BY MICHAEL KELLY
BENSON — The cheers for Yanisa Nuanhnuplong started well before she crossed the finish line.
“Way to go, Yani,” her Shenendehowa Nordic ski teammates shouted as she neared the end of her race at the Jan. 27 Mayfield Invitational.
Nuanhnuplong did not smile at the sound of the cheers. Her focused gaze remained straight ahead. As she skated forward, a dark green headband kept her jet-black hair away from her face, which sported a fresh scrape on its right side from a fall at the previous day’s practice. A few strides later, she crossed the finish line, found a teammate to high-five, and threw on her school ski jacket.
The senior’s finish? Eighth place in the day’s beginners’ race, a step below the junior varsity competition and two below the varsity one at the Lapland Lake Ski Center.
All in all, though, not too bad for a girl who just learned a couple months ago that cross-country skiing existed, and who saw snow for the first time this winter.
“You never find snow in Thailand,” said Nuanhnuplong, an 18-year-old exchange student from Bangkok, where temperatures rarely drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. “No way.”
Nuanhnuplong, whose native language is Thai, arrived in the United States in August and immediately got to work fitting into her new surroundings. She hit up football games this past fall and joined after-school clubs. Cheeseburgers from Five Guys have become a new favorite meal. Her down time at night gives her time to answer the text messages that buzz into her cellphone as she watches Netflix.
She’s loved all of it.
“Back home, I’d only study and never do activities after school,” said Nuanhnuplong, who lives with host parents Mark Steele and Dorothy Stuart in Clifton Park. “This has been totally different for me.”
Nuanhnuplong will head back to Thailand to finish her pre-college schooling after she walks with this year’s graduating class in June. Until then, though, she is a Shenendehowa student — which means it did not take her long to get the urge to become a Shenendehowa student-athlete.
Steele knew Nuanhnuplong had never before played an organized sport, but her decision to try one out was not a stunner. That she wanted to try out Nordic skiing, well, that threw Steele and his wife for a loop.
“What we struggled with was that there was no sport she could have been exposed to in Thailand that would be anything like this,” Steele said. “There’s no other sport where you go run with five-foot-long pieces of wood attached to your feet.”
Growing up, Nuanhnuplong had seen news clips and pictures of people skiing, but always the downhill variety. She had never heard of cross-country skiing until one of her first Shenendehowa friends brought the sport up in conversation.
“I talk about skiing a lot,” said a laughing Shenendehowa sophomore Anna Wiedmann, who finished in second place Jan. 27 to Mayfield’s Emily Cromie.
Nuanhnuplong met Wiedmann early in the school year — they are in chorus together — and the girls bonded over their foreign roots. While Nuanhnuplong had just come to the United States, Wiedmann had started at Shenendehowa just a few years earlier after growing up in France.
Encouragement from friends like Wiedmann helped convince Nuanhnuplong to give skiing a shot this winter.
“She told me it would be fun — once I knew how,” Nuanhnuplong said.
That took a while. The first time Nuanhnuplong practiced with roller skis, her best skill was staying still.
“I could stand on them, but I didn’t know how to move on them,” she said.
Head coach John Salls — whose squad is loaded with first-time skiers this winter — said her effort to learn has helped galvanize her team throughout the season.
“Anything I point out to her, she immediately tries to do it, to make it right,” Salls said. “I think her teammates really appreciate that she’s trying something so unbelievably unique for someone who had never even seen snow before.
“She’s made tremendous progress,” Salls added. “To go from being someone who legitimately had difficulty moving on roller skis to … being able to now finish long races is incredible.”
Before finishing her races, Nuanhnuplong tends to take a spill or two — or five — out on the course. Those falls, she said, have never made her want to give up her new sport.
“She leads Section II in faceplants, and it’s not very close,” said Steele, laughing. “But she’s also leading the league in getting back up. … To her credit, she gets up faster than any other kid.”
At one race earlier this season, one of her skis broke while she was competing. She shouted to her coach what had happened, and Salls ran a replacement out to her. A few minutes later, her new ski secured onto her foot, Nuanhnuplong took off like nothing had happened.
“She didn’t come in last, either,” Salls said.
This upcoming spring, Nuanhnuplong is again likely to take on a new adventure. She’s expressed an interest in both rowing and running track, sports where the thing she likes best about skiing — going fast — is also the goal.
“That’s a great feeling,” she said.