No stranger to cold and darkness, Annie Pokorny has a headlamp ready as she powers through another winter sunset. The after-school workout is paced by bursts of steam from her lungs when she streaks past her father and pierces the dusky hush of Mount Spokane with a rhythmic swish-swish of her skating skis across the groomed snow.
“I just get those little glimpses,” Al Pokorny said while skiing in a more relaxed pace. “I can’t keep up with her.”
Almost everyone had abandoned the state park’s cross-country ski trails for the day, but the 16-year-old nordic standout had at least one faithful training companion.
“My heart-rate monitor,” she said later. “It’s easy to slack off when you’re up here doing intervals alone. The monitor keeps me in the zone when I’m not with my team.”
Hinting at the drive that pushes her limits in a taxing workout nobody else can see, she added, “A lot of other girls in America are doing intervals and I want to be better than they are.”
After applying herself to ski racing for only a year, Pokorny came out of nowhere to win the women’s title in the 2008 Langlauf 10-kilometer cross-country ski race on Mount Spokane last February. She hasn’t looked back.
“My friends know that it’s winter racing season, so Annie’s in a different world and hard to get hold of,” she said, assessing her social life. The payoff for the Lewis and Clark High School sophomore is succeeding in her initial goal to be ranked among the top female cross-country skiers in the Pacific Northwest.
“She’s a soccer player,” said Matt Halloran, assistant coach for the Spokane Junior Nordic Team, noting that Pokorny loves playing for the Spokane Shadow Youth Soccer Club and made LC’s varsity as a freshman.
“She’s only been getting serious about ski racing for two years, and she’s making strides. She has a natural motor, and since she recovers faster than most skiers, she can train harder. She’s absolutely coachable.”
Three weekends ago, Pokorny was in a league of her own among girls from the region’s 13 nordic ski clubs competing in the Junior Olympic qualifying race at Mount Spokane.
Last weekend she finished second and third in the bigger Intermountain Region junior qualifier races at Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
Next weekend she’ll try to tally more points toward reaching Junior Nationals in March by competing at Soldier Hollow, the former Olympic nordic racing venue in Utah.
“That’s where she’ll get a better feel for where she stands in the West,” Halloran said.
Cross-country ski trails aren’t new territory for the Pokorny family. Al Pokorny, a Spokane physician, is a Ferris High School graduate and former captain of the Dartmouth College cross-country ski team. His two sons have skied at a national level, one just recently retiring from world competition in racing and jumping with the U.S. Ski Team.
“They’ve given me an idea of what it’s like to be completely invested in a sport,” Annie said. “My oldest brother looks at the videotapes of me skiing and gives me advice. And Lord bless him, he gave me six brand new pairs of skis this year after he retired from Nordic Combined. That’s huge. He’s a saint.”
“Annie was in little-sister Nirvana this summer when her brother trained with her,” Al Pokorny said. “He can leave her in the dust on intervals, but she can stay with him in long, slow-distance workouts.”
“It’s cool to know somebody on the U.S. Ski team,”Annie said, “but then I think, ohmygosh, he’s my brother. He really knows what he’s talking about, and two points he emphasizes are not letting things get into my head and not overdoing it.”
So she trains only six days a week.
And still she manages to get A’s in honors and AP classes.
“I study in the car on the way to Mount Spokane and races,” she said.
Offering insight into her competitive composition, she added: “My hardest classes are science and English. My favorite classes? Science and English.”
The leap she’s made from recreational skiing to racing has put nordic skiing on her plate year-round.
“We start training in April, working on getting stronger,” she said, “and we go through summer doing dry-land training on roller skis and biking, running, hiking, weight-lifting, swimming — tons of cross-training. And, of course, playing quidditch and soccer.
“I’m trying to live like a normal high school student while keeping up with training,” she said, noting that she took off a night to take part in Rubber Chicken, the annual spirit basketball rivalry between LC and Ferris.
“It helps to have lots of support. Dad will wax my skis for training when I have a science quiz the next day or an English paper to turn in. And my coaches, George (Bryant) and Matt, are whizzes at waxing. That’s a huge boost in competition.”
Pokorny has a knack for taking off into a different world when she sets out on skis. “It’s important to have focus to keep from falling or breaking a pole in a mass start and maintaining your technique on the course, but I have some issues,” she confided.
“When I finish a race, I can’t always remember what happened. Last year, I threw off a pole because it was bothering me, but I wasn’t done. I just kept skiing.
“I’ve been so focused on my technique I’ve skied off the course — I posted an extraordinary time-trial that way, taking a short-cut by mistake.”
But being in her own world is a plus on the nights she has to train alone in the gathering cold darkness of Mount Spokane.
“I think about my parents, teachers and coaches who have given me motivation by telling me I can reach my goals if I get out and work hard,” she said.
“When I’m out on the trails I try to think about nothing more than my coach’s tips on technique, and how the next race is going to go.”
Only occasionally does her mind wander off task, she said, as it did last Wednesday evening when she streaked past her father heading back toward the parking lot from a mile out on the Mount Spokane trails.
“I need to get my camera,” she called out as she poured on the throttle. “I want to get a picture for the school paper.”
Minutes later, her dad found her back out on the trails, focusing, a bit late, on the aftermath of a stunning orange sunset.
“I was only supposed to do four intervals tonight, but that last sprint to the parking lot counts as one more,” she said, reflecting on the evening’s training before setting out for a cool-down ski. “I guess I’ll be OK doing five.”