Many of the best cross-country skiers in Michigan will line up in Traverse City this weekend for the 43rd annual North American Vasa ski races.
One of those skiers is local resident Anders Gillis, who won the 34-kilometer classic race last year.
Anders was not always in shape for a ski marathon. After a personal tragedy, the lifelong athlete fell into depression and put on significant weight.
‘Skiing was almost in my DNA’
Anders Gillis is tall.
He’s 6-foot-4, and when he lined up his skis at last year’s Vasa race, he was wearing orange-tinted glasses. They were to protect his eyes from thrashing ski poles.
“I had a few guys go out in front of me, and I kind of just sat back for a little bit and let them break trail for me because there was snow,” says Anders. “That’s the wonderful thing about skiing. Sometimes it’s really about strategy.”
Anders says you have to know when to hold back in a race and when to go hard - and 21 miles is a long way to go.
He learned this tactic as a kid skiing in Alaska. That’s where he grew up and where he met his wife Amanda. She was his high school sweetheart.
Amanda says Anders was always a star.
“He was really tall and very fit and he was kind of like the star of the cross-country running team and the ski team and the track team,” Amanda says. “He was a stud.”
Anders went on to ski at the University of Alaska and Northern Michigan University.
“Skiing was almost in my DNA growing up,” Anders says. “I’ve been skiing since I can remember walking really.
One winter, he jumped at the opportunity to live in Sweden where he holds dual citizenship. His mother is from there.
"I got to hang around with my 80-year-old grandma and go ski around northern Sweden a little bit with her, which was just a really cool experience," says Anders.
A family tragedy
After law school, Anders and Amanda moved their three daughters to Traverse City. They love it here, especially being able to ski out their back door.
Life was great for a couple of years, but then they experienced tragedy.
"In 2015, I had a daughter that was born very, very prematurely, and she spent ten months in the hospital before dying on December 3, 2015," Anders says.
That was ten challenging months of juggling work, family and hospital visits to his infant daughter Elin.
Anders says he had a strong support system, but things were still tough.
“I got into just a terrible spot there mentally and emotionally,” Anders says. “In hindsight I really should have gone in for counseling or gotten some sort of medication, but I didn’t."
In the midst of depression and grief, Anders gained 50 lbs. At 6-foot-4, he hid it well but he didn’t feel well.
“After my daughter passed away, I was just kind of realizing I needed to reset myself a little bit and recalibrate my entire life,” says Anders.
Therapy on the trail
His wife Amanda encouraged him to get outside to ski. She knew it would be good for his soul.
“To get out in the woods where you’re all alone in the winter is just a magical thing and can be very therapeutic,” says Amanda.
Anders says part of his therapy was going out on the trail and hanging with friends. He was skiing a lot, sometimes late at night.
“I was doing a lot of two hour, even three hour skis, and you start skiing that much, you’re going to lose weight,” says Anders.
Success at 2018 Vasa
Anders lost 50 pounds and got in great shape for last year’s Vasa race.
Amanda says he discovered a freedom to be able to do what he loved again.
During that race, Anders got off to a good start. He was in the front pack, but still behind a few skiers. About three quarters of the way through the race, he took the lead.
When he came into the home stretch, Amanda and his daughters were waiting for him.
“It was pretty exciting to see him come around the corner,” Amanda says. “There he was. And it was pretty clear he was going to finish first. It was a nice moment.”
As for this year’s race, Anders says just getting across the finish line feels like a good goal.
“For me, cross-country skiing, being able to smoothly glide through the trees and enjoy nature, how can you beat that?” says Anders.
But Anders says if he’s really being honest with himself finishing in the top five would make him happy.