SSCV skiers mix it up with Olympians, NCAA’s best and World Cup starters at DU Invitational
McCabe, Laukli duke it out in Friday's 5k individual skate start
Friday’s University of Denver Invitational, the penultimate stop on the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association’s calendar before the NCAA championships, may have had a small field, but it felt like a “whose who” of Nordic skiing nonetheless.
“It’s such an awesome privilege to be able to compete with guys that are the best in the world at what they do like right by our homes,” said SSCV skier Mason Cruz-Abrams after his 5-kilometer individual start freestyle race on Friday, the first of two days of action at Maloit Park in Minturn.
“That was super cool to have a chance to go measure myself going against them.”
“It’s super exciting. Last night I saw the start list and I was like nice,” said Boulder Nordic athlete Sofie Spalding. “This is the next level.”
On the women’s side, 2022 U.S. Olympians Novie McCabe and Sophia Laukli went 1-2 for the University of Utah and the University of Denver’s Bernhard Flaschberger, a 2016 Nordic Combine Junior World Champion and World Cup starter, topped the men’s field — which included SSCV skiers, domestic pros, World Cup starters, NCAA stars and a couple of Olympians.
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“It was good. I think it’s like such an advantage to have raced here before because the pacing is so different than any other racing we do since it’s so high,” said McCabe, whose plan was to work the flat sections of the course and stay under control on the steep climbs.
“Because once you get flooded, it’s over,” she laughed after claiming an impressive 34-second win.
Laukli, who garnered her first career World Cup podium on the final stage of the Tour de Ski, the Alpe Cermis in January — a 425-meter, 3.6-kilometer climb straight up a literal ski — knew the course wouldn’t play to her strengths.
“This was definitely not my forte of a course with the little rollers. I think I tried to ski the flats, but I definitely just went hard on the hills,” she said.
“I’ve been traveling and racing a lot so I was worried. It’s super high here and I wasn’t sure how it would go because I’ve been feeling a bit tired, but it definitely felt pretty good,” Laukli continued. “I heard a lot of scary stories of people blowing up, so I made sure to pace it conservatively.”
Laukli and McCabe were fresh off of fifth and seventh-place respective finishes in the 10-kilometer freetyle at the U23 World Championships in Whistler.
“I wanted to be fighting for podiums and wasn’t really anywhere close to that so I was bit bummed about that,” McCabe said. “But it was a fun experience and such a fun group of people.”
“It wasn’t awesome,” Laukli, who carried an illness from the Tour de Ski into U23s, admitted of her Whistler performances.
“I definitely had some big goals that I didn’t really live up to so it was definitely like changing expectations and in that sense, it went pretty well. Now I’m ready to get back to training and getting back on my game.”
The pair intends to defend their individual NCAA championships this March in what both said will be their final collegiate seasons, and even though both were named to the U.S. squad for the FIS World cross-country ski championships Feb. 22-March 5, McCabe has elected to stay stateside. Laukli, who placed 15th in the Olympic 30-kilometer freestyle, will head to Planica, Slovenia, however, and compete in the distance races at worlds. Then, she’ll fly to Mt. Van Hoevenberg for the NCAA championships.
“It’s my last year, so I have to,” Laukli said.
As far as duking it out with her teammate on every stage — from the World Cup to U23s to a collegiate race in humble Minturn?
“We both have the same goals, but I think the fact that we acknowledge that makes it better,” Laukli said. “To be happy for the other one when they do well and also understand the other one can be a little disappointed. … I think we’ve managed to come up with a good system.”
Graham Houtsma, a pro skier for Bridger Ski Foundation’s pro team, was in second grade when his interest in the sport was sparked at SSCV.
“Dan first got me into nordic skiing eons ago,” he said, referring to SSCV program director Dan Weiland. Houtsma placed 10th but was just 14 seconds off the podium.
He would move and grow up in Aspen before later competing briefly at Bates College. Now, his goals are earning World Cup starts via the Super Tour. Based out of Bozeman, he trains alongside some of the country’s top post-collegians and is coached by four-time Olympian Andy Newell.
Houtsma, whose father lives in Vail, came home to Colorado with fellow Steamboat locals and BSF teammates Finn O’Connell and Simon Zink because, well, it was a sound financial and competitive decision.
“We’re like, alright, there’s this big gap between the Midwest Super Tours and conveniently enough, RMISA was here, racing back-to-back weekends in Colorado,” Houtsma explained. “Yeah, it’s like coming home. I spent my college summers here in Vail, so very familiar with the area.”
“Good to be back in the high-altitude air, beautiful sun, beautiful day,” said O’Connell, who earned Period 3 World Cup starts on the basis of his domestic performances in the U.S Ski and Snowboard Super Tour, the main goal for Newell’s BSF athletes.
“It was hard,” O’Connell said of his seventh-place performance. “Just flew back from Europe a couple days ago and decided to come over this morning and race. But it was fun.”
Houtsma said this year has been a “mixed bag” results-wise, but he’s been pleased with his sprinting improvements. The 25-year-old had the top qualifying mark at the Cable, Wisconsin Super Tour sprint en route to a fifth-place overall finish.
“It’s come a long ways this year,” he said. On Friday, he also noticed the tangible improvements skiing on Maloit Park’s punishing climbs — at least compared to all those years ago, when he first started in the sport.
“It’s definitely cool to feel the improvement,” he said. “Going up the main wall and just feeling strong and like I’m able to push through transitions. I felt like I could come through the stadium and feel ready to attack and not just dying.”
Kickin’ it with Koch
If Friday’s theme was big names in Nordic skiing, then the biggest name, at least historically speaking, might be Will Koch’s. The University of Colorado skier, who placed 13th, is the son of Bill Koch, the first American to win an Olympic medal in the sport. The Vermont native won silver at the 1976 Innsbruck Games and the first ever World Cup overall globe in 1982. He’s also been credited with pioneering the skate skiing technique.
At just 20, his son started his promising World Cup career this year, making his debut in the Livigno, Italy sprints on Jan. 21. When asked how Maloit Park compared to the venues in Livigno, Toblach, Les Rousses and elsewhere, Koch said, “To be quite honest, I always tell people this is one of my favorite courses to race on because there’s just so many turns, transitions, short little punchy climbs.”
“That’s my favorite racing terrain and I also think these courses ski pretty great at altitude because of the punchy nature — without anything too long and sustained.”
Coming straight from the Toblach World Cup on Feb. 3, where he was 45th in the sprint, he said the altitude and slow, Colorado snow was “a bit of a shock to the system.”
“But, I really enjoyed it, I love a good 5k honestly,” he continued. “I had good skis today, but it was still slow. The difference (is) today, the competitive times are 14 or 15 minutes versus 10 or 11 on the World Cup.”
Koch’s current goals are the NCAA championships, but he knows he might get a call up to the World Cup for period 4, or compete in the OPA Cup and/or Super Tour Finals. The plethora of options are a positive.
“I think it’s really fun. One of my favorite parts about it is that I never have any doubt that I’ll have good race to go to at any point,” he said.
“For a lot of skiers, the main goal is just World Cup and it’s pretty stressful not knowing if you’ll make that or not. This whole season, I will have been just as happy doing World Cup as being here, so I think it’s a really good situation.”
Mixing it up with the best
For the group of SSCV athletes taking to Friday’s course, the learning started in the warm-up.
“They do such a good job of transitioning their tempos based off the terrain,” Cruz-Abrams observed of the elite competition he faced.
“For me, I’m going to lock into a gear for the race and that’s kind of how all my skiing is going to be. They just glide so smoothly and as soon as they get to something, they attack it and sprint over the top of the hills.”
Efficient downhill skiing was another obvious skill he hopes to emulate. “They hit all the tangents and they still recover.”
The Harvard-bound Cruz-Abrams was pretty analytical and dialed in himself, even noting the range of outcomes for specific pacing approaches on various hills throughout the course. When asked about his race goals and strategy, he said he wanted to get out hard.
“Then, really force the transitions over the rollers, and focus on the V2, maintain that power because it’s cold out here. We have really good skis today our coaches crushed it,” he said, adding that along the flats, he wanted to settle into a high threshold pace.
“Knowing that strong and smooth is going to be just as good as a hop-skate today with this snow.”
Cruz-Abrams finished in 17:30, just 20 seconds behind his teammates Henry Reynolds (17:10.9) and Alex Current (17:08).
“It was good. My goal was to have fun. This is my home course so I know it pretty well. Good transitions, felt pretty good about that,” said Reynolds, who is hoping to end his year at the Junior Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska, this March.
“I think it was awesome that it was our home course. We kind of know everything; they only come here once every couple of years,” added Current, whose goal coming in was “to beat a couple of college guys” but knew overcoming the older competitor’s increased glide length would be a big ask.
“It’s crazy. They’re so fast. They have a lot bigger pushes.”
Andrew Lombardi finished in 17:40, though he prefers the classic technique. “We had pretty good skis on the slow snow,” he said. His big goal is qualifying for nationals as well. “I’m right on the edge of it, so in Aspen I have to have a good race.”
On the girls side, Cassidy Wright (19:18) finished in 27th place in 19:18, with her teammate Keely Hendricks (19:48) sliding home in 29th.
“I feel like I skied most of the hills fast. I got super tired. It wasn’t bad, it just hurt,” said Hendricks, who also enjoyed being on the snow with a couple of Olympians.
“It’s kind of nice to ski with them, especially when they’re lapping and you’re starting and you get to ski near them,” she said.
“I feel like they just have everything dialed. Like they know what to do; it’s kind of intimidating. They’re fast.”
The DU Invitational continued on Saturday with a 10-kilometer mass start classic. Full men’s results and women’s results can be found on VailDaily.com.