He only ski races in winter, but in every other season of the year, Milan Baic is maxing out his physiology on the local landscape to prep. The international masters medalist shares Northern Michigan training secrets.

This story is featured in the May 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

“There are three things you need to remember.”

Milan Baic stops in front of the locker room doors to say these words to me. We’ll see each other shortly, when we join a 90-minute hot yoga class, but he’s about to enter his zone, I realize, and there are just a few moments to impart wisdom about the push-to-the-mental-edge exercise about to begin within these muggy walls.

“First, keep your eyes open at all times. You may want to close them, but don’t. Secondly, sit down if you need to, if you’re feeling light-headed. And finally, don’t leave the room if at all possible. Try to stay in the class.”

He flashes a smile, his blue-gray eyes encouraging—you’re going to do great, this is gonna be good—then tells me he’ll see me in a minute and then slips behind the door.

His words stick with me. Yes, I remembered similar statements shared by the instructor of the one other experience I’d had with hot yoga a few years prior, but somehow hearing them from Baic sounds different. Maybe it’s the seasoned coach in him, that authoritative and encouraging voice that comes at just the right time. Or it’s that this über-accomplished athlete—regionally, nationally and internationally—just has that way about him. He’s one of those people you can’t help but listen to intently. You want to know what he’s got, what keeps the 53-year-old going after a lifetime of training … you want a little of that to rub off on you.

“It’s such a big part of my overall regimen,” Baic says of the few times a week he spends at Bikram Yoga on Garfield Avenue in Traverse City. “It’s been a life-changer for me.”

We’re re-fueling after class (I survived, he nailed it) at one of his favorite post-workout spots: Qdoba Mexican Grill on South Airport Road. He’s ordered burrito gumbo, with lots of beans, hot sauce and rice. To drink, a lemonade/Gatorade mix—he’ll down four 16-ounce cups, three while eating and one to go.

He doesn’t do hot yoga every day of the week, as some devotees swear by, and he’ll scale back if training or races are taking priority. But he’s absolutely committed to the practice, which he took up more than six years ago, because it has so improved his strength, balance and flexibility—the hallmarks of speed, he says.

“That was one of the main reasons I started yoga—I didn’t want the aging process to stop me from having speed,” he says, adding that within two weeks of starting, he became a believer in how twisting and stretching and sweating—it’s over 100 degrees in that room—can transform the body.

“I felt younger,” he says. “I’m not saying hot yoga is for everyone, because it’s not. When I first did this, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I don’t love yoga. I love what it does for me. I love how I feel afterward. I don’t drink coffee, but I imagine it being like that … I need this. I don’t foresee stopping that. It’s very individualistic. It’s not about becoming a great yoga person. It’s about well-being.”

Staying physically fit has always been important to Baic, who stands at 5’ 7” and weighs “between 145 and 148.” When he crossed the 50s threshold he entered the category of masters–level athlete, though his performances keeping up with athletes in their 20s and 30s is evidence of his impressive abilities.

“In terms of fitness, he is pretty remarkable, to say the least,” says longtime friend Eric Okerstrom.

Okerstrom, who grew up a block away from Baic in Traverse City’s Central neighborhood and remembers his friend being good at all different kinds of sports, tells the story of skiing not long ago with Baic and a group of high schoolers and how the younger skiers commented on Baic’s fitness.

“They were saying, ‘He is ripped!’” Okerstrom recalls, laughing at the memory. People admire Baic for his dedication as much as for his high fitness level, Okerstrom adds. “He is so committed to his sport … he just knows he really likes to ski, and he and [his wife] Carrie have figured out a lifestyle that allows that. He is living life, and I think that’s something that a lot of people say is really great. He is living the dream. A lot of people live vicariously through Milan.”

Year round, Baic maintains his fitness: biking, roller-skiing, cross-country skiing and running whenever he can, including “bounding” up seriously steep hills, like the dry slopes of Mt. Holiday, throughout the fall weeks leading up to ski season. Then there are his numerous races, local ones like the Vasa trail-running race each fall and annual cross-country ski events like the North American Vasa and the White Pine Stampede, and on the international level, the Masters World Championships in cross-country skiing held in Europe in late winter.

Of all his athletic pursuits, skiing definitely is his favorite. It’s also the first sport he tried as a child; he was three years old when his parents, Vojin and Pat Baic, introduced their toddler to sliding across snow on wooden skis.

“Skiing, it’s magic. For me, there’s nothing like it,” says Baic, who skied throughout his childhood and began competing at age 12. As a teenager, he was among the 50 top skiers in the United States.

All these years later, he’s an 11-time winner of the 40K White Pine Stampede, at Shanty Creek Resort (he came in second place this year), and has won the North American Vasa numerous times (he placed second in the 27K freestyle this February). In the Masters World Championships, Baic has won multiple silver and bronze medals; events include the 30K skate, 10K classic and 4X5 relay, and the 45K skate.

“His love and his passion are just so apparent,” says daughter Erica O’Hearn, 29, a skier herself whose husband, John, a hockey player–turned–skier—is Baic’s year-round training partner. “That’s what is so fun, when you see him in a ski race, and you see him go by—he has a smile on his face. He just loves it so much. He’s like a little kid out there.”

Baic, who grew up the second oldest of five children on Traverse City’s Sixth Street, describes a childhood filled with lots of time spent outdoors, playing ball, biking, running through neighborhood yards and streets with friends.

Okerstrom recalls the friends learning to ski together on wooden skis, using bamboo poles. “Nobody skate skied, it was all classic ski. We used to have to make our own tracks—there were no groomed tracks—in Hickory, and round and round in circles on the state hospital grounds,” Okerstrom says. “We’d do things like go skiing from Mt. Holiday to Ranch Rudolph, on any skis we could find, with my dad, Milan’s dad, Milan’s sister Ivanka, then eat a chicken dinner at Ranch Rudolph on a Sunday night.”

Those ski adventures during their junior high years contributed to the North American Vasa Race taking shape. Indeed, it was Baic’s father Vojin—a former Yugoslav Olympic skier, local ski coach and retired parks director for Traverse City— and Okerstrom’s dad, Swedish-American hotelier Ted Okerstrom, who founded the Vasa race nearly 40 years ago.

“Most everybody in the area who skis, maybe a couple few people removed, have some sort of connection to my dad. That’s just the way it is,” says Baic, who worked as a city parks department youth counselor at Hickory Hills day camp during summers and would later coach high school cross-country skiers himself.

“Years ago, he pretty much introduced skiing to this area and a good part of Michigan.”

Vojin Baic, who brought his family to Traverse City from Grand Rapids in 1966, coached young skiers in the community while also introducing his children to the sport that was popular in parts of the Midwest but not yet so in Michigan.

“They went to school at Central [Grade School] and all our children had skis,” he says. “In the wintertime, they would walk back home, and sometimes we had the skis on the porch and they would go skiing. I never pushed them … my experience is if you do that too hard, they lose fire. I was just letting them ski whenever they wanted and giving them just a little lesson here and there.”

The approach worked. By age 14 or so, Baic, older sister Ivanka and younger brother Nickola skied well enough to attend the junior championships in Minnesota. There was talk of scholarships, to have the children train far from home six days a week, attend school away as well. Such a regimen seemed too intense, however, Vojin decided.

“I looked at the kids, these young kids, and I says, ‘Thank you, but no thanks,’” he recalls.

He wanted his children instead to focus on their studies, to complete college, and they all did. Baic went to Michigan Tech University, where he was an All-American Nordic skier for the Huskies from 1977 to 1981. A four-year letter winner, he was the 15K national champion in 1981, and also anchored the team’s 3×5-kilometer relay team that won the 1981 national title.

Baic, who works as an independent office furniture installer, balances a busy work schedule with his training. “It’s like anything else, you have to make a plan for it and you have to make it a priority,” he says.

“I don’t think people realize how hard he works,” Erica says. “It takes a lot of time and keeping track of his training log … he has a natural ability, but it’s so much more than that.”

Given that wife Carrie, daughter Erica and son-in-law John all are active, accomplished athletes themselves, Baic has ample time to connect with those most important to him while maintaining his athletic pursuits.

“I get to see him so often,” says Erica, whose 15-month-old-son Traverse often accompanies the family on workouts (during a fall “bounding” workout at Mt. Holiday, the adults took turns climbing the hills with Traverse strapped to their backs). “I see him a few times a week for a bike ride or a run … he’ll call and say, ‘What are you doing for your workout tomorrow?’ It’s special.”

Erica didn’t realize just how different her family was until junior high. (The Baics raised two children, Erica and brother Christopher, who passed away in 2001 at age 21.)

“Growing up, I thought that was what everyone did—every weekend we’d get up and go to a ski race or a running race,” she recalls. “He is just amazing. I feel so fortunate to be able to grow up and still have my dad be such an active and healthy person. He is an inspiration to me, my family and so many people in the community. He’s just the best person I know.”

What sets him apart from so many other athletes, says friend Okerstrom, is his ability to achieve laser-like focus when need be—at the starting line of a race, for example—coupled with a desire to be more than just his sport. “He’s not a fanatic. There are some people who get into skiing or whatever, and they’re kind of crazy about it. But he is not. He is level-headed the way he goes about it,” he says. “If something more important comes up, he goes and does that. Milan is incredibly well read. He’s not a one-dimensional person. He’s about as good a friend as you could ever have … He’s just got the totally right perspective.”

Baic’s year-round outdoor exercise regimen undoubtedly would continue no matter where he lived, but Northern Michigan’s natural beauty is the proverbial icing on the cake for this athlete. It’s as if he squeezes every last ounce of opportunity out of each season, taking to the tree-lined roads, dirt trails, rolling hills whenever he can—and then optimizing each setting. During a summer trail run on the Vasa, the six miles we run together are punctuated with triceps dips at each bench we come upon (there are 12 benches on the 11K loop. He completes 40 dips at each bench, I muster about 20, at most).

After our run—and after all of Baic’s trail runs—he’s on the ground knocking out 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups. Who needs gym exercise equipment? There are plenty of workout opportunities all around us, outside. Another meet-up finds us running up the slopes of Mt. Holiday on a wet, bone-chilling afternoon this past fall. “We’ll see how many people show up with this weather,” Baic says as we stand at the bottom of the hill. “Some people don’t like to come when it’s like this outside, but I see it as a character-building thing.”

What Baic looks forward to most, what he trains so hard for year-round, are the World Championships held in Europe each winter. It’s been a mid-winter tradition since 2004. “It’s addicting. It’s the highest level of racing I can participate in,” he says. “It drives me. It keeps me hungry, keeps me going.”

In 2009, he battled an overwhelming case of the flu while racing at the world championships: “It was awful.”

In 2011, he was 14 seconds from being a world champion.

In 2012, he was coming off two surgeries, and this year, he’s struggled with pain in his right knee that sidelined his usual level of running throughout late summer and fall. It left an impact on his training … and yet, the challenges are what they are. They’re there, but they’re not stopping him from moving forward.

“What do I need to overcome?” he says. “As I age, it’s more physical issues.” This year, while competing at the World Championships, Baic came down with a cold. Not as bad as ’09, at least, he says.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Baic says of his health and ability to stay competitive. “I’m still trying to tax and challenge myself best I can. I’m just riding the wave. I’m just trying to do this as long as I can.”

He’s seen some of his same-age competitors having to step away from their sports, because of age, health, finances.

“That, to me, is really sad. It’s become more emotional to me,” he says. “This is a privilege. Something you can’t possibly take for granted. It’s too precious. When I can look around and see health issues that befall people all around us … competing is just gravy.”

He enjoys watching new skiers learn the sport. Earlier this year, out at Timber Ridge, he makes a point of stopping to talk with a group of school children out on skis for the first time. Within moments he’s offering an impromptu lesson on how to skate ski, much to the delight of the teachers tagging along with the students.

“Seeing eight kids out there skiing for their first time—that’s energizing for me,” he says later. “You can’t be too serious. Sometimes I can have my blinders on … it’s so easy to get wrapped up in training.”

His smile widens thinking back on the past year, of training with John, working out with Carrie and Erica, savoring moments with his grandson. “If I can maintain my health, and the people around me are healthy, that means more to me than any medal or prize.”

Milan’s Regimen

Training time: Leading up to winter ski races, Milan Baic skis 12 to 17 hours a week. Afternoon training sessions with son-in-law John O’Hearn consist of 1.5 to 2 hours. Sometimes they’ll throw in seven-minute hill intervals. Training consists of 60 percent skate skiing, 40 percent classic skiing.

Meat: “I’m a real moderate eater,” explains Baic. “For a while I gave up red meat. But I ate it so rarely, it wasn’t a big deal.” (It became a big deal, however, when he found family and friends worrying about what he would eat during get-togethers. He preferred to go without the fuss, he says.

Where you most likely won’t find him: “I’m not a fast-food guy.”

Fruit: “I like my share of sweets. I like fruit pies.” A real treat is indulging in a smoothie with real fruit from downtown’s The Dish. Del Monte fruit cups, too. “I could have just five of those, especially in the summer.”

Don’t get him started on orange juice. “I love O.J. to a fault.”

Weakness: Diet Coke. “It’s kind of my Achilles heel.”

Milan’s Mantras

“Repeating something, breaking it down. You can’t think of the next 21 miles. Just focus on the next mile, the next 200 meters.”

He counts “One, two …” in his head. “Keep my eyes focused forward. Head up. I’ve had a good race. I built confidence up to that point. I’ve done this before. I’m not going to fall apart.”

At a race, “You can’t think about the end. You’re just thinking 100 meters at a time. Ignore the pain in my triceps and the fatigue I’m starting to experience.”

Milan’s Chill Time

“Some people might assume I am obsessive about my training, but I’m not,” he says. “I maintain flexibility.”

Must-watch: The Office and Big Bang Theory for laughs, Apollo 13 for inspiration (“They have this incredibly huge challenge in front of them … that has applications in sports as well as in life.”)

Must-read: Inspirational books that may or may not have a sports twist. “I like to read survival books. Those are motivational to me.”

More Northern Michigan Skiing

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski