Ski and Snowboard Club Vail Nordic program picks up pair of titles at U.S. Junior Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska
Will Bentley won the opening event individual start classic race and Rose Horning took the U16 mass start 10k freestyle on the final day
Coming into the 2023 U.S. cross-country ski junior national championships in Fairbanks, Alaska, this month, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Nordic ski team had only ever crowned two national champions — Nolan Herzog and Hailey Brewster.
“It’s hard to win,” SSCV head Nordic coach Eric Pepper said after recalling the program’s poignant historical anecdote. Pepper can now add Will Bentley and Rose Horning to what is sure to be a growing list. Bentley won the opening day U16 7.5-kilometer individual start classic race on March 1, and Horning decimated the U18 mass start freestyle field on the last of three days of racing against the top U16, U18 and U20 athletes in the U.S.
“Because of my results earlier in the season at senior nationals and a second-place finish last year, coming to Fairbanks I was hoping to get a national title,” Horning said. “The last race of the week, I gave it my all and was able to accomplish this dream.”
Pepper said Bentley had earmarked the individual start classic from the beginning of the season.
“For him to then do it was super impressive,” Pepper said. “It’s different to do it when everyone is trying to do it, too. It’s really hard for everything to come together. You gotta be good, you gotta be lucky — you gotta have a lot of things come together, some of which is in your control and some of which is not.”
Support Local Journalism
As one of the first A-seeds to leave, Bentley said his goal was to “set down a time no one could catch.”
“Once I got to the start, everything went away, the head went down and it was just about focusing on the task at hand,” he said. After a concussion and broken patella ended his 2019 and 2020 seasons prematurely, a spiral tibia-fibula fracture in December of 2021 ruined last year, too. Four surgeries later, the last coming in July 2022 — a month in which he also suffered a severe-high ankle sprain in a bouldering accident — he finally could train all out.
Reflecting on the adversity and what his national title meant, he said, “I mean, it’s a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how to say it — I just want to thank everyone who made it happen. I couldn’t have done it without my parents, coaches — Dan, Eric, Lenka. The skis were amazing every day — we nailed them.”
Bentley almost added a second crown in the mass start on March 15, too. Wearing bib No. 1, the breakout phenom knew from his third-place sprint finish in the week’s second event that he had the fastest kick in the field and if he could position himself, he liked his chances in the final 100 meters.
“So my goal was to sit in and relax and ski smart, not wasting energy interchanging with people,” he said. When the leaders started to throw haymakers entering the sprint course hill with less than a kilometer to go, a skier fell in front of the SSCV athlete.
“I got caught up with him and went down,” Bentley recalled.
Bentley found himself in ninth. He depleted some crucial fast-twitch stores sprinting into sixth before gasping for recovery on the final downhill. In the one-minute climb into the stadium, however, he somehow crawled back to the leaders, ultimately finishing in second overall, 0.4-seconds off the win.
“I raced my heart out and at the end of the day, I think that determines how I say that race was,” Bentley said. “I wouldn’t say that race was determined by a fall or anything; I approached that race exactly how I planned to execute it.”
“I think he was incredibly happy with that with also a tiny bit of “what if?” Pepper summarized.
Horning, who qualified for a bevy of international starts this winter, including the World Junior Championships in Whistler in January and the Nordic Nations Cup in Finland in February, came down with a stomach bug the day she left for Alaska. She still managed fourth overall in the 7.5-kilometer classic and fifth in the sprint.
“She just ground out a result in the sprint and made it happen because she’s so tough,” Pepper said. By the end of the week, as the temperatures continued to plummet, Horning started to heat up. After the coaches’ meeting before the final day of competition, the young Leadville-based athlete approached Pepper and asked to talk strategy. The pair devised a plan to make a move climbing into the lap start and on the following ‘A’ climb.
“We talked about how this was the spot,” Pepper recalled. “If you’re feeling good and things are going well, here’s an opportunity to hurt some people. And it’s exactly what she did.”
With fellow international nominees like multiple-time junior national and Minnesota state champion Sydney Drevlow and Mount Bachelor’s Neve Gerard in the race, things quickly broke up into a three-person affair.
“I knew that this race was going to be close because when racing the top girls in Finland and Houghton (Michigan), we were all within three seconds of each other,” Horning said referring to the Nordic Nations Cup and U.S. Senior Nationals competitions. “Right when I started the race, I knew it was going to be a good one.”
Horning executed her program and moved into the lead after the first lap, creating a three-second advantage.
“In the next few kilometers I continued to widen my lead,” she chronicled. “This was the hardest part of the race. I was freezing cold and exhausted, but I knew I had to continue to push myself.”
Drevlow and Gerard came back slightly, but by the time his pupil reached him at the 2.25-kilometer-to-go checkpoint, Pepper said Horning had created a 10-second gap.
“She had a plan before the race and did exactly that. It was impressive,” he said. Neve finished in second and Drevlow rounded out the podium, 22.4 seconds back. The trio was over a minute ahead of the fourth-place finisher.
“My team, family and coaches were able to celebrate with me and it was an incredible way to finish off an amazing season,” Horning said.
SSCV finishes fifth in club standings
Aside from the two individual champions, it was a banner week for SSCV, which finished fifth out of over 40 programs in the total U16, U18, U20 girls and boys team score — just two points behind Green Mountain Valley School in fourth. Pepper was most pleased, however, in how his 15 national qualifiers maturely handled the process of the premiere event.
“The sea-level, going to Alaska, the late arrival, the travel and the really cold temperatures and the adjustments to the schedules and all sorts of stuff that was going on — to deal with all of that and come out of there feeling like things went well is not an easy thing for anyone,” he stated. “Overall that definitely stood out.”
As temperatures struggled to get above zero, race starts were pushed later and later.
“It started cold and it got colder,” Pepper laughed in summarizing the week’s weather. One positive: the stable conditions made ski service generally simple as the already limited options in a fluoro-free world were narrowed further yet.
“You go with an ‘aim-small, miss-small approach,” the coach — who described the course’s mix of technical, fast downhills, challenging flats and significant climbs as comprising one of the most honest and high-quality venues in North America — said of the waxing strategy at Birch Hill.
“Instead of swinging for home runs, if you can link doubles, you’re going to be in good shape.” By the team’s own assessment metrics, arbitrary assignments of various values for a win, podium and/or top-10 and top-20 result, the club couldn’t have asked for much more. Particularly on the first day.
“Across the board, that was an awesome day,” he said, noting that SSCV was in second place in the standings at that point. “That was probably the strongest day our program has had at junior nationals.”
Henry Reynolds and Alex Current finished 24th and 25th, respectively, and Leif McGinley was 44th to go with Bentley’s win in the U16 division. Reiner Schmidt and Andrew Lombardi were 52nd and 66th in the U18. On the girls side, Claire Chimileski and Gracen Kennedy were 11th and 13th and Keira Sypniewski finished in 36th out of 82 U16 athletes. After Horning’s fourth, Cassidy Wright finished 16th, Izzy Glackin came in 25th and Keely Hendricks was 45th in the U18 girls.
“I feel really good about my week of racing. I felt like each day I came out of the day feeling proud of the effort I put in and the results showed that,” stated Glackin, whose main goal was to avenge missing the sprint heats by 0.3 seconds in 2022. She wound up making the heats in Fairbanks as the 28th qualifier.
“I came into that race ready to give it my all and see what I could do,” the future Bates skier said. “Both the qualifier and heat I skied as hard as I could and that’s all I can ask of myself.”
“My goals heading into Fairbanks were to race to the best of my ability, and have as much fun as possible, even considering it was negative some days,” added Wright, who noted the group’s off-snow activities at an ice park — including ice mini golf and ice ping pong — made the experience that much more unique.
“I loved racing there, and the overall vibes that all the volunteers and supporters had were amazing.”
Finally, Adele Horning placed fifth in the U20 race and Emma Barsness came in ninth going against a mix of the top high school seniors and NCAA freshmen in the country.
“One of my goals coming into Fairbanks was to win the classic individual start 7.5k,” Horning stated. “While this didn’t happen, I am still satisfied —mostly — with the result I achieved. However, missing first place drives me to achieve this in the future. I believe I am capable of this, and will work to make it a reality.”
Horning said the whole week provided numerous learning experiences, from her surprisingly positive skate sprint to having to switch out broken poles three times in a what she described as the “hardest race of my life” in the 15k mass start.
“It felt like every single thing that could go wrong did. It was barrier after barrier,” she stated regarding the last event. “But, in the midst of this whirlwind of misfortune, I came face-to-face with one the most amazing things in this sport. This incredible community would never have revealed itself to me without the trials of this last race.” Coaches, parents and fans from across the country cheered on the high school senior by name all the way to the finish.
“I would like to thank so many people for showing me my worth beyond the result and for keeping me going through the hardest moments,” said the eldest Horning, who was nominated for the nationwide Dave Quinn Award and won the Rocky Mountain Division’s Zeke Award — both of which recognize sportsmanship and dedication.
“Sports are about growing as individuals, as people. They are about learning how to overcome the challenges both sports and life throw at us,” she continued. “They are about the relationships we form and the wonderful people we get the opportunity to meet and grow with. To be recognized in the sport I love beyond my results is such a privilege.”
Finishing their last high school race provided a moment of reflection for the seniors, many of whom wore matching bows in the final JNQ in Aspen in February.
“I have been skiing with some of these girls since I was 8,” Glackin said. “Since it was our last race, it was fun just getting to talk at the start line with everyone and reminisce. Many of us are spreading out across the country to ski next year so it was a great way to feel closer and connected to them.”
“I am so proud of what our team accomplished at JNs,” Glackin continued. “We have two national champions on our team which is pretty cool. This team is like my second family.”
Bentley said the entire crew is hungry for next year already.
“This summer, I’m really looking forward to grinding,” he stated. “I’ve talked to a bunch of fellow teammates and we’re like, ‘we’re going to hit this summer hard.’”