After Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess graduated from Bend’s Mountain View High School in 2004, he says the University of Washington offered him a full-ride scholarship, direct admission to its computer science and engineering program, and a four-year internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
He turned it all down for nordic ski racing.
“It was both the best and the worst choice I ever made in my life,” Blackhorse-von Jess, 28, says now. “I think most people, when they hear that, look at me and they go, ‘Are you kidding me? You turned that down?’”
More than 10 years later, that decision might be paying off, as the cross-country skier won two sprint national championships earlier this month and will likely be named to the U.S. World Championship team next week. He has already earned two World Cup starts later this season, and now he is preparing to race against the best in the world.
“The plan has always been to see how good I can be internationally, so obviously being the best in the United States is a big step in that direction,” Blackhorse-von Jess says.
The Bend skier had a legitimate chance to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but he narrowly missed earning a spot on the four-man U.S. team.
“The margins were very, very, very tight,” Blackhorse-von Jess recalls. “Incredibly close. Mathematically, in a single race, the difference is less than a second over three minutes. That’s how tight that difference was.”
Now focused on this season, his goal is a top-30 finish in a World Cup race or at the Nordic World Ski Championships, starting Feb. 18 in Falun, Sweden.
In Houghton, Minnesota, Blackhorse-von Jess claimed national titles in the 1-kilometer sprint classic on Jan. 5 and in the 1K sprint freestyle five days later.
In sprint races, skiers race six at a time in heats, and the top two finishers in each heat advance to the next round. Skiers must have the power and strength to be fast over a short distance, but also the stamina to continue moving through the qualifying rounds to the final.
Blackhorse-von Jess was raised in Seattle by his Native American mother, Mariah Blackhorse, and his father of German heritage, John von Jess. The family moved to Pocatello, Idaho, when Dakota was 11, and he began nordic skiing there as an eighth-grader.
The family moved to Bend in 2001 after his freshman year in high school. After competing in cross-country running and track and field at Mountain View, Blackhorse-von Jess decided he wanted to focus on nordic skiing, simply because he enjoyed it more than other sports.
“So I decided I wanted to be good at it, and sort of accidentally made the Junior Olympics,” he recalls. “I qualified eighth in the sprint, and crashed out in the quarterfinals. But that was the ‘aha’ moment, if you will.”
Blackhorse-von Jess was upset about crashing, and he remembers saying to himself something like: “This sport is so dumb!”
Ben Husaby — then the nordic director with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation and now the executive director of the Bend Endurance Academy — started coaching Blackhorse-von Jess in 2004 and has continued with him ever since. Husaby is a former Olympian in nordic skiing (1992 and 1994), and he has brought Blackhorse-von Jess on as the associate director of the BEA.
After the crash at the Junior Olympics, Husaby told his protégé to go ski in the woods by himself for a while.
“He said, ‘Go do your thing, and remember why you like to ski,’” Blackhorse-von Jess says. “I’ve sort of carried that through my career, because you always have disappointments in everything. If you take time to be disappointed, and then get over it, everything works out.”
The next summer, he started training in earnest with Husaby.
“Ben will tell you, I was one of the worst skiers, technically, on skis that he had ever seen,” Blackhorse-von Jess says.
But he improved quickly, and skiing soon became so important that he put off college, shunning, he says, academic scholarship offers from both Washington and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “I lived at home with my parents (in Bend). I had a job, but I basically did skiing. They were excited about it. My dad was maybe not as excited at the time. But he’s become one of my biggest supporters. He’s like, ‘You’re only young once, you’re doing something that’s really cool, and I’ll fully support you.’ Which is really exciting.”
Husaby calls his 11-year relationship with Blackhorse-von Jess the most rewarding of his 15-year coaching career.
“Dakota went from basically somebody who dabbled in the sport of nordic skiing, who had set quite lofty goals for himself right away, with barely being able to make it around a 10K course,” Husaby says. “He made it clear that he wanted to win junior nationals, and he wanted to go to world juniors. When I heard that, quite frankly, I was like, ‘This kid’s crazy!’ But both of those things happened in the subsequent two years.”
In 2005, Blackhorse-von Jess enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and he began racing for the school’s nordic ski team. He graduated with degrees in computer science and environmental studies in 2010, then promptly went headlong back into skiing and training with Husaby.
“Ben and I sat down and built a long-term training progression,” Blackhorse-von Jess says. “We focused on my weaknesses, and every year I’ve gotten better. We don’t do the same things every year, but we always find something to make better.”
Blackhorse-von Jess has skied in five World Cup races over the last five years. His best finish in Europe was 52nd place in a sprint classic in February 2013. He hopes to improve dramatically on that, possibly at the world championships, and at World Cup races in Finland and Norway later this season.
“He wants to make his way onto the World Cup as a mainstay as opposed to every once in a while just getting a start,” Husaby says.
Nordic ski racing in Europe is incredibly more competitive than in the United States, according to Blackhorse-von Jess.
“Being in a different environment, especially the World Cup, is so different from what we experience here (in the U.S.),” Blackhorse-von Jess says. “Can I race my fastest there? I think that’s the biggest hurdle for most people, and it certainly has been for me in the past.”
He adds that he believes he is racing at a level comparable to two of the best American skiers, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton, who regularly race on the World Cup circuit in Europe.
It has taken many years and much hard work for Blackhorse-von Jess to reach this point, but he does not really look at cross-country ski racing as work.
“It’s not necessarily hard work,” he says. “Now it’s more of a lifestyle — it’s just what I do.”
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