Team Alaska sprinted back into contention on Tuesday at the U.S. Cross Country Junior National Championships in Fairbanks.

With three wins, five podium performances and nine qualifiers to the finals, Alaska finished atop the team sprint standings and launched into striking distance for the top spot with one race remaining on Thursday.

That was an impressive bounce back after opening the competition on Monday yielded just one podium winners for Alaska in the interval-start classic races.

Olivia Soderstrom. Photo by Eric Engman

Leading the charge was Olivia Soderstrom of Alaska Winter Stars. After placing 21st on Monday, Soderstrom recorded the sixth-fastest time in sprint qualifying. But the Under 16 heats is where she really shined. Soderstrom chased down top-ranked Lena Poduska Wyo., in the final after the skier from Jackson, Wyo., set a torrid pace for the first half of the approximately 1-kilometer race. Soderstrom then held off Taylor Nalder of McCall, Idaho, by .26 seconds for the win.

The races at Birch Hill Recreation Area were delayed two hours to 11 a.m. on Tuesday, which gave the temperature time to rise above minus 4 Fahrenheit, the legal minimum. Even so, single digit temperatures with a persistent wind all day had racers bundling up and wearing protective facial tape while volunteers wrapped them in blankets before and after their races.

Aaron Power (far left). Photo by Eric Engman

Katey Houser, after just missing a medal with fourth place on Monday, dominated the U20 division, winning the final by more than a second as she raised her arms in triumph. Houser, a Palmer native, currently skis for Montana State University.

Katey Houser. Photo by Eric Engman

The boys U18 division is where Alaska showed its depth with four skiers in the six-racer finals. Although Finegan Bailey of Vermont took the win, Alaska gained valuable points with Murphy Kimball second, Elias Soule fourth, Owen Young fifth and Cole Flowers sixth. All four represent the Alaska Winter Stars.

Murphy Kimball. Photo by Eric Engman

Alaska’s third win came from Derek Richardson of Alaska Pacific University in the U20 final. Richardson, fifth in qualifying, overtook second-seeded Trey Jones of Colorado leading into a perilous downhill that was out of view of the livestream camera. When Richardson reemerged, he held an insurmountable lead and coasted to a four-second win which he celebrated with animation. Aaron Power of Anchorage followed in fifth.

Wells Wappett of Fairbanks was not to be outdone, winning a silver medal in the boys U16 event. Wappett is the only Alaska to earn two medals in two tries at these championships.

Team Alaska’s Vebjorn Flagstad (left) and Wells Wappett (2nd from left). Photo by Eric Engman

New England now leads the “Alaska Cup” competition for the top team with 555 points. Intermountain is next with 527, followed by Alaska with 465 and Midwest with 446 points.

However, Alaska will need another performance like the sprints on Thursday in order to overtake New England and Intermountain and win the Alaska Cup for a seventh time (New England is seeking a 14th win while Intermountain has only claimed the top spot once).

Birch Hills Stadium. Photo by Eric Engman

Wednesday is an off day and the competition concludes on Thursday with mass-start freestyle races of 5 kilometers for U16, 10K for U18 and 15K for U20. The action begins — temperature permitting — at 10 a.m.

Livestream footage and live results can be found here.

Photo by Max Kaufman

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