Group encourages girls to take up lifelong sports

MIDDLEBURY — Abby Weissman admits she wasn’t an extraordinary athlete while growing up. She didn’t win any athletic scholarships and spent most of her running races in the middle of the pack. But she did have something else going for her, a series of coaches throughout high school and college that taught her to love athletic pursuits. Thanks to the coaches she had, Weissman is still participating in sports like running and cross-country skiing.
“I have benefitted so much from having endurance sports in my life,” she said. “They are one of the best things that I do for myself on a daily basis.”
Today, as the executive director of Fast and Female USA, Weissman hopes to get more girls out on cross-country skis and keep them skiing and competing for the rest of their lives.
Fast and Female was established in 2006 by Canadian Olympic gold medal Nordic skier Chandra Crawford. Weissman was first exposed to Fast and Female five years ago while working for the New England Nordic Skiing Association (NENSA), where she helped manage youth programming and events.
In July 2014, Fast and Female USA received official status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and became separate from its Canadian counterpart. Weissman left NENSA this past October and has worked for Fast and Female since as the part-time executive director in the United States. She also works for the Ripton public relations and marketing firm Press Forward and at Middlebury College’s Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton.
As U.S. executive director, Weissman manages the organization from her office at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET) on Court Square in Middlebury. There, she manages many of the tasks associated with organizing a series of events months in advance. One day in early May found her renting a storage unit, working out insurance options and delivering T-shirts all before lunch.
“I do a hundred things and try and keep my head on straight,” she said.
Working with a diverse group of entrepreneurs, she said, has helped her solve problems and think creatively.
“My background is in nonprofits and event planning,” she said.
The organization holds a series of experiential programs for girls ages nine to 19 including clinics and summits that combine a physical activity like cross-country skiing and motivational speakers. For the speakers, it draws from a pool of more than 40 professional female athletes or “ambassadors.” The group includes native Vermonters like cross-country skiers Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent and Hannah Dreissigacker.
“What makes our organization special is we connect girls with their heroes,” she said. “They get to hang out with these Olympians and have some real, direct contact.”
The group also offers expert seminars for parents and coaches to discuss important topics related to girls and sportsincluding diet, sportsmanship, managing stress, body image and balancing school and work. The organization’s website features a list of resources on coaching, nutrition, parenting, physiology, psychology and sociology for parents and coaches to consult. 
“All of these things are questions that parents want answered and there isn’t necessarily a forum to ask those questions or to have presentations on those topics,” she said.
Weissman said the real heart of the organization is the experiences on skis that it provides to girls.
“The amazing thing about cross-country skiing is that anybody can do it,” she said. “Cross-country skiing doesn’t have to be done at a ski center, you don’t have to have any fancy equipment and you don’t have to wear spandex. You can get a pair of skis from a ski swap and go out exploring in your backyard.”  
Girls drop out of sports at a rate six times that of boys — a rate that Weissman says needs to be curbed.
“We want them to be leaders,” she said. “We want to give girls the skills to lead and for them to bring that back to their community.”
This summer and fall, Fast and Female USA hopes to finalize plans to hold events in Anchorage, Alaska; Park City, Utah, and Vermont.
Since July, Fast and Female USA has held eight events around the United States at locations including Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., and at Stratton Mountain Resort in Stratton, Vt. The events have attracted 683 athlete participants, 189 ambassadors and volunteers and 67 participants in the parent seminars.
The event has its success stories. Some girls have gone what she describes as “full circle,” starting as a participant at the clinics or summits and eventually becoming ambassadors.
“That’s something that really makes me feel warm inside my heart,” Weissman said. 
 Abby Weissman

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