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Korby's connections: Cloquet twins were skiing kings

When Cloquet High School was racking up Minnesota state ski titles, the Quinn brothers were key to the early wins. Identical twins Dave and Don Quinn graduated in 1966. They, and their coaches, Joe Nowak, Mike Marciniak and John Luomala, were part of a very successful Lumberjacks program.

But this column is less about their impressive high school achievements than what Dave and Don went on to accomplish, including a one-two finish in the second American Birkebeiner race in 1974.

Held in Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin, the Birkie is one of the world's elite cross country skiing events, and will celebrate, weather and snow permitting, its 50th anniversary on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 24-25. Due to the lack of snow and cold, this year's race will be 30K instead of 50K on a lapped course.

Don Quinn - now in his mid-70s - is coming back from Colorado to commemorate the date by skiing in this year's event. Dave died after a bout with cancer, on Christmas Day in 1977, at age 29.

The Cloquet twins made a positive impact on many.

Peter Graves, a noted "Nordic World" and national sports columnist, wrote in 1979:

"David Quinn is gone. His 29 years on this earth were all too short. However, the important thing was that he lived, he was among us. The important thing was how this person touched the lives of all who knew him. I was fortunate to know Dave Quinn. Others certainly knew him better than I, but for what I learned from him, and for the inspiration his life was for me and countless others, I can only say, 'Thanks, Dave. You will never be forgotten.'"

Dave Quinn won the Minnesota state individual high school cross country skiing title in 1966. With the still fairly new top-notch Pine Valley ski area, Cloquet had a distinct advantage over its other state competitors.

From 1965 to 1976, Cloquet won an incredible 11 of 12 state skiing team championships, based on total points scored by individuals in the jumping, cross country and downhill events.

Coach Nowak was a great ski jumper himself - once one of the 10 best in the country - and an inspirational science teacher who was asked, but declined, to be an Olympic coach. Coach Marciniak was an alternate on the 1960 U.S. Olympic ski team and later coached with the U.S. ski team. Coach Luomala was the downhill ski expert, and has outlived them both.

Dave and Don Quinn continued their passion for skiing as Mountaineers at Western State College, now Western Colorado University, in Gunnison, Colorado. The small school in the heart of the Rocky Mountains boasts a long and successful skiing history, including several NCAA Division II National championships. Dave was a four-year skiing letter winner and an All American in 1968 and 1969. The Quinns were attracted to this tremendous skiing and training area, and it became their new home a long way from Cloquet. Former Olympic coach Sven Wiik was the Western State College ski coach, as well as a mentor and friend.

After college, the twins continued their cross country ski training, and both began their high school teaching and ski coaching careers. They were both very highly regarded coaches. They trained in the summers in Vermont and other mountainous areas, biking and running, always planning for potential Olympic or World Cup team selection.

Dave had a serious bicycle accident and hospital stay, and subsequent medical tests revealed a cancerous tumor on his back. He immediately underwent chemotherapy, and was in remission for a period of time, but the cancer came back with a vengeance. He died at home in Cloquet.

Skiing blood

A few years ahead of me at CHS, I never knew the Quinn brothers. I wish I had had the chance to be their friend.

In interviewing Dave, their sister Darlene, and CHS skiers and classmates Brent Smith and Mark Rosen, and Lonnie Huard, I heard lots of stories about growing up in the early days of Pine Valley and Cloquet skiing, and how the sport still reverberates in their bones.

Don Quinn coached high school cross country skiing in his hometown of Leadville, Colorado (110 miles west of Denver) for over 30 years. At Leadville, he coached five Colorado state boys and four girls state championship skiing teams. He also coached many individual high school and junior championship competitors. He retired in 2006, but likes to stay in shape and "be competitive" in his age group in the ski races he still enters. As noted above, he's coming back to race this weekend.

Curious, I asked Don about lessons learned way back from coaches Nowak and Marciniak.

"Show up for practice, stay focused and disciplined, and encourage teammates," he said.

Nowak was a true outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing, and teaching biology and science. He once told me, "You have to be a good teacher before you can be a good coach."

Cloquet skiers, getting rides from their coaches, would spend their middle and high school Christmas breaks and vacations in upper Michigan at the dorms at Michigan Technological University, where there was always plenty of snow and expert instruction.

"We had a lot of team camaraderie and great coaches. Lots of fun memories," Don shared.

Don's individual skiing and running resume is also quite impressive. He has skied and has friends all over the world. He has competed in Sweden in the Vasaloppet, which in 2024 had nearly 16,000 participants. Don's been in 10 world loppets, including the Norwegian Birkebeiner. His time in Sweden was 6 hours and 54 minutes for a course that is 90 kilometers, 54 miles long.

"I came to appreciate the Scandinavian lifestyle, including a lifetime of fitness and wellness," Don said. "We, as Americans, seek instant gratification, including fast food and not time dedicated to health. It only takes about a half hour a day to walk and reduce stress and clear your mind."

He was an impressive marathon runner as well, once finishing 14th in the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Hurley, Wisconsin, with a time of 2 hours, 39 minutes.

Cloquet's renowned sports historian, Lonnie Huard, was one of the first members of the Cloquet Ski Club. He told me he helped the Quinns learn to ski when they were little kids. There was a steep hill behind their home, west of the present day B&B Market.

"Their dad, Jack, was quite a character. He'd gather up skis from the neighborhood and cut them down in size, and even in half, to make crude cross country skis for his kids," Huard said. "There were five Quinns. They had binders made from car tire inner tubes. They were devoted to the sport."

Huard shared that there were a lot of behind-the-scenes individuals who made the Pine Valley ski area successful, including Ed Jankowski, the chief forester at Northwest Paper, predecessor of Potlatch and Sappi. Along with Nowak, he was instrumental in getting the land donated for the Pine Valley recreation area. His daughter, Patrice, a high school state champion, competed for the U.S. in the biathlon in the 1992 Winter Olympics in France.

Mark Rosen was a year younger than the Quinn twins.

"All the neighbor kids skied together on the hills behind Leach School before Pine Valley opened in 1961," Rosen said. "It's where the high school team practiced. The cross country trail went over to Holes 3, 5, and 6 on the Cloquet golf club. It seemed like all families had three to five kids. The Quinns, Smith, Schilling, Sobczak, Nelson, Rosen, Putnam ... and all of them skied."

Getting ready for skiing could be labor-intensive.

"There was lots of year-round work cutting and clearing cross country trails through the pines," Rosen said. "We had to haul snow in gunny sacks to put it on the ski jump and landing areas. But, it always was done under Joe's leadership and with a smile on our faces."

The 50th anniversary of the American Birkebeiner is being held in Wisconsin this weekend. Good luck to Don and Darlene Quinn, who plan to be there and race along with super athlete Brent Smith.

Here's a final "Quinnism" from Don, who has lost two brothers and has faced extreme physical hardship and the demands of ski racing around the world: "Anyone can handle a good day ... it's what you do on a hard day that's special."

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. Contact him at [email protected].


American Birkebeiner

Thanks to a mostly springlike winter, the 50th annual American Birkebeiner has been changed to a lapped course this weekend. While lack of snow on the traditional Cable-to-Hayward course necessitated the change, organizers say the race format will enhance the spectator experience by allowing them to see athletes multiple times throughout the race. Skate skiers race on Saturday, while classic skiers take to the course on Sunday.

One of the highlights of this year’s Birkie is the participation of World Cup athletes, including Minnesota’s own Jessie Diggins, the first American to win a cross-country skiing gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Organizers have also changed race distances. The American Birkebeiner, traditionally a 50K race, will now be a 30K event. On Friday morning, the 29K Kortelopet will be shortened to 20 kilometers, and the 15K Prince Haakon will be shortened to a 10K course.

Visit http://www.birkie.com for more information.

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