Nordic coaching legend Lee Borowski passes away
CROSS COUNTRY SKIING
BY CHARLIE DEE
If you wondered why the snow season got off to such a late start in the Great Lakes Region this past winter, it’s because Lee Borowski’s death in late October totally confused a cosmos that was used to him standing tall and welcoming winter with a warm smile and some video.
Borowski is probably best known as the coach who developed Luke Bodensteiner, the two-time Olympian from West Bend, Wisconsin. Bodensteiner was also a two-time NCAA champ and the first American to compete in four World Junior Championships.
But Borowski’s influence on cross-country skiing goes broader and deeper than the success of his best athlete. I got to know him first as an author in the mid-80s when I bought his ground-breaking book, The Simple Secrets of Skating, and then the instructional video he produced of the same name.
My attempts to teach myself to skate using classic gear had led to more frustration and ankle pain than balance or joy. But Borowski’s systematic approach and clear explanations gave me confidence that I could master the technique, so I bucked up and bought myself dedicated skating equipment.
I was then able to work much more consciously on improving technique, running the images from his book and video through my mind as I skied. I started reading his column that appeared in this magazine for 28 years, clipping and filing one or two a year that were especially compelling. Once I got to know him personally, I would greet him on the trail and ask which of my numerous flaws should be addressed first.
Bob Boucher, a Birkie Birchlegger, got to know Borowski as a student at Brookfield High outside Milwaukee, where he was a former basketball star at Marquette University, was a first-year chemistry teacher and basketball coach. Boucher became reacquainted with Borowski in the mid-‘80s when they met at the Wednesday night ski races at Heritage Ridge, a ski trail behind a sporting goods store in Delafield.
“Lee was both racing and coaching then,” Boucher explains. “He was a fantastic athlete, and the young kids he coached, including his daughter Lisa and son Bret, were always the best racers.”
So Boucher started taking lessons from Borowski and describes his approach as analytical and systematic.
“He was the first Nordic coach I knew of to use video,” Boucher relates.
At his home, Borowski would show skiers a tape of Swedish World Champion Gunde Svan, then tape those skiers working on a technique while roller skiing around his subdivision.
“He’d point out our strengths and weaknesses when he showed us tapes of ourselves, then take us back out to work on that same skill. Tape, analyze, repeat,” Boucher added.
Bodensteiner echoes Boucher’s praise of Borowski’s coaching, who agreed to coach him after he won a Midwest Junior Nordic race in Wakefield, Michigan.
Bodensteiner credits Borowski with teaching him how to ski efficiently and race.
“We’d get together at least once a week and talk for 20 minutes,” Bodensteiner recalls. “Then Lee would watch what I was doing on skis, praise something, then see a flaw and give me simple ideas for how to fix it.”
Bodensteiner would then work on that, and once it was dialed in, they’d review it the next session and move onto something else.
Because of his science background, Borowski was capable of using physics to analyze technique.
Bodensteiner explains, “He looked at biomechanics, figured out optimum body position and the angles that would generate power efficiently.”
Bodensteiner laughs remembering how relentless Borowski could be.
“He drilled me forever on my pole planting: elbow angle to the body, elbow angle to poles and the angle the poles went into the snow. It took me hours and hours to get all that right.”
On the other hand, nothing would turn Borowski on more than watching someone ski efficiently through the woods.
“He’d get so enthusiastic when he saw someone skiing well,” Bodensteiner said. “He’d make everyone around him stop and watch. ‘Look at how powerful and smooth he is; he’s skiing with abandon,’ Lee would shout.”
The most lasting lesson Borowski gave Bodensteiner was “the sense that nothing was insurmountable.” The racing scene in southeast Wisconsin wasn’t that large back then.
“We didn’t really know what good skiing was – at least I didn’t,” Bodensteiner explains. “But Lee would watch World Cup tapes, talk to coaches like Marty Hall and then he’d convince his kids Lisa and Bret, Dave Schimp, Dan Goltz and I, that we could compete with anyone.”
Beth Schluter of Pewaukee is one of the country’s most successful master skiers, having won her Birkie age group 20 times and raced to several Masters World Cup podiums. She describes Borowski’s impact succinctly.
“He elevated the sport in our region,” said Schulter.
She also remembers how easy he was to approach.
“You didn’t need to schedule an appointment for a lesson with him,” Schluter added. “Whenever I would ski with Lee, I would pick his brain. I never missed an opportunity to ask him to critique me, and he always gave me something valuable.”
She describes the informal ski camps Borowski and Rhinelander’s Wayne Fish used to have at Minocqua Winter Park over New Years, where people would show up to get tips from the two.
The lineage of Borowski’s coaching continues to lead U.S. cross-country skiing today. Bodensteiner is the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Chief of Sport and Bryan Fish, Wayne’s son and another athlete coached by Borowski, has developed many of America’s current crop of successful young skiers and was recently promoted as the USSA’s Cross Country Sport Development Manager.
Borowski’s wife Betsy and their family have lost their patriarch, American Nordic skiing has lost an innovator, the Midwest has lost a legend and hundreds of us have lost a coach.
No doubt the cosmos will manage to adjust because Borowski left a vibrant legacy for cross-country skiing in America.