Farmington Phenom

Farmington Phenom

Emma Charles, 15, has already been Maine’s Nordic skiing champion. What will she do next?

Emma Charles doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, but if you’re looking for her on a winter afternoon, check the fast lane—at Titcomb Mountain. As a Mount Blue High School freshman, Emma scorched the competition in the 2019 Class A Nordic Skiing State Championships. Her pursuit time, which combines her scores in two competitions—a classical cross-country race and then ski skating, both done on 5-kilometer courses—was a full two minutes swifter than the competition.

Emma Charles, champion skiier, after her leg of her team’s race at the Telstar Relays in Bethel. Photo by Heidi Kirn

In a sport where the top two racers are usually separated by fractions of a second, it’s not often that the winner can finish, remove her skis, greet some fans, have a snack and check the weather before the next competitor crosses the finish line. Her margin of victory in classical alone was 73 seconds quicker than the next fastest skier. Emma, 15, and now a sophomore, has been flying past mile markers while remaining unflappable. How did she get so fast? Does she mind the weight of expectation thrust upon her and her Fischer skis? And did some winter spirit put a spell on those Hannaford-brand gummy dinosaurs she scarfs down right before every race?

With a quintessential Nordic skier’s build at six feet tall in flats, Emma is taffy-stretched, but she stands with the kind of slouch-free, upright posture generally unseen in teenagers. Her legs are bare six inches below the hem of her skinny jeans; it’s not easy to find clothing that fits her string-bean frame. Chalk it up to earned strength in her core or good parenting, but Emma carries herself both regally and humbly. Besides parrying overtures from the various boarding schools and private clubs that want Emma to ski for them, she could just as easily be rejecting offers for modeling gigs.

But Emma is happy skiing with Mt. Blue and in her beloved hometown of Farmington. She gives credit to Farmington Ski Club coach Tony Ramsey for training her well. He gives kids “a solid base of proper technique at an early age, which is so important,” she says. But it’s her supportive Farmington community that sets Mt. Blue—and Titcomb Mountain, where the team practices—apart. Though there are many Maine public schools with competitive Nordic skiing programs, Mt. Blue has been dominant since the early 90s. It’s a point of pride for this university town of 7,500, nestled in the Western mountain foothills.

Over a 20-year stretch starting in 1992, the Mt. Blue Girls Nordic Team won every Class A States title. Emma is proud to be part of that legacy, and is unwilling to forfeit her pre-race nights in the Titcomb wax shack (where the team gathers to get their skis ready before a race) or its rigorous, hilly course. Not to mention the snack bar, where the recipe for and price of its French fries likely hasn’t changed since before she was born.

With Charles leading the charge in the neon shirt, skiiers take off for the first leg at the Telstar Relays in Bethel. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Emma Charles is not the kind of athlete for whom practice is the vegetable and game-day victory the dessert. Mt. Blue Athletic Director Chad Brackett recalls meeting her when she was in elementary school, excelling in gymnastics. “Emma was incredibly athletic and coordinated even then,” Chad says. “She trains and trains and trains. She just works. And she does it quietly, and without notice.”

But even though she isn’t seeking attention, she gets it. Mt. Blue’s new Nordic ski coach Emmy Held says, “I enjoy seeing her leading a pack of our top boys around on intense workouts because she is pulling other people up with her. I think the boys are motivated because they look up to Emma and genuinely want to spend time together. There’s something really satisfying about seeing a group of young men who train with and aspire to be like Emma.”

“She trains and trains and trains. She just works. And she does it quietly, and without notice.”

Working her tail off in beast-mode is a four-season affair. Emma roller-skis on roads when snow levels disappoint—with her mother biking behind her for visibility. She runs cross country in the fall, and track in the spring. All these workouts keep her cardio strong and fast-twitch muscles firing. Though she made a point to say she loves XC running, she confesses, “I’m always thinking about skiing.”

It all dovetails nicely with her need for speed, and her hunger for endurance training. “I love being strong.” She recalled a time as a burgeoning gymnast in pre-school, when another little girl asked her mom “what those bumps were on Emma’s arms.” Emma said, “The girl’s mom explained ‘those are muscles!’” Emma laughed. “I like having that confidence.”

Charles enjoys brief moment before her leg of the Telstar Relays begin. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Her favorite book is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a biography of Olympic-runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, who spent nearly three years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Having learned that Zamperini’s athletic training included holding his breath under water for as long as he could so he could build up lung capacity, Emma began her own workouts at the University of Maine Farmington pool, doing more of her strokes underwater. Don’t hold your breath if you’re looking for the part of this story where Emma Charles decides not to do something because it’s too hard.

Luckily, stamina and discipline are on tap at the Charles household. Emma’s mother Anne, a health educator, has completed marathons and triathlons, run up Mt. Washington thrice, and is preparing for a half Iron Man. She’s not aiming to win any races, but competes because she “enjoys the training.” Emma’s father Ken was in the National Guard for 17 years, and works as a detective for the Franklin County Sheriff’s department. It may sound like a recipe for teenage rebellion, but Emma gets along easily with her folks. She adores her older sister (and training partner) Meg, a winning Nordic Mt. Blue skier in her own right and one of Emma’s main mentors in the art of staying humble. Meg left Maine for St. Lawrence University in the fall of 2018, leaving a significant hole in Emma’s life. The sisters are close—best friends, really—but they’re different. Meg, Emma says, could “fall asleep in a bed under a pile of dirty clothes,” whereas her younger sister keeps her surroundings, and herself, under tight control.

Charles competing in her leg of the Telstar Relays with an opponent close on her heels. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Emma wakes at 5:30. She makes her bed every morning, uses a day planner and is committed to her studies. According to her mother Anne, she employs wise time-management skills—tackling her hardest assignments first, saving the best of her brain for the most demanding work. She procrastinates about as much as she slouches. In the scant cracks between training and racing, there is much to keep her busy: her schoolwork (biology—animal behavior in particular—being her favorite subject), playing violin for the school orchestra and being a member of the Franklin County Fiddlers. She’s in her school’s Youth Climate Action group, seeking to reduce her school’s environmental impact and raise climate crisis awareness.

“Emma genuinely [cares] about these issues and the impact they are having on the environment and on humanity,” says Mt. Blue faculty advisor Tyler Brown. She says she can’t stomach the thought of a snowless Maine: “It makes me sad to think that in a couple of decades my favorite sport could be gone.” Which brings us back to the reason for the uncountable hours spent gliding over snow on skinny carbon-fiber sticks. That drive comes from a pure love of moving on the snow, Coach Held says. “She always has a little smile as she puts on her ski boots and is usually one of the first ones out on the snow, and one of the last to go inside at the end of practice.”

Her mother has noticed how quiet Emma gets before races. There are rituals—an intersection of habit and superstition to help her tame her nerves. She puts on her trusty necklace (two rings on a chain—one a gift she received at birth, one from her grandmother) and forces herself to dig to the bottom of her oatmeal. She doesn’t like the porridge, but “I know it works.” She puts on classic rock, maybe the Beatles White Album. Occasionally, just before Emma gets in position to start the race, Anne will stand next to her daughter, silent by request. It’s about just being present, a buffer from distraction while her introverted daughter prepares. The gummy dinosaurs provide the last bit of inspiration.

Charles embraces her mother Anne post-race. Photo by Heidi Kirn

It sometimes seems, even to Emma, that her primary competition is herself. She’s noticed that on races with staggered starts, she tends to ski less aggressively when she’s in a later wave because she finds something psychologically discouraging about playing chase. She floors it when she’s the front-runner with only a beckoning white trail before her.

Did winning States as a freshman change her life in any way? “Not really! I mean, obviously it’s an amazing thing that happened, but I don’t wake up thinking ‘I was state champion!’” Every day is just another chance to push herself. She does admit that it felt very good “winning some of these New England circuit races when I’m just from a small town in Western Maine that people haven’t heard of.”

Camaraderie is a part of life for teammates and Charles is always supporting her teammates. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Her goals include qualifying for the Junior National team, which puts additional pressure on her final Eastern Cup performance. (She was ranked 7th in New England at press time.) She dreams of skiing in college, perhaps staying in Maine to do so, and then ideally, joining the U.S. Women’s team. She’d love to go to Europe someday, to ski in Germany and see where her father was stationed years ago. Emma can envision coaching or working as a physical therapist. But for now, her dreams are caught up in those last pushes she makes for the finish line. The crowd is roaring. They’ve probably lost all feeling in their fingers and toes. Meanwhile, Emma has been generating her own heat, her cheeks flushed, her heart pounding, racing to the finish and imagining what it must feel like to be an Olympian. Her powers of imagination may not have to work that hard.

Desi Van Til is a Farmington native and screenwriter. She wrote the screenplay for the 2015 movie Tumbledown, set in and around Farmington. She lives in Portland, has taught screenwriting at Colby College and is currently casting her most recent indie feature scrip, Reversing Falls, set in Downeast Maine.

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Desi Van Til

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