At the base of Chester Bowl sits a 3-kilometer Nordic ski loop. Like most of Chester Bowl’s amenities, the Nordic track is…homely. And like much of Minnesota’s snow, it is usually covered with a sheet of ice.
“It’s pretty rough,” Dusty says. “If you could make it around Chester Bowl, especially before they widened the loop, you could probably ski anything.”
By the time he was nearing sixth grade, Dusty was starting to grow bored with the 175 vertical feet Chester’s alpine hill offered; his creative endeavors had expanded to include gunning down the hill in Nordic equipment.
The equipment was not fancy, and its origins are unclear. “I was using trackless, no-wax skis and 3-milimeter bindings,” he says. “Not racing equipment.”
Meanwhile, Dusty had accrued a hefty aerobic base swimming for the YMCA. But his mom got in a fight with the swimming coach, and Dusty was left looking for another outlet. Given how much time he spent at Chester and his talent for moving about with long boards attached to his feet, Nordic skiing presented the perfect way to satiate Dusty’s boundless energy. His parents called George Hovland, a local skier to whom they had been referred by a mutual friend, Chuck Kurtis.
“They called and said ‘our son would like to cross-country ski,’ and we went up to Chester Park which is where I lived and I got him on skis and showed him the basic classic technique,” Hovland says. “There was no skating at the time but he picked up on it rapidly.”
From what Hovland knew of the Olsons, he sensed he had a gifted athlete on his hands. “I heard from [Kurtis] that Dusty’s father had decided to run Grandma’s Marathon the day before the race one year, and he finished with absolutely no training,” he says. “At this point I thought either this guy is nuts, or he’s an incredible natural athlete.”
One night early in their lessons, the direct descendant of this “incredible natural athlete” skied smack into a streetlight next to the Chester Bowl chalet. For the thousandth time, Dusty peeled himself off Chester’s snow and kept going.
“I skied there every day I possibly could,” Dusty says. He gradually learned to skate ski, even on his trackless, no-wax skis with the 3mm bindings, and in his first Nordic combined race he finished well ahead of everyone his age.
This caught the attention of Dave Israel, a top amateur skier during the 1980s who was in grad school in Duluth at the time. Israel had led the University of Minnesota Duluth to a team NSAC title with a second place individual finish in college and had tried out for the US Ski Team but, lacking what he called “the natural talent to be a competitive international racer,” he soon turned his focus to a family and career in academics.
“Dusty was probably about 9 or 10 years old and was skiing and running on skis past most of the skiers in the race on some very slow, fiscal, no-wax skis,” Israel, now a Biology professor at Lake Superior College, says of the race. “I remember his dad introducing us after the race and I complemented him on his fitness and encouraged him to continue racing.”
Dusty’s father asked Israel if he would coach Dusty; Israel agreed.
“After that, Dusty just started appearing at our apartment,” Israel says.
The first several lessons consisted of five minutes of skiing followed by an extensive snowball fight. “I was entirely too serious, and he was a goofy, seemingly hyperactive kid, but probably normal for a boy his age,” Israel says. “Being a young newlywed graduate student, I really didn’t know anything about working with kids.”
Israel adapted quickly enough, though, concocting a regimen where Dusty would ski-jour – or be dragged – behind his oversized springer spaniel, Jo-Jo; meanwhile, Israel would ski alongside on the multi-use snowmobile trails.
“It was fun enough for him, it tired out his hyperactive dog, and I got my workouts in,” Israel says.
But Israel’s role in Dusty’s life soon evolved from occasional coach to friend and mentor. Ultimately, the Israel household would provide a solid foundation in rocky times.
“A short time later [Dusty’s] parents went through a divorce, and with all the turmoil that surrounds that he spent quite a bit of time with us,” Israel says. “His mom would let us borrow her old station wagon to go grouse hunting and we had some good adventures getting it stuck and unstuck on the rutted four-wheel drive roads north and west of Duluth.”
In a precursor to Dusty’s future endeavors on the water, he and Israel even went whitewater kayaking a few times. “He eventually carried [it] to much higher levels than I was willing to go,” Israel says.
Dusty came to spend more and more time at the Israel’s home over the ensuing years, sometimes staying with them for weeks or months at a time. As with almost any setting, Dusty transitioned in seamlessly, as though he were part of the family all along.
“I remember him joking around with our four-year-old daughter, prodding her to see how many laps she could run around the house while he consumed his stack of a dozen pancakes after a long run,” Israel says.
The coaching was paying off, meanwhile. Dusty rose through the age-group ranks, obtaining a sponsorship from the local ski shop, Ski Hut, by age 12. When high school rolled around, Dusty had all but outgrown the program at Duluth East.
“He wasn’t thrilled with the coaching he was getting [at East],” says Rick Callies, who coached the Nordic ski team at St. Paul Central High School. One of Callies’ athletes, Ed Kohler, was also an elite skier and had become friends with Dusty through traveling and competing with him on the US Ski Association (USSA) circuit on weekends in places like Ironwood, Michigan, and Giant’s Ridge.
“Dusty was kind of the outcast at his high school program,” Kohler elaborates. “He was more motivated and adventurous and East was a little too stuffy for his liking.”
One year, several parents from the “stuffy” East Nordic program organized an elaborate end-of-season banquet, complete with an expensive catered dinner; the food went all but untouched by the team when Dusty showed up late with a dozen or so pizzas he had ordered and the pies proved a more popular dinner option among his teammates. Angry at his irreverence, the parents who had organized the banquet kicked him out. It is hard to imagine Dusty took it too hard – the banquet wasn’t his style, outside the chance to wreak havoc.
Soon Dusty, who was traveling to the Twin Cities regularly to visit his father, would often use the trips to join up with Kohler and train under Callies.
“I never coached Dusty directly, but he started joining in on stuff we did,” Callies clarifies. Those endeavors included the Central team’s infamous 90k day on the outskirts of Hayward, Wisconsin. At times they were joined by Scott Jurek who, like Dusty, occasionally eschewed the training at his own Proctor High School to train under Callies’ guidance. Whereas Kohler and Dusty could normally shake Jurek easily, his resilience on the 90k day offered the first hints that he would excel at ultra-endurance events.
But Dusty was still beating Jurek then. Callies notes that not only was Dusty a huge athletic talent – he matched it with an unparalleled work ethic and drive to improve as an athlete. That rare and valuable pairing made Dusty a good fit among Central’s skiers, with whom he soon assimilated.
“At Central, we pretty much out-trained everybody and Dusty just took to that mode,” Callies says. “From an early age he was doing stuff that most of us would have considered outrageous.”
It was Dusty’s defining paradox: how could such a legendary slacker, who seems to value enjoying the moment above all else, summon such a legendary work ethic on skis – or in any other endurance-related pursuit, for that matter? He trained his ass off, but he was still the Dustball. “He could go fast, but he kind of reminded you of Beavis and Butthead,” Callies continues.
Maybe he wasn’t a slacker at all. Dusty is laid back, to be certain, but often has a project to which he fully devotes his time and energy, explains his sister, Tonya. The fact that he has fun in the meantime is a testament to his work-life balance, which he works just as fastidiously to maintain.
“He was like me,” Callies says. “[Skiing] was the first thing I remembered being successful at, and he was successful at it so he channeled his energy into it. You finally find something you’re good at and can succeed at, and can get some recognition for, so you get dedicated to it.”
“I’m guessing he’s a lot like a lot of us in that that was an outlet,” Callies continues. “He had a rough childhood and he wasn’t a scholar.”
Tonya says that Dusty has always been willing to work hard at something where he recognized he could succeed. She also says he has historically done better with athletics because it was an area where he was supported and had access to resources. One area where he may have succeeded but lacked that support, she explains, was in academics.
It was due partially to his being diagnosed as learning disabled early in his childhood, Tonya says. That “disability” has since been recognized as dyslexia, a condition to which learners can adapt with the right resources.
“Partially due to family stuff and partially due to resources, he just never was one to think if he worked hard in school he could accomplish what he wanted to. He’s one of the most creative and intelligent people I know,” Tonya says, noting that Dusty taught himself graphic design at one point. “Some of the most successful executives in the world are dyslexic. But academics weren’t presented as an option to him, so he never had the chance.”
“But he never pursued going to college as hard as he did his athletics, partially because he grew up being told he could be an Olympic athlete,” she continues. “That wasn’t unrealistic except for finances and social support playing into that equation ultimately weren’t enough, especially in a sport like Nordic skiing where you need the means to pursue it.”
Callies puts it more bluntly. “You have to be wealthy now to be successful as a skier in the US,” he says. “Athletically he was as good as anyone I ever saw. Had he had the money to play the game, he would have been on the US ski team. He’s gifted – a better pure athlete than Jurek – but he had his circumstances and he didn’t want to play that game.”
“He never doped either, which is funny because I don’t think he’s exactly anti-drug,” Callies continues. “But he never gave into it because it was another one of those things, and that wasn’t what he was there for.”
For Dusty, it was about skiing as fast as he could. It was as pure an endeavor as he could imagine. And for all the times the game held him back – disqualifying him from the state meet because of bad grades, or cornering him in a high school program that wasn’t working for him – Dusty just wanted to test his mettle against the best skiers his age in the US. No bullshit – just skiing.
He would get his chance, along with Kohler. But first, they would have to beat “the game” one more epic time.