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On the right path

Newton skier Jospe discovers orienteering is able to take her where she wants to go

Alex Jospe, competing in the 2009 World Ski Orienteering Championships in Japan, will try again at the Worlds next month in Sweden. Alex Jospe, competing in the 2009 World Ski Orienteering Championships in Japan, will try again at the Worlds next month in Sweden. (Photo Courtesy of Alex Jospe)
By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2011

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In 2006, right around the time Alex Jospe was wrapping up an accomplished Nordic ski racing career at Colby College, a friend encouraged her “sort of by chance’’ to take a shot at the US Ski Orienteering Championships. Jospe wasn’t exactly gunning for the podium. In fact, she never even had attempted the sport.

Jospe was skilled at covering ground on skis in the woods. And she had participated in recreational “foot’’ orienteering, the better-known warmer-weather form of the discipline that requires racing through dense terrain with a map and compass to visit checkpoints on a timed course. She figured she would combine the physical and mental challenges of skiing and navigation, have fun, and see how well she could wing it.

“The basic premise is really easy. It’s a race where you get to choose your route,’’ said Jospe. “Once you’ve figured out your route, you start skiing.’’

Jospe blasted through the course, and when she crossed the finish line, was surprised to learn she had come in second in the women’s nationals.

Even more shocking was the invitation that followed her stellar ski-o debut: An executive with Orienteering USA contacted Jospe to see if she’d be interested in traveling to Russia for the 2007 world championships. Of all the options Jospe had been considering after graduating with an environmental studies major, skiing at an international level wasn’t one of them. Jospe phoned her father, who was succinct with his advice.

“He told me, ‘You dummy, go to Russia,’ ’’ said Jospe. So she did.

Racing in all three individual categories and the team relay, the Newton resident’s best finish was 24th in the long-distance division. Two years later (the world championships are held only in odd-numbered years), Jospe proved her initial ski-o qualifier was no fluke by earning a spot on the 2009 national squad that competed in Japan, where her top finish was 22d in the sprint.

And again next month, Jospe will anchor half of the two-woman US team at the 2011 world championships in Tänndalen, Sweden, this time partnering with fellow Cambridge Sports Union teammate Alison Crocker of Amherst.

But despite her globe-trotting endeavors, Jospe’s most important accomplishments in orienteering might be the work she does on behalf of the all-volunteer New England Ski-O club. She coordinates events, sets courses, maintains the organization’s website (www.neskio.com), and generally encourages newcomers and gets the word out about a small but growing sport.

“The interesting thing about Alex is that she already had that Nordic base down, and she had that orientation training,’’ said Glen Schorr, executive director of Orienteering USA. “She demonstrates what it’s all about. It’s a mix of physical prowess — endurance, really — with mental strength. If you can figure out a way to get from Point A to Point B, we’ve got a sport for you.’’

Regional growth Schorr estimated that ski-o has only about 5,000 to 7,500 active participants nationwide, in part because the winter version of orienteering is limited to parts of the country that get sufficient snow cover. But the sport is growing fast enough to support various competition classes, ranging from youths to seniors. If you can cross-country ski and are willing to learn how to read a compass, you’re well on your way to completing one of the novice-level courses that are offered at any ski-o meet in New England.

“We’re always happy to instruct beginners,’’ said Barb Bryant, vice president of education and outreach for the New England Orienteering Club.

“You don’t necessarily have to be super-fast to do well, and that’s what I love about it, the intellectual puzzle aspect.’’

The winter version of this quasi-military pastime originated in Scandinavia as a means of passage through snowy terrain, and “orienteering’’ was coined in 1886 to describe the sporting technique of navigating with a map and compass. The first public ski orienteering competition dates to Norway in 1899, and small pockets of ski-o enthusiasts began popping up in America in the 1960s. The first US national championships were held in 1989 in Vermont.

At a typical ski-o event, courses are mapped according to difficulty level and length (3 to 25 kilometers), with “controls’’ marked by flags that a skier must visit in a prescribed order, obtaining either a ticket-punch or electronic time stamp as proof. Competitors don’t get to see the course map until immediately before the race, and starts are often staggered to discourage the following of superior navigators.

In foot orienteering, runners have the option of bushwhacking through the woods to seek the fastest route between controls. In ski-o, that’s not always possible, because ungroomed snow conditions factor into whether or not the straightest off-trail line is a smart option.

Another difference is that skiers have to carry poles, so many ski-o competitors fashion special chest-level map holders they wear around their necks to see the route in front of them while on the move.

“Most people find it pretty intuitive once they get a bit of instruction,’’ said Jospe. “You don’t have to make many huge decisions in a beginner’s event. It’s just a matter of finding the controls. For a beginner, you’re not going to see as many narrow uphill trails.’’

Jospe contrasts that with the feeling she had when she was first handed a course map at the world championships. The color-coded chart looked like a “spaghetti of trails’’ that was “definitely intimidating’’ at first.

“It’s overwhelming how many trail decisions you have just to get to the first control,’’ Jospe said. “It’s much more engaging mentally.’’

Skills gap Schorr said that although the US women and men manage to compete respectably on an international level, there is a still a skills gap between American athletes, whose ski-o support comes largely from 15 or so recreational clubs, and the competitors from the 34 other participating nations, whose elite training is sometimes backed by their governments.

“I have to be honest, they’re just truly awesome,’’ Schorr said of the dominant countries, which include Finland, Sweden, and Russia. “When one of our athletes makes a final heat, that is an accomplishment for us.’’

Last September, the International Orienteering Federation applied for ski-o to be included in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Schorr said he recently learned that the bid is “not under consideration’’ for 2018, although there is a possibility it could be introduced as a demonstration sport by 2022.

Although ski-o does not appear to be spectator-friendly at first glance, both Schorr and Jospe said emerging technologies — primarily microchip tracking and unobtrusive video cameras — will work in orienteering’s favor to make it a compelling event to follow on television or other digital devices.

“The technology is here now,’’ said Schorr. “As a spectator, you’re able to watch these individuals and follow their progress, all the choices they make, right or wrong. It’s pretty cool.’’

Schorr said the 12- and 13-year-olds who are just taking up the sport will be the beneficiaries of strong local ski-o support coupled with international exposure.

“It’s absolutely a lifetime sport,’’ said Jospe. “And we’re always trying to attract quality athletes.’’