Our Story

A short history of the Minnesota Youth Ski League as we celebrate our first 25 years! Written in 2018. 

Level One: First Steps

Anne Rykken’s dream was that every kid in the state could ski if they wanted to. So she started a Bill Koch Ski League club (then the youth program of USSA) at Como Park Golf Course in 1989. The first year, 50 kids showed up - something she was not prepared for. There was no curriculum or guidance about what to do with the kids or what best practices were. Anne shakes her head when she remembers teaching kids to ski by throwing candy out on the trail. Each week, they made up a new activity. The focus was on keeping the kids happy and on skis. It worked, but there had to be a better way. 

One day at Finn Sisu, Anne ran into recent Minnesota transplant and former US Ski Team Coach, Steve Gaskill. They shared stories and laughed about the challenges of running Bill Koch clubs. But they also agreed that something could and should be done to change things. The goal that emerged was to erase the idea of "teaching” skiing. At coaches’ training, adults would learn how to play on skis and at club meetings they would lead children in games on skis. It was decided to form an organization, complete with a curriculum, called the Minnesota Youth Ski League. Thus, in 1993, the MYSL was born. 

Level Two: Climbing

The first year of the MYSL was a great success. The founding board of directors was Jean Cecil, Jan Fast, Mike Hecker, Bill Hittler, John Hollister, Anne Rykken, and Luke Skinner. By year’s end, they had 9 clubs in the metro area and plans to expand. Steve, Anne, and St. Thomas University health and human performance professor, Bridget Duoos, started writing a curriculum. The set of six skill-leveled, eight-week lesson plans they developed is unique in the ski community - a handbook of ski games and guide to the ne art of playing on skis. 

Equally important is the MYSL’s open organization. Participation needs to be easy to be fun. Barclay Kruse moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s. Out skiing with his son at Elm Creek, he saw kids skiing in a group. He found a brochure about the MYSL and signed up for the Bunker Hills club. The group had a lot of fun together playing games and learning to ski. Barclay admired the organization and joined the board. He has been with it ever since, making sure everyone has a chance to have the same experience. In his words, "We have learned this business. No youth ski organization in the country has the depth of knowledge and history of meeting the needs of families that MYSL has.” 

Level Three: Gliding

Anne remained the executive director of the MYSL for 12 1/2 years, growing it to nearly 700 members. At the same time, she ran the club at Como Park and it remained the largest cross-country ski club in the United States for the duration of her leadership. Anne’s simple formula: start in a huge circle and play on skis. She would bring a boombox in a sled and the kids would do the Macarena (remember, this was the early 90s) to warm up. "We taught a lot of kids how to ski, but we really taught a lot of families how to have fun in the winter,” Anne reflects. 

In 1996, the MYSL launched Silver Skis, a program for kids who had graduated from Level 6. Skiers met on weekday evenings to further develop skills and build community. They attended events as a group and did some racing. Silver Skis was a huge success, providing a way for young skiers to get involved in the ski community. The Como Silver Skis club even took the mission global and organized a family ski trip to Finland. The program was rebranded as Skiwerx in 2011 and given a more explicit focus. 

 


"You can do more together than you can alone.”

Anne Rykken, founder of the Minnesota Youth Ski League 

 

Level Four: Making Strides

After the winter of 2005, Anne resigned from the MYSL to focus her energy on coaching, and the board hired Amy Cichanowski as director of the MYSL. Amy brought to the organization a different background and perspective on the ski community. She participated in competitive skiing at a very high level. After college, she spent a year training in Finland and moved to Minneapolis to be a member of Steve Gaskill’s newly formed elite Team Birkie, going on to ski in three Olympic Trials. She then earned an MBA and was a small-business consultant while coaching for 15 years before turning her full attention to the MYSL. 

Under Amy’s leadership, the MYSL has tripled its membership, with over 2000 members in 29 clubs. A key step to getting more kids involved in skiing was adding an equipment rental program in 2008. Amy and the MYSL Board identified equipping youth skiers as a barrier to participation. And the barrier was not just - financial - there just wasn’t enough quality youth equipment in the supply chain to meet demand. The MYSL now rents more than 800 sets of skis directly at the club level and is the largest purchaser of youth equipment in the country. 

Level Five: Skating Along

Another initiative was starting the Skiwerx Race Series in 2010 and Skiwerx programming the next year. "The research shows that kids need the structure and experience of training and competition through at least age 16, starting at about age 9 or 10, in order to have the skills and confidence to be active adults.” Amy continues, "MYSL’s goal is to create healthy kids and families, and to do this, we need to give kids a ‘skiing as sport’ exposure. The skills window is younger than high school, it peaks at 5th/6th grade. So we really needed a program to capture that age-group.” Skiwerx grew a healthy youth racing scene almost from scratch. All the components - races, formats, bibs, coaches, programs, youth-sized suits/jackets, and youth-sized racing equipment - were sourced or modified to fit into an integrated system. 

Level Six: New Nordic Norm

And this is only the beginning. Amy dreams of Skiwerx becoming the accepted framework for youth skiing: "It would be amazing if all programs for this age- group were part of Skiwerx. A universal network of youth racing with heavy emphasis on family education and proper equipment starting at the U12/U14 level, rather than the junior level, would revolutionize the sport’s development.” She is currently working with CXC (Central Cross Country Ski Association) to formalize a full youth development pipeline for the midwest. 

"The MYSL had a very strong start 25 years ago. And it hasn’t changed that much. Over the years, Anne and I modernized it, extended it, and added supporting events. The MYSL founders did an excellent job coming up with the basic program model,” Amy explains. And she is quick to note the contributions of the MYSL’s current Board of Directors, too: "This is a working board, they understand the mission intimately and get involved hands-on. And we have fun doing it.” A strong foundation, good community, and a lot of fun - sounds like a recipe for success.