Before Tuesday, no American female athlete had won a long-distance medal in the Nordic skiing World Championships. Now there are two, and both are from Minnesota.
Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg both made the podium in the 10k freestyle event, winning silver and bronze respectively, at the championship race in Falun, Sweden. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden took the gold.
But Gregg, who had never previously finished in the top 10 in a world cup event, isn’t just one of the world's best cross-country skiers. She and her husband, Brian, have taken their fame and talents to several nonprofit organizations to give back to the community.
Last year, the two talked to RootsRated about their cross-country skiing and charity work. Here is the story that ran after the finish of the Sochi Olympics:
Minneapolis residents Caitlin and Brian Gregg are at the top of their game. Elite cross country skiers, the couple spent the last year with all-in preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. When the United States Nordic Ski team selections were announced emotions ran high. Elation for Brian. Disappointment for Caitlin.
On February 23, 2014, Brian raced in the Olympic 50k mass start freestyle cross country race, the final competitive event of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Gregg was the second American across the finish line in 51st place. Excited about his first Olympic event, Brian started the race knowing that Caitlin also had something special to celebrate.
The day before, Caitlin captured first place in the women’s 50k skate event at the American Birkebeiner in Cable, WI. Her victory was her third overall and second consecutive at the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America. Caitlin is the only woman with three victories in the 41-year old event.
“The Birkebeiner is by far my favorite race. I love the course, the celebrations and the community. The motivating factor is I was training well and I wanted to show everyone I can ski strong and have my best race yet,” says Caitlin Gregg.
The story could end here with a couple’s celebration of athletic success. But Caitlin and Brian measure success in a different way. Giving back to their community means as much as Olympic medals and $10,000 checks for first place finishes.
Less than 24 hours after standing on the podium, Caitlin hosted an event for young girls at a post-Birkebeiner celebration. Caitlin worked with Fast & Female a non-profit organization that encourage young women to get involved in with sport and athletics. “Girls that participate in sports tend to do better in school and life. They learn to set goals and have a better self-image,” says Caitlin.
Instead of paying attention to her own post-race recovery routines, Caitlin stood in front of 80 young girls describing her involvement in sport and answering questions. “Seeing the smiling faces and excitement from those girls, you forget the pain and cold. The tired feeling just goes away. It’s so easy to rise above it,” says Caitlin.
A weary post race appearance post would be worthy of mention. Again, there’s far more to the story. While a top finish in an elite ski race is a thrill, the couple receives similar rewards from an active dedication to community service.
Brian and Caitlin Gregg have worked with In the Arena, a nonprofit organization with a mission to connect athletes with youth to cultivate personal character and a stronger sense of community. The couple makes frequent visits to schools, Boys and Girls Club locations and park recreation centers in Minneapolis, MN to offer presentations about the positive impact of sport.
The couple visits communities where kids live in difficult environments and need a larger support network to overcome challenges. “Some of the third graders we’ve visited are unable to read. It is so hard for the regular staff and teachers to keep up with the kids. Plus, this is kind of embarrassing and something that the kids will often try to hide,” says Brian Gregg. “Helping someone to be able to read opens them up to learning how to do just about anything. After our 20 minute reading session we focus not on how fast we read, but how much we retained. The trust and connection we have built with the kids is really important as they reach their teen years.”
Often returning to the same locations year after year, Brian and Caitlin have seen kids grow and prosper. They hope their messages will have a long-term influence on the kids they meet.
“Whether is it skiing, running, basketball or becoming an engineer or artist, they are at a dreaming stage right now. We try to give them a message that says if you want to do something you can accomplish that. When we connect with them when they are 8 or 9 we can build trust and help them believe in themselves,” says Brian.” When the kids talk about their lives and it puts things in perspective. It’s amazing what kids can roll with. If they can’t control something they do the best they can and move on.”
Caitlin Gregg adds, “that influence is always in the back of our minds. How can we change these kid’s lives in terms of their outlook on the future. That keeps us motivated and engaged.”
When the started community service work, Brian and Caitlin wanted to help kids. Over time they have come to understand that the kids are also giving something back to the couple.
“After a session with kids I leave as motivated as they are. We watch them go out and give their all. That really inspires me,” says Caitlin.” For them to get excited to come out and play brings you back to the point of sport. It’s not about glory or money but about pushing yourself and going for something. Working with kids reconnects me with the true meaning of sport.”
Balancing time spent training for competitive ski racing and community service has been learning experience. While working with kids offers significant rewards, staying healthy in a crowd of kids fighting colds and the flu was challenging.
“I was more worried about getting sick in the beginning. Over the years we have built up some immunities since we see so more kids. Now that concern is the last thing on our minds,” say Caitlin.
Although health concerns are still valid, their community service schedule remains active during the winter months. “We try and schedule our community service work as part of our training. We actually feel that it has helped our competitive racing. We feel that we are doing something that is bigger than ourselves. Plus, when you come home from a race it is much more fun to share that you did well, “ says Brian.
There’s definitely something that we both have that motivates kids to connect with us. I’m not sure if it’s our high energy or goofy attitudes. They want to do what we ask of them,” says Caitlin. “The connection that we can create is too valuable not to use later in life. We will definitely continue with this kind of work for the rest of our lives.”