Mark Iverson was a gifted student-athlete. He was well-liked and had a strong support system of family and friends. Life was easy. The only thing Iverson couldn't do well was sleep, and no one knew why.
Doctors performed a sleep study, drew Iverson's blood and asked him questions. Meanwhile, Iverson struggled to keep his eyes closed at night. An activity most people consider an afterthought became such a struggle that Iverson thought his Nordic skiing career was over. His body, the one he used to become a Junior National Champion and a three-time alternate for the World Junior Championships, rebelled.
"Your whole identity is based around this person as an athlete," Iverson said. "When you can't train at all, you are like, 'Who am I?'"
Iverson, a 2001 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School, had to drop out of Alaska Pacific University, where he was skiing for the club team. He had to stop training, as well.
"It was difficult with him being 3,000 miles away," Carol Iverson, Mark's mother, said. "The lack of sleep led to emotional problems and frustration for him. Thank God for the phone."
Iverson moved back in with his parents in spring 2003. He worked for Sheraton Steamboat Golf Club for a few months before his body forced him to quit that, too.
"I didn't do anything for a year-and-a-half," Iverson said. "I couldn't do anything. I dug myself a huge hole."
Iverson thinks he overtrained, working out 15 hours a week when he was getting "maybe four hours of bad sleep a night."
He didn't have any problems while training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, his former coach Travis Jones said. Iverson didn't show signs of sleep deprivation until he moved to Alaska, and from the ages of 20 to 22, Iverson, now 23, worked tirelessly to stop being tired.
"It took me almost two years to figure out how to get better and to get my sleep under control," Iverson said. "It was basically two years of trial and error to figure it out. I now do relaxation and meditation before bed. I have to do the same thing every night. I have to take a hot shower and stretch."
Doctors never found an answer to her youngest son's medical problems, Carol Iverson said. The family spent thousands of dollars on specialists and tests, only to have the professionals use fancy words that translated into what everyone knew: Iverson wasn't sleeping well.
"But he's healthy now," she said.
And he's home training for what Iverson hopes is a promising senior year at Montana State University. He participates in the Steamboat Springs Running Series and won a 10K race in June. He also is competing in the pro/open division of the Steamboat Springs Town Challenge mountain bike race series.
"I've almost been training exclusively by myself, which is funny," Iverson said. "It's always taken a team or a coach to get me out the door. I'm so excited about skiing again. I'm training a little with the Winter Sports Club. I'm training seven days a week."
Iverson is getting tired, but it's the kind of tired that comes from hard two-hour-or-longer workout sessions he needs to regain his form. He gets eight to 10 hours of sleep a night to ensure he feels good the next day.
His promising Nordic career is back on track.
The road back
Iverson began to show signs of recovering in spring 2004, when he entered the Spring Series in Winter Park. Despite little training, he qualified seventh in a field that included elite skiers from the University of Colorado, University of Denver and the U.S. Ski Team. By the finals, he was drained and finished eighth.
"I was like, 'OK, maybe I can be a skier still if I can do that on nothing,'" Iverson said.
He enrolled at MSU in fall 2004 and proved he could make an impact with the new program. More importantly, however, he was allowed to train as he saw fit.
"I proved to them I'm a good enough athlete to know my body and what I needed," Iverson said. "If I was tired, I took a day off. It was refreshing to have support, to take it easy, to make skiing fun again. The whole two years I didn't feel well, skiing wasn't fun."
Iverson skied so well during early-season races that he qualified for the 2005 NCAA Championships. Of the 19 men who qualify for the NCAAs from the Western Region, Iverson was one of only four Americans. The remaining spots went to Europeans. Iverson didn't place high at the championships, but he hadn't put in enough training hours before the 2004-05 season started to expect to end the year well, he said.
"Last year, I qualified so unexpectedly but so absolutely," Iverson said. "This year, I can focus on skiing fast at NCAAs."
The University of Colorado is the host school for the 2006 NCAA Championships, and Steamboat Springs was selected as the site for the Nordic and Alpine races. Because the NCAA Championships are here, the Western Region will host a qualifier, likely in January, in Steamboat to help acquaint regional teams with the course.
Iverson lives five minutes from Howelsen Hill, where the cross country races will be held.
He ponders the thought of racing in front of a group of young Winter Sports Club cross country skiers who, in Iverson, have the role model their Nordic combined peers have had for years in Steamboat Olympians Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane.
"I haven't raced in this town since I was a junior," Iverson said. "You don't know how excited I am to be racing twice this year in Steamboat and in Colorado three times."
Iverson will have to qualify for the 2006 NCAA Championships, but, assuming he stays healthy, he should.
'A mythical figure'
Iverson will graduate from MSU next year with a marketing degree, but he doesn't envision college being the end of his cross country skiing days. He's from Steamboat, so his goal is much like that of the Winter Sports Club skiers who came before him: the Olympics.
Four years ago, he was aiming for the 2006 Olympics in Italy. Now, his goal is the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"As someone who has seen a lot in the cross country world, I think he's one of the five most talented cross country skiers in the country with regards to raw talent," said Jones, who coached Iverson in high school from 1996 to 2000. "He was certainly the most, and still is, the most dominant cross country skier I've ever worked with."
Nordic skiers are like cyclists, Iverson said, in that they typically don't peak until their late 20s or early 30s. At 23 and with two years missed because of medical problems, Iverson most likely has not reached his potential.
Jones, who recently returned to Steamboat to take over as director of admissions at The Lowell Whiteman School, will resume coaching duties with the Winter Sports Club and plans to watch Iverson in the NCAA Championships.
"I think this year he will surprise a lot of people," Jones said. "I think it's totally possible for Mark to be a podium finisher at NCAAs. I know he's excited."
In addition to becoming an Olympian, Iverson one day envisions returning to Steamboat to try to create a senior Nordic program to encourage elite-level skiers to continue competing in the sport. Currently, the U.S. Nordic Ski Team is not competitive internationally. He wants to change that and provide former Winter Sports Club athletes the venue and atmosphere to do so.
"We have the history, the facilities and the dream to keep it going here," Iverson said.
Part of that history and the dream to be a great Nordic skier is a direct result of Iverson's success.
Mike Gleason and Andy Garber, two former Winter Sports Club skiers, are joining Iverson on the MSU cross country ski team this fall. Gleason speaks about Iverson more like a reverent fan than a future teammate.
"He was this mythical figure," Gleason said. "He was a Junior Olympic champion and a great skier."
And if everything goes as planned, Iverson will be back to race on Howelsen Hill next year with a chance to add to his legacy.