Alayna Sonnesyn kept looking over her shoulder as she crossed Lake Hayward. She was nervous. She had been in a pack of four women, then it was three. She could make out two figures behind her. But she just didn’t know. She just had to go.
The Plymouth, Minn. native, now skiing for Stratton Mountain School T2, became a Birkie champion last February. She collapsed at the finish line, still wondering, ‘had she really won?’ As she lay on the snow she heard the announcer call her name as the winner. She broke into tears.
Sonnesyn was doing a day of training and physical at the CXC Center of Excellence this spring, thinking back on the winding path her career has taken her from the days mom and dad introduced her to the sport growing up in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth.
“My biggest takeaway was how much of a community there is in the Midwest,” she said. “The number of people who reached out to me was so gratifying. They cared and were watching. They’re always paying attention. They’re always rooting for you.”
Sonnesyn is now channeling her energy into giving back to others as a guest coach with CXC Academy, an online training system where professional athletes provide inside knowledge to others.
“The CXC Academy is a great way to help any type of skier or athlete improve their abilities, not only in athletics but also their goal-setting and commitment to overcoming obstacles,” she said. “Cross country skiing is not an easy sport and to see so many people challenge themselves is really inspiring. Whether that means simply becoming more active on a daily basis or trying to bump up a wave or two in the Birkie, any challenge has its difficulties and requires a lot of dedication to overcome. Being part of the CXC Academy will allow me to help others set goals and find ways that they can achieve new things!”
Skiing was always a family affair for the Sonnesyns. Her parents, Jill and Steve, got the family on snow. Her father, Steve, had been an alpine racer in Colorado. Living in the Twin Cities, the Birkie got into their blood. Her parents have each done around 25 Birkies. Sister Marit was seventh in last February’s race. Brother Anders just finished his freshman year on the University of New Hampshire ski team.
Sonnesyn is quick to recognize the role her parents played in her success.
“My parents would help get me to junior qualifying races and wear SISU racing suits,” she said. “They came to every race! Without that support, I wouldn’t have been so successful.”
She just started racing, hopping into events like the Seeley Hills Classic. She did the Barnebirkie, Prince Haakon and Kortelopet.
Her move up the pipeline came in the CXC system through the Minnesota Youth Ski League. Her first elite exposure came with an invitation to a CXC Regional Elite Camp at Telemark as a high school freshman.
“I ended up learning so much from the athletes and coaches – especially the CXC Elite Team that had been living at Telemark,” she said. “That’s when I realized how much I wanted to go to Junior Worlds. It inspired me and helped me set goals.”
In her time as a junior, she had the benefit of a variety of top coaches. In middle school, she worked with Kevin Brochman of the Minneapolis Ski Club. She also skied with Ben Popp while at SISU. She raced a full schedule with Wayzata High School under coaches Larry Meyers and Brad Erickson. And she did a stint with Endurance United when leaving for college.
She spent four years skiing the NCAA Carnival circuit at the University of Vermont, making the NCAA Championship team as a freshman. As a sophomore she won two carnivals. In her junior year she was a runner-up at NCAA Championships. As a senior, she dominated the carnival circuit but the altitude sapped her results at the NCAA Championships at Steamboat Springs, Colo.
In her high school and college years, Sonnesyn took advantage of every opportunity she could attending both Regional and National Elite Group camps plus National Training Group camps, including the annual on-snow training sessions in Bend, Ore. each spring. She also spent time at the Bend Endurance Academy.
In her four years at UVM, the rolling hills of Vermont grew on her so she joined the SMS T2 program under Sverre Caldwell and Patrick O’Brien.
“The east is a lot like the Midwest but with more rolling mountains,” she said. “I immediately felt like I was at home. I loved running and skiing through the mountains. At UVM I found the rhythm of school, friends and life – I was really happy there.”
While at UVM, she rose to become a leader, serving as team captain. She dedicated herself to giving back to the sport as a guest coach for Special Olympics and the Green Mountain Valley School, as well as the Minnesota Youth Ski League when she was back home.
While she’s now basing out of Stratton Mountain, she still calls Minnesota home. “That’s where I started to ski, found my mentors and skied with my family.”
Her new role as a CXC Academy coach can be done anywhere, whether she’s training at her new home in Vermont, at the CXC Center of Excellence in Madison or visiting friends and family in Minnesota.
This past season she competed in the U23 World Championships in Lahti. One of her favorite memories was being trackside for the men’s relay gold “I had chills across my body,” she said. “It made me so proud to be a part of this country!”
Her Birkie win has boosted her spirits and brought her name to the forefront. Her eyes are now set on bigger goals – U.S. titles and World Championships Teams. The World Cup coming to her hometown next March has created a bit of a dream for her. And, there’s the 2022 Olympics.
“As a little girl I always watched the Olympics with my parents and thought, ‘wow, that is the coolest thing in the entire world. Those athletes are so talented’” she reminisced. “But in recent years it’s been switching in my mind. I now realize I have this talent and the work ethic to get it done. It’s possible. I haven’t fully let myself believe it until the past year or so. But I believe it now!”