The United States Ski Association (USSA) Junior National Cross-Country Ski Championship was a chance to Dusty to strut his stuff on a national stage. Twice, it had proven a missed opportunity. The third time, he stopped asking for the chance and simply took it.
Begging forgiveness, the adage holds, is easier than asking permission. Had he ever once begged forgiveness, this would easily describe Dusty’s world outlook. But the truth is, he never felt he was doing anything wrong in making his own way. He grabbed life by the balls because it made the most sense. If anyone owed an apology, it was all the people who made rules to needlessly stymie the progress and stifle the enthusiasm of he and others like him.
So it was natural that he would clash with USSA, the national governing body of Nordic skiing. It was a bureaucracy making rules about a sport that should be simple, where everyone races and the fastest one wins. That it could be so complicated to show up to race in the first place would spur Dusty, along with Ed Kohler, to call USSA’s bluff and show it was possible to ski without any of the bullshit.
But just to be fair, he gave USSA’s method two separate chances first.
The first was in 1991, when Junior Nationals was held in Anchorage, Alaska. In order to qualify, skiers needed to race a minimum number of USSA-sanctioned events. Based on a points system and a qualifying race, USSA accepted 40 boys and 40 girls from ten separate regions across the country.
Dusty and Kohler qualified, easily. But qualified racers still had to pay their own way. Neither Kohler nor Dusty came from wealthy households, and while neither was in danger of going hungry, a no-expenses-paid trip to Alaska was not in the cards after the expenses required to qualify – including equipment and travel to races during the season – were factored in.
In 1992, the duo qualified again, this time along with Scott Jurek. Junior Nationals that year was held in Rumford, Maine, and the meet’s location within the Continental United States allowed the trio to scrape together the means to travel there and compete with the Midwest region’s delegation.
Rumford is a paper mill town of roughly 5,000 people in the western reaches of Maine in the foothills of the White Mountains. The small town, according to Kohler, was hugely supportive of Nordic skiing but had also had a lean winter, requiring race organizers to shovel snow into place in order to create a completely skiable race course.
When the Midwest delegation arrived there, Dusty made sure everyone knew who he was – right away – by walking over to the hotel treadmill adjacent to the lobby as his coaches were checking in. Cranking the treadmill up to full speed, Dusty hammered along at top end for a minute until fatigue set in and one misstep sent him flying off the back of the machine.
“It was totally contrary to what everyone would do since they were serious and they were there to race, so he made a big impression there,” Kohler says.
Dusty would be a thorn in the veritable side of coaches and officials from his and other delegations all week. He so grated on the adults that when he later approached a group of them and said “I think my ankle is broken,” they figured he was crying “wolf” and ignored him.
The injury in question had Dusty hobbling around before competition even started. The day before the first race, he was out on a practice loop on what Kohler described as “slushy, sloppy spring snow” when he crossed his skis on a turn and crashed, hard, turning a boot in the process. He got up and tried to walk. He couldn’t.
For his many skirmishes with the ground at Chester Bowl, Dusty knew something was awry. But repeated attempts to convince a coach to drive him to the hospital fell on deaf ears. One coach in particular, whom Kohler identifies only as Mark, would barely give Dusty the time of day.
It was two full days before an adult, concerned that Dusty was still limping (and not using the situation to his advantage or making a joke out of it) said “someone should take Dusty to get x-rayed.”
That someone was none other than Mark, who tersely drove Dusty to the hospital and then back to his hotel, whereupon the latter announced, opening the door on crutches to roommates Kohler and Jurek: “Yep, it’s fuckin’ broken!”
To the chagrin of everyone, especially Dusty, he was now forced to sit in a hotel room for the remainder of the meet, with no outlet for his energy. So he got creative.
The hotel the teams were staying at was shaped like a giant “C,” and had outdoor walkways on the upper floors. Dusty would crutch his way outside and, spying another team in the courtyard or on the walkway across from him, would start hucking snowballs with terrifying precision and feracity. The other teams would attempt to return fire – usually poorly.
“Look at you, throwing like a cripple!” Dusty shouted, still hanging on to his own crutches, “just punishing” the other teams while he taunted them, as Kohler puts it.
Soon, the wounded Dusty found another passion project. A couple of days after Dusty’s x-ray, Mark, the coach who had been notoriously curt with Dusty after his fall, was walking and talking into a walkie-talkie when he slipped on some ice, fell to the ground and cracked a rib.
Dusty spent the rest of the week trying to make Mark laugh before traveling home.
With two missed chances in the books, Dusty spent the 1993 season ruing Anchorage and Maine and chomping at the bit to return to Junior Nationals. The meet happened to be at Giant’s Ridge, in his backyard in Minnesota’s Iron Range, that year.
He and Kohler wanted badly to ski on the highest stage in their home state, but their perpetual concern was finances. Travel was less of a problem this year, but the expense of traveling to (end entering) the required minimum number of meets, and getting a qualifier to meet the entry standard, was adding up over the years.
So it was by sheer luck that Kohler happened to be flipping through the USSA rulebook early in the season when he noticed something missing. “It never mentioned a qualifying race being required for entry to Junior Nationals,” he says. “It only said you have to pay $35 or something.”
He promptly phoned USSA to inquire about the loophole. He pressed the woman on the phone, who eventually – reluctantly – said “yes, technically you can do that.”
She apparently then looked into it, as she shortly thereafter called Kohler back to clarify a few things.
“She said ‘you won’t get any support’,” he recalls. “She meant coaching, waxing, that sort of thing.”
“And I said ‘sounds great!’” he continues. “We travel to Giant’s Ridge every weekend already. So I talked to Dusty about it, and we talked to my brother [who was also competing], and the three of us said ‘yeah, let’s do it!’”
First, they had to settle on a team name, as the moniker “Midwest” was no longer available. They quickly arrived at “The Best.”
The name was chosen not out of pomposity, but rather for its potential place on a catchy t-shirt. The boys arrived at Giant’s Ridge wearing those t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the slogan “When you’re The Best, you’re The Best.”
For this and their lack of a delegation, Dusty and Kohler were slightly out of place from the moment they arrived. Making the situation more awkward was the fact that one of the coaches for the Midwest team was one of the coaches for Kohler’s team at St. Paul Central.
“It was awkward for him, anyway,” Kohler says. “We just thought it was funny.”
For one thing, they were without a place to stay. As host delegation, the Midwest team was entitled to stay in the dorm-style accommodations of the Giant’s Ridge “Olympic Training Center,” whose amenities included a wax room. Dusty and Kohler tried to wax their skis there but were turned away.
“They wouldn’t let us into that building, even to socialize,” Kohler says. “They didn’t know how to handle it. But it didn’t bother us too much.”
Instead, “The Best” was busy making friends with other delegations at the Eveleth Super 8, where Dusty’s dad, then a sales rep for Yellow Pages, had brokered a swap of phone books in exchange for a room for his son and his friend.
Meanwhile, Dusty and Kohler had to sort out their representation. They weren’t allowed to have coaches per their absence from an official team, but were required to have a presence at coaches’ meetings. So they attended these nighttime meetings, eating nachos and drinking soda while the coaches went through their orders of business. “The Best” sat in the back and kept their mouths shut. Usually.
“The night before one of the races, the groomer was talking about his plans to groom the course around midnight,” Kohler says. “He said he could go back around, after he put in corduroy for the skate, and put in classic tracks on the downhills.”
Kohler further explains that, at least for elite skiers, remaining in tracks on a downhill can be annoying when they become glazed over, and make passing other skiers more difficult. Or, as Dusty put it:
“I think skiers of this level are perfectly capable of skiing downhills,” he chimed in from the back. Perhaps realizing his objection didn’t have its usual knife twist, he added: “Why don’t we just let the groomer get some sleep?”
“Yeah, we pissed some people off,” Kohler says. “But we sure backed it up.”
The next day, sans classic tracks on the downhills, Kohler won the classic race convincingly. The day following, Dusty won the skate. Eyeing the final event – a team relay – the Midwest delegation begrudgingly approached “The Best” to join their team.
They added the Midwest’s best skier, who led things off in the three-man, classic-classic-skate relay (whether skate or classic constitutes two of three legs alternates from year to year). Kohler put them solidly in the lead, and with Dusty skating as anchor, “The Best/Now With Midwest” was so far ahead he flopped to the ground short of the finish line and crawled his way in on his hands and knees.
The following year, two new rules were implemented:
“Something about flagrant displays at the finish, and that you couldn’t go without being on a team any more,” Kohler says. “So I guess we left an impression.”