Large portion of Nordic Jr. Nationals field is from Eagle County
VAIL — For most youth Nordic racers, the Cross Country Junior Championships is the biggest event of the competition season.
Fifty of the fastest young men and women from around the country will gather at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center in Lake Placid, New York, which was developed for the 1980 Olympic Games. This year, Eagle County athletes will make up nearly one third of the field — the most ever — as Ski & Snowboard Club Vail has qualified 15 athletes for the competition.
Bridget Donovan, a sophomore at Vail Mountain School who qualified for the championships, says the athletes who made it trained all summer, fall and winter to get there.
“It’s kind of crazy how much training we do for only a couple of races,” she said.
Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Nordic program director Dan Weiland says the training factor is the main difference separating casual and elite athletes in cross-country skiing.
“We’re doing a really good job with training at the ski club,” Weiland said. “But in general, in the U.S., the thing we miss the most versus other countries is the amount of training that they do versus what we do.”
Weiland says in a sport that derives its name from a specific region of the world, Nordic skiing simply isn’t as much a part of the culture in the U.S. as it is in other areas. In Eagle County, however, that’s changing.
“We’ve done a really good job of establishing a culture here in Eagle County, now it’s about taking that culture and that community and adding the training volume,” Weiland said.
The local Nordic culture can be seen on weekdays at the Vail Athletic Fields, where Vail native Christian Kloser packs a van full of gear and brings cross-country skiing to kids who would have otherwise never been introduced to the sport. Eagle County’s cross-country culture also extends to the highest levels of Nordic skiing, where Ski & Snowboard Club Vail athlete Tad Elliot finished top among Americans in the World Championship skiathlon competition during the weekend.
The culture change is catching on, as Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s program started with just a handful of kids and now has 108 members and is the fastest growing sport in the club.
Donovan has been a part of the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Nordic program since she was in kindergarten.
“There’s six or seven of us who have stuck with it since then,” she said. “Ian Hardenberg, Gracie Shanley and my sister Maddie Donovan started with me back then and also made it to nationals this year.”
In a sport that’s not exactly known for its fun factor, it’s exactly the element that Donovan says has been most helpful to the program’s rapid growth.
“It’s just a really fun environment,” she said. “Everyone is friends, we get to hang out and go on trips together and train together with the coaches. It’s the coaches who have really made it the most fun.”
Donovan and the rest of the local qualifiers leave for Lake Placid on Friday; competition runs Monday through March 11. Keep up with the races by visiting http://www.xcjuniornationals2017.com.