In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

January 16, 2020

Family’s Birkie Fever Leads to Royal Position in Legendary Ski Race

By In the Loop

Mayo Clinic lab tech Tasha Pinckney, along with her dad and husband, will participate in this year's American Birkebeiner as "Berkie Royalty" during the largest cross country ski race in North America. 

When David Kettula learned his daughter, Tasha Pinckney, was expecting her first child last year, he promised to be there when the baby arrived. Unless the arrival coincided with the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross country ski race in North America. Which it did. So after skiing the 55K race — his 29th consecutive "Birkie" — Kettula embarked on another marathon: a 180-mile drive through a raging snowstorm to Rochester, Minnesota, where Caelen Pinckney had just entered the world.

Tasha understood her father's absence. He had, she knew, a chronic case of Birkie fever. She has it as well. "I've skied since I was 3," Tasha, a lab tech at Mayo Clinic, tells us. And nearly every year since, she's joined her father at the Hayward, Wisconsin, event. When she was younger, Tasha participated in shorter races held the same weekend. She's skied the full race nine times and has no plans to stop. "I love doing the Birkie, even though it's hard," she says. "I always come back."

In February, Tasha and David will once again be covering the course together, accompanied by Tasha's husband, Vergil Pinckney. And this time they'll be covering it in style —Nordic style circa 1206, that is. The Pinckney-Kettula clan was selected as this year's "Berkie Royalty," which means they'll don costumes and cover the course on wooden skis as a way to bring the history of the race to life.

"Each year, the Birkie selects a trio of skiers to portray Birkebeiner warriors, Torstein and Skjervald, and Inga, mother of Prince Haakon," reports. "The three characters played a pivotal role in Norwegian history when in 1206, amid civil war, the two Birkebeiner warriors skied through the mountains and rugged forests of Norway smuggling Prince Haakon, the Norwegian king's son, to safety, the very legacy of the Birkie race."

"There is not one day the Birkie is not on my mind," David wrote in the trio's application for their roles. "This will be my 30th Birkie and I still cannot sleep the night before." Tasha shares her father's pre-race jitters, especially this year. "I'm a little more nervous than usual," she admits. That's because the wooden skis they'll be using on race day are heavier and longer than newer models. And though Tasha, who sewed the group's costumes, "loves dressing up," skiing in a dress will be another new experience. "It should be interesting," she says with a laugh.

And meaningful as well. "I'm really looking forward to doing this with my dad," Tasha tells us. "It will be a cool experience to do together."

Caelen may feel similarly someday. He'll get his first exposure to Birke fever on race day, when he takes on the role of Prince Haakon. Tasha will carry a doll representing the prince for most of the race, then pick Caelen up near the end of the course. He'll cross the finish line in his mother's arms. "It will be his birthday," Tasha says. "I think it means he'll be a skier." (We'd say he was born for it.)

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Tags: American Birkebeiner, Employee Stories, Health and Wellness, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Tasha Pinckney

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