SSCV gets Rocky Mountain Nordic season underway with Crested Butte Junior National Qualifier
Last weekend's cold conditions could be good preparation for U.S. Junior Nationals in Fairbanks this March
For Nordic skiers navigating the early stages of the cross-country ski season, life — and everything it throws at you — starts to feel like one big training camp. Over the weekend, mother nature chucked some seriously cold temperatures at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail Nordic team competing in Crested Butte for the first Rocky Mountain Nordic (RMN) junior national qualifier (JNQ). It might serve as poignant preparation for later championship-season racing in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“Historically speaking, every time I’ve been there, it’s been freezing cold,” program director Dan Weiland chuckled regarding the location of the 2023 Junior Nationals this March. If Saturday and Sunday were any indication, it appears cold temps do little in discouraging the SSCV crew.
“We’re really thankful to get our Rocky Mountain Nordic race series underway,” head coach Eric Pepper said. “The races in Crested Butte were wonderfully hosted. It’s such a great place to go and has such an idyllic feel to it this time of year for sure.”
Pepper said it was classic Crested Butte weather over the weekend — “cold, dark mornings with afternoons opening up into bright, sunny days.”
“The cold was certainly a major story for the weekend and had a very big effect on the racing,” he said. “Some thrived in it, some really suffered. The cold, dry snow made for excellent classic skiing and kicking on Saturday. Those races went really well for us; we had a number of successes there.”
Support Local Journalism
SSCV won the U20, U18, U16 and U14 races on the girls side and the U16 and U14 events on the boys side in day 1 of action.
SSCV’s U18 star Rose Horning completed the FIS-homologated 5-kilometer “Bench” course in 16 minutes, 16.6 seconds, the best time in the combined U16/U18/U20/senior field. Her sister, Adele (16:51.3) was second overall, tops in the U20 field, and Cassidy Wright (17:30.7) placed fifth overall, second in the U18 division. Lucy Perkins (17:43.3) was right behind her teammate in sixth overall, leading an SSCV sweep of the U16 race (Claire Chimileski and Gracen Kennedy were second and third, respectively), while Katie Lombardi (12:24.3) won the U14 3-kilometer race.
Will Bentley led the boys, winning the U16 race in 14:34.2, the eighth-fastest time of the day across all age divisions. Peter Kan (11:05.7) and Freedom Bennett (11:17.5) went 1-2 in the U14 3-kilometer race.
Weiland felt Saturday’s classic individual start was “almost flawless.”
“Saturday was really good for us as a club. We were pretty dialed on the Bench,” he said, adding that the crisp conditions at least made for easy wax testing. “We pretty much put out every cold wax that we own,” he laughed.
Sunday’s chill, however, presented a stiff challenge for the mass start skate event. Coaches were greeted by -15 degree temperatures for morning testing.
“Skating in those conditions can be brutally slow and definitely the skis felt that way and that made for some interesting racing as well,” Pepper said.
“Maybe it was a little too much structure, maybe it was the wrong skis. It’s hard to say, but it felt like we were getting passed on places we shouldn’t be getting passed on the downhills. But that happens,” Weiland added.
The athletes took everything in-stride — or skate. Horning topped the U18/U20 field by 40.4 seconds, winning the 7.5-kilometer race in 23:34 seconds as three SSCV athletes (Cassidy Wright, 25:08.8 and Adele Horning, 25:40) also finished in the top five. Reiner Schmidt led the way for the boys in the U18/U20 race, placing ninth in 20:59.6.
Bennett (10:30.7) and Kan (10:58.5) were 1-2 again — different order — in the U14 race.
“Those two boys get out there, work hard — they get after it, they’re focused, they’re into it and you see it pay off,” Weiland said. “They’re doing well from a U14 perspective, and hopefully they make that jump.”
Perkins found the podium in third in the U16 girls race, and Bentley (14:43.2) continued his breakout year, notching a third-place podium as well. He led four SSCV athletes (Henry Reynolds, fifth, Alex Current, sixth, Leif McGinley, ninth) into the top-10.
“He’s always had that kind of ability,” Weiland said of Bentley, who missed most of last season after an Alpine ski accident put him on the shelf.
“So, he’s never really had the opportunity to get out there and shine. Hopefully we can keep him healthy and see what he can actually do,” he continued.
“He was great Saturday, great in Sun Valley, great in West Yellowstone, so all those pieces are there, it’s just now getting it all honed in and figuring out those details as we head to U.S. Nationals.”
In addition to racing the RMN JNQ calendar, which includes stops in Soldier Hollow, Steamboat Springs and Aspen — all races where athletes earn points to qualify for the junior nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska next March — Weiland and Pepper will bring the U16-U20 athletes to the U.S. Senior Nationals in Houghton, Michigan Jan. 2-7. Each day of racing includes junior and senior divisions, though the sprint and interval start days offer younger athletes the chance to race alongside, and even qualify for the senior placements.
“They’ll be able to mix it up for sure,” Weiland described.
In the sprint, juniors notching a top-30 overall (regardless of age) qualifying time can choose to race in the senior heats. Those outside the overall top-30 still compete in their respective age group, ensuring athletes get plenty of racing.
“So that makes it a cool event,” Weiland continued. “We saw that in Sun Valley, where Adele qualified for the senior heats. I think that’s kind of a goal for a lot of those junior girls.”
When asked if there are any specific races in Houghton Weiland is salivating over, he pointed to the classic events.
“I think this weekend’s results showed that — I feel like we were a very good classic skiing team,” he said. “That’s always a bit of our emphasis is to be really good at the classic technique (and) those fundamental movements.”
“I would say as a young team, we’re good – it’s not just one individual,” he continued. “Often we don’t know which individual is going to be the leader there, so that’s pretty cool that we have a good mix of young skiers that can potentially pop an amazing race.”
NCAA skiers come home to train and inspire the next generation
At Tuesday’s practice, SSCV alumni Hailey Brewster (University of Vermont), Lizzy Barsness (St. Lawrence) and Molly Blakeslee (Williams), home for the holiday break, hopped into a session with Weiland’s younger future stars and full-time athletes. Watching the EISA (one of the NCAA’s toughest regions) athletes mingle with and inspire younger athletes was especially meaningful for Weiland and his staff.
“And we’re all skiing together. For us as coaches, that’s probably the coolest part, just to see that progression from future stars to our full-time programming to now collegiate ski racing,” he said.
The setup of the team’s calendar elicits abundant opportunities for witnessing the next level. Both Houghton and Steamboat — which includes an NCAA race alongside the JNQ events – provide a glimpse into NCAA and Super Tour-caliber speed.
“Like, that’s the opportunity; and hopefully they continue to push, want to ski race in college and be better,” Weiland said. For athletes like Adele Horning, who graduates this spring and will be looking at NCAA racing next winter, Steamboat and nationals also provide a good litmus test.
“She can kind of see where she stacks up a bit in that world,” Weiland noted.
For most, the season peaks March 13-16, where the country’s best junior athletes converge to compete in Fairbanks. Unlike last year’s relatively simple, slick-and-fast sea-level national meet loop in Minneapolis’ Theodore Wirth Park, Weiland feels the Alaskan venue might be better suited to his team, which trains daily on Maloit Park’s technical hills, over and across dry, lifeless, slow Colorado snow.
“The courses are amazing. They’re hard ski race courses and I think that suits us really well,” he said of Fairbanks. “I think anytime you take an altitude kid and put him at sea-level on a course that isn’t hard, that’s a disadvantage. But if you put an altitude kid on a hard course, which Fairbanks is, you’re definitely in the mix.”
The incoming storm and windchills will provide another chance for the team to dial in their cold-weather racing. “We’ve sent out an email saying we’re going to intensity this week and it’s a good time to practice being cold and figuring out stuff like, what do you wear? What gloves, what under-layers, what hat — all those sort of things,” Weiland explained.
Whether the goal is the next RMN JNQ, junior or senior nationals or NCAAs, the athletes who dig the deepest find the most treasure.
“The kids that put in the work get the result,” Weiland said, pointing to first-year U16 athlete, Keira Sypniewski, who was sixth in Saturday’s classic as a prime example.
“She put in the work, she’s dedicated, focused and now she gets a sixth as a first-year. That’s pretty gosh-darn good. That’s kind of the team in general.”
As if to hearken back to the “life-is-one-big-training-camp” metaphor, Weiland concluded by saying, “That’s like life in general. If you work hard, you get the result.”
Dec. 17-18: Crested Butte (classic individual/freestyle mass start)
Jan. 20-21: Soldier Hollow (freestyle sprint/classic mass start)
Feb. 3-4: Howelsen Hill (classic mass start/freestyle individual)
Feb. 25-26: Aspen (classic sprint/freestyle mass start)
March 4-5: Snow Mountain Ranch Youth festival
March 13-16: Fairbanks, Alaska
Jan. 2-7: Houghton, Michigan