The veteran technician waded his way through a rack of Fischer skis, carefully looking at the base structure and testing the camber – looking for that perfect pair of cross country skis. It was a routine for which he has become quite an expert since being thrown into the fray a few years ago.
In the past two decades, Minnesota native Matt Liebsch has risen from the ranks of Minnesota High School cross country ski racing to become one of Central Cross Country Skiing’s most recognized figures. He’s had success as an athlete, working his way up to World Cup and World Championships teams, he’s become a highly-regarded ski guru, a successful coach, and all while balancing his own family of five.
Ironically, Liebsch started his athletic career as a hockey player at Osseo High School outside Minneapolis. It wasn’t until his sophomore year, at age 17, that he switched to cross country skiing.
“My girlfriend, now my wife, was on the team,” he laughed. “I didn’t even know what skiing was. But from the first day of practice I was hooked. Four days later I was racing.”
And he’s never looked back. Cross country skiing and his family (he and wife MaryBeth have three kids) are his passion.
After high school, he kept with his adopted sport, training with the University of Minnesota and Piotr Bednarski’s GO! Training program. “I really learned a lot in that period,” said Liebsch.
Along the way, he caught the eye of CXC Coach Bryan Fish, who brought him on board with the CXC Elite Team in 2006. Then things really started to accelerate.
While he had learned a lot, he was still rough. But he pitched himself to CXC Elite Team Coach Bryan Fish. “I was still very raw,” he recalled. “My technique was pretty terrible. I had never really had a training plan before that – I did what I felt like doing.”
Fish initially said no. But Liebsch was relentless, and soon joined the team.
“When I joined the CXC Elite Team I told Bryan that I wanted to win the Birkie some day,” laughed Liebsch. “He told me I should want to win U23 and World Cup. I didn’t really know what that was! But I’m from Minnesota and I guess we’re pretty insulated here. We think the state championships is the biggest thing for juniors. But we knew the Birkie – and that seemed bigger than the Olympics at the time.”
Liebsch was part of a very strong CXC Elite Team along with Caitlin Compton (now Gregg), Bryan Cook, Brian Gregg, Garrott Kuzzy, Laura Valaas and Andre Watt. Pretty soon, the kid from Osseo was chasing athletes like Gregg, now one of his best friends. His pace accelerated. Soon he was one of the top athletes in America.
“Matt had an exuberant passion for the sport,” recalled Fish. “A strength of his was to be present and focused on skiing while at camp, and to focus on family and work at home. Finding balance meant he had a training plan that was unique to his own scenario as an athlete, engineer, husband and father. It was perfect for Matt because it was a plan he could own himself and consistently execute.”
He needed to build endurance as well as technique, speed and power. He focused on improving his double poling, which not only enhanced his classic skiing but made his V2 a strength he continues to take advantage of today.
By 2009, that Birkie title he had joked about was no longer his primary goal. He was chasing FIS points to qualify for the 2010 Olympics. That January he hit the podium at U.S. Championships and got his first World Cup start, finishing 34th in the pre-Olympic 30k pursuit at Whistler Olympic Park.
“My goals had changed,” he said. “The Birkie wasn’t my only goal any longer. I was trying to qualify for the Olympics. I was racing at a high level nationally and was on the bubble of making that team.”
But on Birkie race morning, the CXC technicians handed him some great skis. “It was one of those days as an athlete where you feel that if your skis are in the ballpark, you’re going to hit it out,” he recalled. “I told (teammate) Andre Watt that morning, ‘I’m going to win this thing.’
And he did!
“I just felt so peppy,” he said. “I just felt incredible. I couldn’t lose – my skis were so good.”
Liebsch turned that peppy feeling into a breakaway with nearly 20k’s to go. No one went with him. It was too early.
“I yo-yoed off the front once we got past Bitch Hill,” he said. “On the downhill, I put about a minute on the group. I honestly didn’t expect my move to stick – the pack was pretty big, 12-20 guys.”
Liebsch knew that in a field sprint down Main Street, that he just wasn’t geared up physiologically. He needed that gap. And it held.
But as much as it had been a life goal for him several years earlier, it carried an anti climatic tone. What he needed was a good FIS points finish. When the favorites weren’t in the top five, he didn’t get the points he craved.
“I really didn’t appreciate it at the time,” he recalled. “But when I look back on it today, I’m pretty proud of it. But getting on the podium this past year – 10 years later – meant even more to me.”
Liebsch missed that 2010 Olympic Team. But he stayed with it leading up to Sochi, achieving criteria but missing selection in what was a controversial decision by the U.S. Ski Team. His hopes of skiing the 50k skate in Sochi dashed, he headed to Mora, Minn. winning his fifth straight Mora Vasaloppet. It was bittersweet.
During his tenure with CXC, the ever innovative Liebsch was called on to select skis for the team. Along the way, he got pretty good at it. “I was tasked with dividing and conquering who would get which skis,” he laughed. It wasn’t an easy job. But he was good at it.
While pursuing his passion with the CXC Elite Team, Liebsch had a real job with Honeywell, but wanted to spend more time in the sport. So he hopped on board at Gear West. But in 2012, an opportunity came along to take an ownership role in Pioneer Midwest.
“I bought my first two sets of skis at the store,” he said. “This was my destiny! I figured I could try it for a year. If it didn’t work out, I could get another job as an engineer.”
Well, it’s worked out well for Liebsch. His skills as an athlete and technical knowledge of skis has served him well. Pioneer Midwest is thriving, and always giving back to the sport. In his role at Pioneer Midwest he’s a huge supporter of the sport, hosting CXC Superfit each fall and making sure he’s giving back at events around the region.
What has also helped him in his career is figuring out the athlete-family-life balance early. He became a father in 2008 at the age of 25.
“My wife is a saint,” he said. “I couldn’t have done what I did without her.”
Balancing training and racing with parenthood is delicate. “Everything has to be planned out,” he said. “Having had engineering jobs, I was prepared for that part.”
As the kids grow older, the balance becomes even more challenging. “Below the age of five it’s pretty easy after you master the sleep deprivation,” he said. “It’s actually pretty fun.”
As a CXC Academy online coach, he speaks often on the topic of balance in his videos.
“A lot of masters skiers tend to take it too seriously,” he advocated. “When I was relaxed, I always skied faster. Have fun with it. It’s OK to miss things – it doesn’t have to be perfectly executed. Take what life gives you.”
Liebsch advocates training three to five times a week. If there are some workouts that are more important, prioritize those against other life activities. Have a plan, be organized but don’t get stressed if it changes. Life itself is a balance.
His longtime friendship with Gregg now plays out on the CXC Marathon Cup. “We’re best friends and we train a lot together,” said Liebsch. “But we also love to compete against each other. I’m excited to watch him become a dad with he and Caitlin’s baby. He cut his travel back this year and raced the local stuff with me. Brian is one of the reasons I stayed fast”
For the 2009 Birkie champion, cross country skiing is just one component of his life. But it’s one that brings him great joy, which he shares with others.
“People ask me, ‘so, you haven’t retired yet?’” he said. “I just laugh and tell them, ‘no, haven’t quit my hobby yet.’”