By Isabel Menna
Leavenworth native, and Cascade High School (CHS) and Plain Valley Nordic Team (PVNT) alumnus, Derek “Buster” Richardson has been nominated to the United States Cross-Country Ski Team for the 2023-24 season. (Nominations are the spring precursor announcement of the team prior to the official September appointments.) The U.S. Team is comprised of the pool of skiers from which the perennial U.S. World Cup and quadrennial U.S. Olympic teams are chosen.
Richardson, not yet 19, will become one of the youngest members of the team, and the first from the Wenatchee Valley since Leavenworth’s Torin Koos and Wenatchee’s Laura Valaas were on the team a decade ago. He was called up based on his sprinting prowess in the 2022-23 season, during which he trained with, and raced for, Alaska Pacific University’s Elite Team (APU), made up of “skiers who have made a commitment to achieving international excellence.”
Sprinting, as opposed to distance racing covering between 5 to 50k, is run over roughly 1.5k courses by means of a heats tournament, until the fastest racers remaining square off in the finals. Buster had a sensational dash through the heats last season at Senior Nationals in Michigan and wins in Alaska at the state’s Besh Cup Series and U.S. Junior Nationals.
Achieving excellence in skiing has been at the center of Buster’s life since well before his junior year in high school, at which time he forwent other sports to focus exclusively on Nordic ski training and racing. It was at that time that Richardson, who grew up as a member of Leavenworth Winter Sports Club (LWSC), began to train full-time under PVNT Head Coach Pierre Niess, which he continued to do until he graduated from CHS in 2022.
Niess stated that “Buster has the usual traits that propel elite competitors to the highest ranks of their sports: he works hard; he loves skiing; he’s smart; he has great natural abilities. Those things are hard to teach. When you have an athlete with those characteristics, a coach mostly just facilitates and provides some guidance. I’m very happy for him and proud of him. He aimed high, but it was always realistic and achievable.”
When asked what Richardson making the U.S. Team means for PVNT, Niess said that “it’s nice to see that our programs can provide a platform that includes pathways ranging from exposure [to the sport of cross-country ski racing] all the way to the national team.”
PVNT founder Rob Whitten agreed with Niess averring that “Buster being named to the U.S. Team is not only a huge step forward for our team, but incredibly important to our young, aspiring skiers, some of whom have trained alongside and watched Buster race. Because PVNT maintains all manner of performance data on our racers, our up-and-comers can check to see how they are doing as compared to Buster. What if they find out they are close or already beating some of his results? Making it to the U.S. Team is no longer just a pipe dream, but rather something very much attainable for some our kids. Buster has demonstrated that.”
Cross-country skiing is often called the world’s hardest sport, in part because attaining its highest levels requires extraordinary physical endurance and strength, together with great technical acumen. Despite Richardson’s meteoric rise to the U.S. Team, only one year out of high school, the sport is known to require patience, persistence, and a love of the outdoors, qualities that Richardson holds in abundance.
“I definitely worked hard to be where I am today, and this is a validation of that work. But hopefully this is just one step of many in my ski career,” stated Richardson. “I knew my world rank at the end of the race season, of course, and that it meant that I should make the team. But when I got the official email and phone call, it was pretty exciting. I was also relieved that I actually did make it, and grateful for all the people who helped to get me here: parents, coaches, teammates, friends, and teachers.”
That first step into the ranks of professional skiing for Richardson is on to the U.S. Development squad, a steppingstone to the higher A and B levels of the national team. The “D-team” is designed to develop younger athletes into senior racers who often spend a majority of their race season on the World Cup tour.
“Other than invites to national camps, nothing is guaranteed on the D-team, let alone a World Cup start,” informs Richardson, “but a start in Minneapolis or Canmore, though still unlikely, is not out of the question.” Next February, the International Ski and Snowboard Federation is bringing World Cup races to North America for the first time in over two decades.
“Skiing on the World Cup, making World Championships, and maybe even the Olympics” are longer term goals for Buster. In the meantime, he hopes “to qualify for World Juniors in Planica, Slovenia next season, keep my spot on the U.S. Team, grab a couple of top 10s on the Super Tour [, the U.S. Domestic Professional Tour,] and have a good year of training.”
Even though the new Alaskan resident has barely stopped skiing this season due to the 49th state’s extended winters, the U.S. Team’s training year kicks off this month at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon, which retains its snow long enough to groom cross country trails through Memorial Day. So Richardson, who has plans to remain at APU next season, will venture with his new U.S. teammates down to Bend, where he just might meet up with his former CHS classmates and PVNT teammates, who will also be there for their own camp, some hoping one day to follow in Buster’s ski tracks.