February 23rd is a holiday in our house.
It’s my dad’s birthday!
Let me just begin this post by clearing something up: we’re one of those families that makes everyone else sick with how much we enjoy the winter. Unless it’s -40 degree below zero, we’re always out enjoying the northern Wisconsin snow via snowshoeing, skiing, staking, and generally walking everywhere – with YakTraks, of course. But in the long winter months one event shines above the other, and it happens to fall on the last weekend in February: coinciding perfectly with my dad’s birthday.
Those countless years of celebration have a home in Hayward, Wisconsin, sick with Birkie Fever. As many of you know, the American Birkiebeiner is the largest nordic ski race in North America, where over 10,000 people from all over the world culminate to ski the 31 mile ski race in every condition you can imagine.
We’ve been at the Birkie buried in snow, and we’ve been there hoping our friend’s skis won’t encounter any grass. Year in and year out, Dad’s birthday bring memories of us in a number of packed hotels, drinking Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate, and spending time with friends and family. Namely the Koeppls, and wonderfully enough Gina’s birthday is the 21st. Up North or not, we always seem to be combining our families for a big celebration – usually with lots of laughs.
I don’t know just how many Birkies we’ve been to, and I know we haven’t been to one in a couple of years. Last year, the weekend fell late, and in a snowstorm I snuck home from Minneapolis, surprising my dad for his big day. We went snowshoeing, had cake, and it was a perfect weekend in itself. Other than that, my own commitment to collegiate rowing, and dare I say college in general, has kept me away from Hayward the last couple of years, though my parents have still attended the event.
We love Birkie weekend because to so many people it’s more than just a race – it’s a religion. At the Telemark Lodge in Cable, the ever-present smell of hot wax and endless conversations of “what wax are you using?” while skiers obsessively checked the overnight forecast for snow, I was always anxious, excited, and jealous of those racing on Saturday. And after fighting their own physical and mental battles up a rightly named “Bitch Hill” and Lake Hayward’s brutal winds, cheering them on as they crossed the finish line in downtown Hayward felt like a victory in itself – with cowbells ringing out like a dairy stampede for hours. My family loves it, and we always will.
And none of that would be the same without my dad. Though he hasn’t skied the Birkie, he so enjoys the hustle and bustle of the events leading up to the big race, and like me, wants to throw himself in the middle of the action.
I mentioned the years since turning 18 and qualifying for the Birkie have left me unable to race or even return to Cable. But I had a skiing past. From skiing the 1KM Barnebirkie on Thursday, where parents essentially push their kids down Hayward’s main street – to skiing the Junior Birkie on Friday all through my youth – I remember the feeling of getting excited to compete in something I loved. It was a passion I learned from my father.
While Mom was always the one responsible for everything – she registered me for the races, found us places to stay (yearly miracles), and acted as ringmaster by making sure I was always where I needed to be when I needed to be – it was my dad who provided me with the love of sport and competitive drive that fueled hard work and dedication.
An incredible hockey player from youth through amateur leagues, my dad’s dedication to sport was not lost in his only child. I played every sport growing up, and as I settled into soccer, dance, and skiing, he was there on the sidelines every step of the way. When I began coxing, which led to an earned seat in the boat for the University of Minnesota, my dad was the first person I wanted to talk to after a race – whether we won by inches, or lost by lengths (we did both, frequently). Every half marathon I have run, my dad’s loud cheer is the first sound my ears pick up in crowded finish lines. That, and those Birkie cowbell’s my parents proudly tote to every race.
But long before oars hit the water and I started running distance, there was skiing, and there was the Birkie. And at every finish line of every race, with two cameras, an iPhone, and a video recorder, was my dad.
If we’re lucky, we get used to growing up and always hearing our parents say “I’m so proud of you”. Occasionally, we take a moment to absorb the words and the simultaneous hug because the moment feels more important: maybe winning a state title, or graduating college. But more often than not, we brush off the words as consolatory and obligatory: because we just finished dead last, because we didn’t even play in the game, or because we got an A on our test – but it was open book.
It’s not that we’re ungrateful, it’s just that we lose sight of what’s truly important in our lives to pursue things that are important for a day, or week. We forget what started our wheels turning in the first place.
And so every year, my dad’s birthday comes with my indecisiveness as to what a good present is. An unwavering proponent of the phrase “don’t get me anything”, I struggle to give him something that is meaningful and special – but also enjoyable.
It wasn’t until I came abroad and literally could not give my dad anything that I reflected on our past birthday’s together and what had already been exchanged.
Amidst years of coffee table books and J.Crew sweaters, I started to understand another exchange around this date. Because while I always thought that Dad’s proud and inspiring words were a gift to me, I failed to acknowledge that those times and affections, spent Birkie or elsewhere, were gifts to him as well. What more can we hope to give our parents than our own success and happiness, and assuring them they are completely responsible for it?
Dad, I loved every single birthday of yours we spent together, and though you nor I have ever skied the Birkie, it’s you that I will always think of when this special weekend that is such a huge part of my life comes around on the calendar. I will never stop admiring the way you ambitiously throw yourself not only in to everything you do, but just as passionately in to what I do as well. When I watch tapes we have from the Birkie or any other event I’ve competed in over the years, I hear you cheering me on. And I know that no matter what I do in life, it will always be you cheering me on. Thank you for always seeing the very best side of me, and then helping me to rediscover it after all of the heartbreak that both sport and life have brought my way.
And next year, when my college graduation is nearing and that “real world” is drawing closer and closer, I hope that my gift to you can be heading back to Hayward and hearing your voice cheer me on as I cross the finish line of my first American Birkiebeiner.
I love you, Dad. Have a great birthday.
Ciao, for now.