Liebner wins ski marathon with poles he created

February 9, 2018

Andy Liebner (Photo by MQT Photo)

When Andy Liebner claimed the Noquemanon Ski Marathon on January 27, he immediately raised his arms in celebration.

Clearly visible in his bare hands were the United States Ski Pole Company poles that helped propel Liebner to a six-second victory in the 50-kilometer Nordic freestyle event in Marquette, Mich.

Liebner, a Soldotna native, remarkably took the win in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 42 seconds despite a long absence from ski marathons — this was his first since 2010, when he raced seven 50Ks in seven consecutive weekends to win the American Ski Marathon Series.

Forgive the 34-year-old for the racing hiatus — he’s been a bit busy.

In 2014, he helped Peruvian Roberto Carcelen qualify for the Sochi Winter Olympics, and joined him by walking in the Opening Ceremonies as his coach. Liebner is also currently at the Olympics in South Korea coaching Mexican skier German Madrazo.

In 2011, he published the book “Wild Shot,” which chronicles his struggles and successes in biathlon and Nordic skiing.

He earned a degree from Northern Michigan University in physical education/coaching and nutrition.

In 2008, Liebner, who has a “folder full of inventions I’d like to make some day,” built the world’s largest human hamster wheel (at the time) with Natalie Semmens. Footage of the 15.5-foot tall structure in action even landed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But Liebner’s most ambitious project was acquiring a former golf club factory in Cheboygan, Mich., and re-engineering it into the U.S. Ski Pole Co.

“It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on,” Liebner said. “It’s rewarding in some ends, overwhelming in some other ends.”

Liebner’s comments came earlier this winter while he drove through South Dakota en route to ski races at West Yellowstone, Mont. Along the way, he stopped to conduct ski clinics and work on building his business.

“A three-day drive turns into a three-week event,” he said.

Liebner says his carbon poles are as good, if not better, than any name brand. And they are built entirely in the U.S., unlike most of his competitors who manufacture in China to save costs.

“Just because you’ve used a name brand for 20 years doesn’t mean it’s the best,” Liebner said.

But trying to compete with mega companies like Swix and Salomon has proven challenging.

His biggest business challenge?

“(It’s) education of the solutions that we’ve incorporated in our product that cover the failures of other companies’ products,” the outspoken 2001 Soldotna High School graduate and 2000 Alaska prep cross country running champion said.

For example, Liebner said his grip and strap system is the only one on the market that doesn’t chafe a skier’s hands and gloves. It’s also more comfortable, warmer, and more powerful — and costs less than the big-name brands.

“The challenge is to get people to understand that,” Liebner said.

Liebner is no longer actively marketing and selling his products in Alaska, opting to focus on the larger Lower 48 market instead. In Alaska, his gear is only available at Beemuns Variety shop in Soldotna.

Liebner is targeting recreational skiers instead of elite racers because he lacks the capital to sponsor professionals (though the national team of Iceland has used his poles for the past three years).

Despite the challenges, Liebner is proud to have created a company from scratch that now employs five people and uses raw materials from 30 companies throughout the U.S.

Anchorage’s Rob Whitney, a former elite skier who remains active in the sport, was impressed after trying out a pair of USSPC poles.

“They are solid poles. I like his interchangeable pieces: grips, straps, baskets. He’s a creative guy,” Whitney said. “He’s fighting an uphill battle competing with the Chinese factories. … I gotta give Andy credit. He’s all-in and going for it.”

– By Matias Saari, Alaska Sports Blog Contributor