Ski and Snowboard Club Vail sends 15 athletes to U.S. Cross-Country ski Junior Nationals
Competition runs March 6-12 in Minneapolis, MN at Theodore Wirth Park
Ski and Snowboard Club Vail will make up over one-fourth of the Rocky Mountain Division’s (RMN) 58-member Junior National cross-country ski squad headed to Minneapolis, MN for the premiere Nordic ski championship for U18/20 and U16 division athletes.
“That’s a lot — that’s a big number,” SSCV head coach Eric Pepper succinctly summarized.
While the maximum quota for regions is 50, that does not include skiers who have pre-qualified through World Junior or Nordic Nations Cup nominations, something, eight RMN athletes, including SSCV’s Rose Horning and Lucy Perkins, accomplished. Pepper believes all of his U16 athletes have podium potential in any of next week’s three individual events.
“They’re all a threat on a given day out here for sure,” Pepper said. “It will be interesting.”
Along with Perkins and Horning, Gracen Kennedy, Clair Chimileski and Cassidy Wright have been dominant in the U16 club circuit, winning on numerous occasions.
“They seem to be having a lot of fun together; they enjoy competing with each other,” Pepper said. “They’re being successful, which helps, but I think for the most part they just want to go out and do stuff. They’re great at showing up and doing it and enjoying themselves.”
Tough competition and consistent training have been the not-so-novel secret to the club’s banner year. “You add that all up and it’s not so complicated,” the coach commented.
At nationals, they’ll join forces with their local competition to fight against nine other regions in the Alaskan Cup, the team competition last won by New England in 2019. COVID-19 cut the 2020 meet short, and canceled it altogether in 2021, meaning Pepper’s crew will have nine newcomers to the national stage.
“There is going to be all sorts of kids nobody’s ever heard of that are going to show up,” he predicted.
“We live in a pretty big pond, but you’re still going to a lot bigger pond. There are so many good skiers right now.”
Historically, altitude-trained rookies pose concerns racing sea-level sprint competitions, unaware of the momentous shift in speed required to stay in the pack.
“With this group, I’m not concerned at all,” Pepper boasted, noting an eagerness to watch the classic sprint and mass start next Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
He is also looking forward to the new mixed-gender relay, where Regions will select two athletes of each gender to compete on four-person squads. The shift from a three-person single-gender relay is one Pepper believes could equalize the playing field, bringing the typically deep, NCAA-rich New England and Alaska’s regions back to the pack a little.
“That’s going to be fun — it’s a nice change,” he said of the new event.
With the inner-city park course prepared to host the first World Cup on U.S. soil in nearly three decades in March 2020, an event ultimately canceled, some changes were made to the venue which hosted junior nationals in 2011. In analyzing course profiles, Pepper has identified key attributes — starting or ending with a climb, for example — and sprinkled in subsequent ingredients to the final pre-race practices.
“Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made an effort to do some intensity where we’re doing steady climbing for maybe a minute or 90 seconds and then going over the top and wrapping around stuff — doing more transitional type work,” he said.
The sprint course’s fast finish has strategic implications.
“If you’re going to gap somebody, you gotta gap somebody. There’s no ‘kinda gap somebody,’” he noted.
The downhill finish also puts a premium on ski speed, a potential challenge in this post-fluorocarbon wax era. U.S. Ski and Snowboard banned the expensive waxes, typically most effective in warm, wet conditions, for all FIS-sanctioned events once the Olympic qualifying window closed mid-January.
“We’re going to be working with products we’ve never used before because we’re fluoro-free,” Pepper stated, noting the RMN wax protocol, where club coaches select a uniform wax prior to races to promote fairness, adversely prevents teams from testing multiple waxes’ performances throughout the season.
“It’s one of the minor detriments of our protocol,” admitted Pepper, who said the staff’s strategy at nationals will be to “aim small and miss small.”
“People spend a lot of time and energy trying to chase magic bullets,” he joked. Instead, the 14-member coaching staff will focus on ski selection, application and early planning. In the end, perspective is important, too.
“The big thing is you do the best you can with those pieces of the puzzle that are in your control, and you go out and let it rip,” he said.
“It’s a good group across the board — I’m looking forward to seeing how they do.”
Sunday, March 6: Training Day and Opening Ceremonies
Monday, March 7: 5/10km Freestyle
Tuesday, March 8: Training Day
Wednesday, March 9: Classic Sprint
Thursday, March 10: Training Day
Friday, March 11: 5/10/15km Classic Mass Start
Saturday, March 12: Freestyle Mixed Relay