Matt Whitcomb was once a great Nordic skier at Wahconah in the 1990s. Now, the former Warrior is on the big stage in Sochi, Russia.

Whitcomb, who grew up in Worthington, is the coach of the United States women’s Nordic ski team. He joins former Wahconah swimmer Eric McIlquham as current or former Olympic coaches. McIlquham was the head coach of the Egyptian swim team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The fact that Whitcomb, who also graduated from Middlebury in 2001, has made a rapid ascent up the Nordic ladder is not a surprise to his last high school coach.

"He’s a leader by nature," said Art Sanders, whose first year as head coach at Wahconah was Whitcomb’s senior season. "When I started coaching, with skiers you have some kids who can barely ski at all. I pretty much concentrated on them.

"[The veteran racers] pretty much did what he was doing."

Sanders knows much about top-level racing. Sanders was a two-time state champion at Wahconah and then competed at the University of New Hampshire. There he was a teammate of Lenox’s Pat Weaver, himself a former Olympic athlete.

"Coaching at that level is pretty extraordinary," said Sanders. "It’s not that he’s just the coach of the Olympic team. He’s got one of the best teams there, and it’s an American team."

As a senior at Wahconah in 1996, Whitcomb beat Nik Kennedy Jr. for the state cross country ski title. His sister Kate, who also skied at Middlebury, was also a state champion. From there, Matt Whitcomb went to Stratton Mountain Academy in Vermont and then to Middlebury, where he raced for former head coach Terry Aldrich.

"I was [at Middlebury] for 31 years. He was one of the best captains I ever had," Aldrich said. "He did all the special, little things that was a help to a coaching staff.

"It was almost like having [another] assistant coach on the team."

After graduating from Middlebury in 2001 with a degree in biology, Whitcomb coached a year with Glacier Nordic in Whitefish, Mont., before becoming the Nordic head coach at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont for four years.

He was hired by the U.S. Ski Team as a development-level coach in 2006. Two years ago, Whitcomb was elevated to head coach of the U.S. women’s team.

In two years, Whitcomb has the American women on the verge of making history. Two of his racers, Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins, won a gold medal in the World Cup team sprint at Val di Flemme, Italy, on Jan. 24.

Randall and Diggins are part of a team that will be trying to win a medal for the first time since 1976, when Bill Koch won a silver medal in the men’s 30-kilometer race at the Innsbruck Olympics.

"He’s done a hell of a job. The U.S. women were nowhere until he came on the staff," said Williams Nordic coach Bud Fisher. "He has done a tremendous job. Going into these Olympics, the women are the story in cross country skiing."

Fisher has been coaching Nordic skiing at Williams since 1974, but has coached internationally. He was an assistant on the U.S. team in 1979 and served as an assistant on the U.S. Olympic team that competed in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Four of the seven women on Whitcomb’s team are in their first Olympics. Randall is a real Olympic veteran. Her first games were at Salt Lake City in 2002, where she finished 44th in the inaugural Olympic individual sprint. She was ninth in the sprint at the 2006 games in Torino, Italy, and was part of a team that finished sixth in the team sprint in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

"We have a unique opportunity to make history in Sochi," U.S. head coach Chris Grover said in a statement. "Our team speaks to years of dedication, experience and hard work with veterans setting the stage to turn that work into great results."

There will be no debate from anyone in this part of New England who knows Matt Whitcomb.

"I know a significant number of the women on the team," said Aldrich, the former Middlebury coach. "They absolutely, positively love what he’s doing as a coach.

"He’s got that women’s team absolutely flying right now."

To reach Howard Herman:
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