John Kotar, born and raised in Slovenia, former Yugoslavia, has been part of the Birkie lifestyle from the start. Now serving on the ABSF Board of Directors, John says comparing the ’73 Birkie with present-day races is like discussing two different centuries due to better trail grooming, better equipment and clothing, and better race organization.
When John, a retired University of Wisconsin forestry professor, immigrated to Milwaukee as a 17-year-old, his biggest disappointment was the lack of mountains or even hills. He missed skiing more than anything else. Yet his education and career in forestry would be just the ticket to the outdoors and snowy terrain he so loved.
After a stint in Seattle, he returned to the Midwest in 1972, just as cross country skiing was beginning to boom. He was among the 34 men and one woman lining up at the start of the first American Birkebeiner in 1973, a race that was barely publicized, a race that provided new opportunity for citizen skiers, a race that captured John’s heart.
“I came from Duluth that morning in 1973 and didn’t even know where the start of the race was,” he says. “I asked at the desk at Telemark, and they didn’t know much about it. One bus carried all the skiers to Historyland in Hayward. I paid $6, waxed my skis on the ice, and within 20 minutes we were off.”
“When you look back on it and see over 40 years, it is pretty incredible. It’s not something that could be planned. The first year we were so excited about it because there were no such races around. It really felt like an accomplishment; there was nothing like it. When we found out the race was going to be held again, we instantly signed up. Now it is a given that I will be at the Birkie every year. Things don’t get easier, but it is such a tradition. I will keep coming back as long as the body will let me.”
In 1992 John, along with the Birkie Founders, created the Birchleggings Club to recognize those who have skied 20 or more Birkebeiners. Today, over 1000 Birchleggers are part of the elite club. You’ll recognize them on race day by their purple Birchleggings bibs.
As a board member, John focuses his attention on the Birkie trail and was delighted with the recent Classic Trail expansion and plans for future expansion.
“This new trail shows our commitment to classical skiers,” he said. “There are many out there who feel left out because the freestyle race does not suit them. I think this new trail will go a long way to bringing in some of those skiers who have never taken up skating but would otherwise partake in the race. I also believe we have the potential for bringing skiers from Norway as well as other European skiers, and I think that will be a good thing for the race.”
In his free time you’ll find John in the forest, enjoying the company of wife, Nina, and daughter, Katerina, or convincing others to register for the greatest show on snow.