background

Tough and Terse

Tough and Terse
Story and photgraphs by Marc Glass ’88

Bozeman, Montana, doesn’t have big-city crime, but locals know enough to carry pepper spray when venturing into the foothills of the nearby Bridger Mountain Range. “Shooting a grizzly bear with a .357 will just piss him off,” said a lanky Bozeman denizen. “A shot of pepper spray gets rid of ‘em every time.”

Welcome to Big Sky Country, where there’s no daytime speed limit, where drinking beer does not count as drinking (according to the late Montana writer Norman Maclean), and where the locals don’t flinch at the thunder of howitzers fired at snow-laden peaks for avalanche control.

Without a trace of Puritanical abashment so ingrained in New Englanders, Montanans proudly call their plot of earthly paradise “the Last Best Place.” Amid the ranches, livestock, gun racks, Wrangler jeans, and grizzly bears, it’s definitely the last place you would expect to see forty Nordic skiers (a good many speaking Norwegian) clad in bun- hugging Lycra, all traversing the undulating Bridger terrain at lung- busting speed.

Justin Freeman ’98, the fastest Nordic skier ever at Bates, was among the chiseled, body-fat-challenged skiers in Bozeman for the 1998 NCAA Division I ski championships last March. Though a New Englander by birth, he was at home in Bozeman for two reasons: he’s tough and independent. He is the alpha Bobcat.

“You don’t take Justin Freeman down,” said Al Fereshetian, Freeman’s running coach during the fall cross country season. Fereshetian should know. Last fall, the men’s cross country team, after ten-mile practice runs, would engage in last-man-standing-wins wrestling matches. Freeman was easily the grand-grappler of the Bates WWF-XC scene. And woe to those in Freeman’s path after a race. Following his victory at last fall’s New England Small College Athletic Conference cross country championship, in which he beat the nearest competitor by a seemingly eternal twenty-two seconds, Freeman proved he still had plenty of might by tackling his father, Donavan, to the ground.

Once, Fereshetian spied an opportunity for payback. Following last fall’s Division III national cross country meet, he saw Freeman walking up to a huge mud puddle.

“I knew he had to be exhausted,” Fereshetian said. “I tried to wrestle him into the mud, but he picked me up and put me down in it.” The alpha Bobcat turns back another pretender.

An All-American in cross country running and two-time All-American in Nordic skiing, Freeman has won greater notoriety on campus for eschewing shoes than for skiing faster than any Bates student before. “Someone suggested that not wearing shoes is part of my master plan to force myself to go faster everywhere and get more training value out of walking between classes,” Freeman said. The fanciful explanation clearly amuses him. “It’s not about punishing myself or suffering, and it’s not that shoes don’t feel good. Barefoot feels best.” On this mid-January day, Freeman – in a nod to a winter storm that dumped several inches of rain and snow – has decided to stave off the cold by going sockless in a five- year-old pair of Teva sandals held together with copious amounts of duct tape.

Freeman’s resistance to the cold and affinity for skiing may have congenital origins. A day old, Freeman was bundled inside his father’s parka and taken for a three-quarter-mile cross-country ski outing to a neighbor’s house near the Freeman home in Andover, New Hampshire.

“There’s a bone of contention about that,” said Donavan Freeman. “His mother says he was two days old, but I say he was a day old.” The elder Freeman clearly wants it to be so. It sounds tougher. Tougher is better.

At the age of one, Justin was hale enough to face the elements, leaving the comfort of his father’s parka for the family p�lken, an open Norwegian sled hauled for hours on end by his father’s kick-waxed classical stride. (“The motion of cross-country skiing put him to sleep,” Donavan said.)

Freeman donned skis of his own at age four, when he was displaced from the p�lken by younger brother Kris (who, now 17, finished fifth at this year’s U.S. Nordic national championships). Freeman entered his first Bill Koch League ski race at age seven and established a tradition that continues for him today: He whupped most of the competition with stoic grit.

“He skied that race with a broken arm from a gymnastics accident,” Donavan said. “I couldn’t make him stay home. I told him ‘No you’re not,’ and he said ‘Yes, I am.’ I couldn’t keep him off it. Now, after all his running and training, he’s built the motor that goes.”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Freeman shrugs off the suggestion that he is a tough guy. Freeman shrugs a lot in an interview and rarely smiles; his every-which-way-but-combed hair is about his only expressive feature. Talking about toughness, apparently, isn’t tough, so Freeman’s answers are oblique: “Being tough for two hundred days of off- season training is what’s important.”

“Calling Freeman ‘self-motivated’ seems too soft,” said Associate Professor of Mathematics John Rhodes, who, along with Professor of Physics Mark Semon, was Freeman’s honors thesis advisor in 1997-98. For example, Freeman wanted to take Rhodes’s upper-level Complex Analysis course, but couldn’t attend the afternoon class because it conflicted with ski practice. So Freeman asked, and received, permission to take the course as an independent study, with the option of sitting in on some class sessions. Though he rarely appeared in class and received no instruction from Rhodes during office hours, Freeman earned an A. He apparently taught himself the complex math solely by poring over his textbook. “Presumably that’s true,” Rhodes laughed, “although I think he borrowed the book from someone else.”

Unlike most honors theses, which are rife with references to others’ work, Freeman’s math-physics honors thesis, titled “Phase Locking in Coupled Oscillators,” was unusual because he cited only three experts. “Justin proved his own theorems,” Semon said. “The outside examiner had never seen results like his before. He also turned his honors thesis in a week early, which is unheard of.”

At last winter’s Olympic trials held near Lake Placid, New York, Freeman finished in the top ten in both the ten-kilometer classical and freestyle races. Though he narrowly missed a trip to Nagano in 1998 – only the top five skiers were considered for the U.S. team – Freeman intends to represent the United States at the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City. The challenges, however, involve more than skiing fast times and winning big races. As a student, he was “sponsored” by Team Rossignol, meaning – in accordance with NCAA rules prohibiting gifts and direct financial compensation to collegiate athletes – he was loaned two pairs of much-needed race-stock skis. But now, Freeman will have to find financial support for travel and entry fees, as well as a corps of elite skiers to chase in practice.

The money may be hard to come by, but Freeman won’t have any trouble finding training partners, ample snow, and rigorous high-altitude terrain. His high marks in physics have secured him a doctoral-program slot at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for the fall.

The mix of academe and athletics clearly fires Freeman’s soul. The summer after his junior year, he won a coveted National Science Foundation grant to begin his honors thesis research on dynamical systems at Northern Arizona University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. After spending most of the day studying coupled oscillators (physical and biological systems that have periodic behavior, such as semiconductors or pacemaker cells in the heart), he would train for the coming fall and winter seasons by pounding out his own periodic rhythm, running twenty miles a day at a blistering 6:30 per-mile pace (yes, he does wear running shoes).

The hard training paid handsome dividends during the fall of his senior year, when Freeman won the NESCAC cross country championship and finished second at the NCAA Division III New England meet. During the winter, he skied to six top-three finishes and concluded the season as the top-ranked American college skier in the East. Of his two Bates coaches who guided him through these campaigns, Freeman has good words: “I’ve enjoyed working with Al [Fereshetian], because he has a faith in all of his athletes, and that’s contagious. Becky [Flynn Woods '89, his Nordic coach] recognizes that everyone has his own personal goals. She treats me as someone with legitimate national-team aspirations. This has helped me even more than her excellent eye for improving technique.”

At the NCAA skiing championships in Montana, Freeman finished sixth in the classical race, the top American – no small feat considering he was competing in the enervating, mile-high altitude of Bozeman against a juggernaut of European skiers, mostly Norwegians, who receive full scholarships to compete for powerhouse American collegiate programs (often in the West) before returning home as members of their national teams.

A case in point: Norwegian Thorodd Bakken (by way of the University of Vermont and the Norwegian national team) was Freeman’s nemesis throughout the 1997-98 Eastern collegiate ski season. Four times, Freeman finished second to Bakken at carnival events. In Bozeman, Bakken won the twenty-kilometer freestyle title (by forty seconds) and the ten-kilometer classical event, in which Freeman was sixth. Between Bakken and Freeman was a contingent of Europeans, all from U.S. colleges in the West.

In fact, Freeman’s achievement – an American actually earning All- America honors with a top-ten finish – is a novelty these days, according to Bruce Cranmer, head Nordic ski coach at the University of Vermont.

“I would like to see an American win the NCAAs so that college skiing in America isn’t just about scholarships and importing this entire event from other countries,” Cranmer said. “It’s a real honor for Justin. He’s a top-level skier with the potential to be a national-team skier.”

Freeman was heading for a top-ten finish in the freestyle race at Bozeman, too, but near the finish line, he was cut off by a competitor. Freeman finished eleventh, missing All-America honors, by the length of a boot. After the race (the final event of the championships), Freeman took off his skis and kicked at the snow. Passersby who offered congratulations heard barely audible “thanks” in return.

“I was angry at myself. I made my move later than I should have,” said Freeman. Neither he nor his coaches lodged a protest over the finish- line incident, and that was OK with Freeman; it fit with his competitive outlook: “I wouldn’t want to get All-America that way.”

While waiting for the awards ceremony, skiers basked – some stripped to the waist – in the sunny, 60-degree weather that rarely graces Montana’s Rockies before May Day. Alternative rock music blared over the PA system as competitors came together for games of touch football and set up a snow jump to try their skill at freestyle aerials on cross- country skis. The snack table, featuring Oreos and Gatorade, buzzed with activity as skiers replenished their calorie-depleted bodies and made social plans for their final night in Bozeman.

Absent from the party was Freeman. While competitors often ski a few kilometers at the end of a race to warm down, Freeman, inconsolable about his eleventh-place finish, skied nearly the entire twenty-kilometer course again to burn away his frustration. He finally emerged from the woods and rejoined his fellow competitors midway through the awards ceremony, minutes before he was called to receive his All-America honor for finishing sixth in the 10K classical.

Freeman wears a peace-sign earring nearly all the time. He’s asked if it’s peaceful when he’s on the course. “That’s not the word I would use,” he said, not offering a substitute. A battle, perhaps? “There’s a certain element of battle,” he agreed. The fight is all internal, between exhaustion and determination: “I haven’t been in a race where I didn’t think about quitting half way through. It’s fatigue. To me, that’s ski racing.”

Bozeman, Montana, doesn’t have big-city crime, but locals know enough to carry pepper spray when venturing into the foothills of the nearby Bridger Mountain Range. “Shooting a grizzly bear with a .357 will just piss him off,” said a lanky Bozeman denizen. “A shot of pepper spray gets rid of ‘em every time.”

Welcome to Big Sky Country, where there’s no daytime speed limit, where drinking beer does not count as drinking (according to the late Montana writer Norman Maclean), and where the locals don’t flinch at the thunder of howitzers fired at snow-laden peaks for avalanche control.

Without a trace of Puritanical abashment so ingrained in New Englanders, Montanans proudly call their plot of earthly paradise “the Last Best Place.” Amid the ranches, livestock, gun racks, Wrangler jeans, and grizzly bears, it’s definitely the last place you would expect to see forty Nordic skiers (a good many speaking Norwegian) clad in bun- hugging Lycra, all traversing the undulating Bridger terrain at lung- busting speed.

Justin Freeman ’98, the fastest Nordic skier ever at Bates, was among the chiseled, body-fat-challenged skiers in Bozeman for the 1998 NCAA Division I ski championships last March. Though a New Englander by birth, he was at home in Bozeman for two reasons: he’s tough and independent. He is the alpha Bobcat.

“You don’t take Justin Freeman down,” said Al Fereshetian, Freeman’s running coach during the fall cross country season. Fereshetian should know. Last fall, the men’s cross country team, after ten-mile practice runs, would engage in last-man-standing-wins wrestling matches. Freeman was easily the grand-grappler of the Bates WWF-XC scene.

And woe to those in Freeman’s path after a race. Following his victory at last fall’s New England Small College Athletic Conference cross country championship, in which he beat the nearest competitor by a seemingly eternal twenty-two seconds, Freeman proved he still had plenty of might by tackling his father, Donavan, to the ground.

Once, Fereshetian spied an opportunity for payback. Following last fall’s Division III national cross country meet, he saw Freeman walking up to a huge mud puddle.

“I knew he had to be exhausted,” Fereshetian said. “I tried to wrestle him into the mud, but he picked me up and put me down in it.” The alpha Bobcat turns back another pretender.

An All-American in cross country running and two-time All-American in Nordic skiing, Freeman has won greater notoriety on campus for eschewing shoes than for skiing faster than any Bates student before.

“Someone suggested that not wearing shoes is part of my master plan to force myself to go faster everywhere and get more training value out of walking between classes,” Freeman said. The fanciful explanation clearly amuses him. “It’s not about punishing myself or suffering, and it’s not that shoes don’t feel good. Barefoot feels best.” On this mid-January day, Freeman – in a nod to a winter storm that dumped several inches of rain and snow – has decided to stave off the cold by going sockless in a five- year-old pair of Teva sandals held together with copious amounts of duct tape.

Freeman’s resistance to the cold and affinity for skiing may have congenital origins. A day old, Freeman was bundled inside his father’s parka and taken for a three-quarter-mile cross-country ski outing to a neighbor’s house near the Freeman home in Andover, New Hampshire.

“There’s a bone of contention about that,” said Donavan Freeman. “His mother says he was two days old, but I say he was a day old.” The elder Freeman clearly wants it to be so. It sounds tougher. Tougher is better.

At the age of one, Justin was hale enough to face the elements, leaving the comfort of his father’s parka for the family p�lken, an open Norwegian sled hauled for hours on end by his father’s kick-waxed classical stride. (“The motion of cross-country skiing put him to sleep,” Donavan said.)

Freeman donned skis of his own at age four, when he was displaced from the p�lken by younger brother Kris (who, now 17, finished fifth at this year’s U.S. Nordic national championships). Freeman entered his first Bill Koch League ski race at age seven and established a tradition that continues for him today: He whupped most of the competition with stoic grit.

“He skied that race with a broken arm from a gymnastics accident,” Donavan said. “I couldn’t make him stay home. I told him ‘No you’re not,’ and he said ‘Yes, I am.’ I couldn’t keep him off it. Now, after all his running and training, he’s built the motor that goes.”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Freeman shrugs off the suggestion that he is a tough guy. Freeman shrugs a lot in an interview and rarely smiles; his every-which-way-but-combed hair is about his only expressive feature. Talking about toughness, apparently, isn’t tough, so Freeman’s answers are oblique: “Being tough for two hundred days of off- season training is what’s important.”

“Calling Freeman ‘self-motivated’ seems too soft,” said Associate Professor of Mathematics John Rhodes, who, along with Professor of Physics Mark Semon, was Freeman’s honors thesis advisor in 1997-98. For example, Freeman wanted to take Rhodes’s upper-level Complex Analysis course, but couldn’t attend the afternoon class because it conflicted with ski practice. So Freeman asked, and received, permission to take the course as an independent study, with the option of sitting in on some class sessions. Though he rarely appeared in class and received no instruction from Rhodes during office hours, Freeman earned an A. He apparently taught himself the complex math solely by poring over his textbook. “Presumably that’s true,” Rhodes laughed, “although I think he borrowed the book from someone else.”

Unlike most honors theses, which are rife with references to others’ work, Freeman’s math-physics honors thesis, titled “Phase Locking in Coupled Oscillators,” was unusual because he cited only three experts. “Justin proved his own theorems,” Semon said. “The outside examiner had never seen results like his before. He also turned his honors thesis in a week early, which is unheard of.”

At last winter’s Olympic trials held near Lake Placid, New York, Freeman finished in the top ten in both the ten-kilometer classical and freestyle races. Though he narrowly missed a trip to Nagano in 1998 – only the top five skiers were considered for the U.S. team – Freeman intends to represent the United States at the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City. The challenges, however, involve more than skiing fast times and winning big races. As a student, he was “sponsored” by Team Rossignol, meaning – in accordance with NCAA rules prohibiting gifts and direct financial compensation to collegiate athletes – he was loaned two pairs of much-needed race-stock skis. But now, Freeman will have to find financial support for travel and entry fees, as well as a corps of elite skiers to chase in practice.

The money may be hard to come by, but Freeman won’t have any trouble finding training partners, ample snow, and rigorous high-altitude terrain. His high marks in physics have secured him a doctoral-program slot at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for the fall.

The mix of academe and athletics clearly fires Freeman’s soul. The summer after his junior year, he won a coveted National Science Foundation grant to begin his honors thesis research on dynamical systems at Northern Arizona University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. After spending most of the day studying coupled oscillators (physical and biological systems that have periodic behavior, such as semiconductors or pacemaker cells in the heart), he would train for the coming fall and winter seasons by pounding out his own periodic rhythm, running twenty miles a day at a blistering 6:30 per-mile pace (yes, he does wear running shoes).

The hard training paid handsome dividends during the fall of his senior year, when Freeman won the NESCAC cross country championship and finished second at the NCAA Division III New England meet. During the winter, he skied to six top-three finishes and concluded the season as the top-ranked American college skier in the East. Of his two Bates coaches who guided him through these campaigns, Freeman has good words: “I’ve enjoyed working with Al [Fereshetian], because he has a faith in all of his athletes, and that’s contagious. Becky [Flynn Woods '89, his Nordic coach] recognizes that everyone has his own personal goals. She treats me as someone with legitimate national-team aspirations. This has helped me even more than her excellent eye for improving technique.”

At the NCAA skiing championships in Montana, Freeman finished sixth in the classical race, the top American – no small feat considering he was competing in the enervating, mile-high altitude of Bozeman against a juggernaut of European skiers, mostly Norwegians, who receive full scholarships to compete for powerhouse American collegiate programs (often in the West) before returning home as members of their national teams.

A case in point: Norwegian Thorodd Bakken (by way of the University of Vermont and the Norwegian national team) was Freeman’s nemesis throughout the 1997-98 Eastern collegiate ski season. Four times, Freeman finished second to Bakken at carnival events. In Bozeman, Bakken won the twenty-kilometer freestyle title (by forty seconds) and the ten-kilometer classical event, in which Freeman was sixth. Between Bakken and Freeman was a contingent of Europeans, all from U.S. colleges in the West.

In fact, Freeman’s achievement – an American actually earning All- America honors with a top-ten finish – is a novelty these days, according to Bruce Cranmer, head Nordic ski coach at the University of Vermont.

“I would like to see an American win the NCAAs so that college skiing in America isn’t just about scholarships and importing this entire event from other countries,” Cranmer said. “It’s a real honor for Justin. He’s a top-level skier with the potential to be a national-team skier.”

Freeman was heading for a top-ten finish in the freestyle race at Bozeman, too, but near the finish line, he was cut off by a competitor. Freeman finished eleventh, missing All-America honors, by the length of a boot. After the race (the final event of the championships), Freeman took off his skis and kicked at the snow. Passersby who offered congratulations heard barely audible “thanks” in return.

“I was angry at myself. I made my move later than I should have,” said Freeman. Neither he nor his coaches lodged a protest over the finish- line incident, and that was OK with Freeman; it fit with his competitive outlook: “I wouldn’t want to get All-America that way.”

While waiting for the awards ceremony, skiers basked – some stripped to the waist – in the sunny, 60-degree weather that rarely graces Montana’s Rockies before May Day. Alternative rock music blared over the PA system as competitors came together for games of touch football and set up a snow jump to try their skill at freestyle aerials on cross- country skis. The snack table, featuring Oreos and Gatorade, buzzed with activity as skiers replenished their calorie-depleted bodies and made social plans for their final night in Bozeman.

Absent from the party was Freeman. While competitors often ski a few kilometers at the end of a race to warm down, Freeman, inconsolable about his eleventh-place finish, skied nearly the entire twenty-kilometer course again to burn away his frustration. He finally emerged from the woods and rejoined his fellow competitors midway through the awards ceremony, minutes before he was called to receive his All-America honor for finishing sixth in the 10K classical.

Freeman wears a peace-sign earring nearly all the time. He’s asked if it’s peaceful when he’s on the course. “That’s not the word I would use,” he said, not offering a substitute. A battle, perhaps? “There’s a certain element of battle,” he agreed. The fight is all internal, between exhaustion and determination: “I haven’t been in a race where I didn’t think about quitting half way through. It’s fatigue. To me, that’s ski racing.”


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