other

"Everything was a competition from running to the car, the first one there," adds Sadie. "Or balancing at (our dad's) job site on a beam as long as you could."

Twenty-two-year-old Erik and 24-year-old Sadie are spurring each other on to this day. During the off-season, the Bjornsen duo live together and train at Alaska Pacific University, where both are upperclassmen.

Erik says he and his sister both really want to go to the Olympics together.

"It would just be nice," he says. "I think I can post better results when she is around cheering for me. I feel more comfortable just on the road with her. If I ever have any problems there is someone I can go to."

"As a sibling you always have a little more of an open connection," adds Sadie. "It's easy to get feedback from a sibling and not be threatened. Erik has been awesome for that because he has encouragement when I need it and also a reminder when I need it."

The U.S. Ski Team hasn't yet finalized its Sochi Olympic squad, but Sadie secured a spot on the team on Monday. Earlier this winter, she posted career-best World Cup finishes twice in a row against many of the planet's best cross country skiers.

Erik needs to continue to ski well at U.S. Nationals this week to clinch his spot. He helped his case by winning the opening 15km classic race on Saturday.

Olympian familial bonds

How rare would it be to send siblings to the Winter Games? Neighbor and ex-Olympic skier Leslie Thompson Hall says it happens more often than you might think.

"You know, certainly once someone is involved in a sport it is easy to have another kid in the family join the sport too," she says. "To have two exceptional athletes is not that unusual."

Olympic medalists Eric and Beth Heiden in speedskating and Phil and Steve Mahre in skiing are earlier examples of sibling success at the Winter Games -- in 1980 and 1984 respectively. This year, the U.S. Olympic ice hockey teams feature two sibling pairs.

The field of Olympic hopefuls in snowboard halfpipe, snowboardcross, freestyle moguls and Nordic combined also include brothers or brother/sister duos. There's even another pair with ties to Bjornsen's own hometown -- though that duo of hopefuls is a husband-and-wife team: cross country skiers Brian and Caitlin Gregg.

The Bjornsens and the other ski and snowboard hopefuls will learn for sure who is on Team USA during the week of January 20.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.