The Rocky Mountain and New England teams got off to a hot start on a chilly day Monday at the U.S.Cross Country Ski Junior National Championships in Fairbanks.
While those teams won a pair of titles in the six 7.5-kilometer interval-start classical technique races, Team Alaska collected just one bronze medal from Wells Wappett of Fairbanks.
Wappett took third of 68 racers in the Under 16 boys division in 24 minutes, 9 seconds at his hometown Birch Hill Recreation Area, which is billed as one of the premier competition venues in North America. Wappett, a sophomore at Lathrop High School, also placed third in the state championship classic race at Kincaid Park last month.
Alaska nearly won a second medal from Katey Houser of Palmer. She now skis for Montana State University and placed fourth in 27:18 in the girls U20 division, coming just 1.9 seconds shy of the bronze. Meredith Schwartz of Anchorage (28:19) was 11th in that race and Marit Flora placed 13th.
In the U20 boys race, Aaron Power, a senior at Service High School representing Alaska Winter Stars, held the lead after he finished but was displaced by several of the highest-seeded racers who went out later. He wound up fifth in 22:58. Power is a two-time Alaska prep Skimeister who dominated this year’s state classic-technique race and plans to ski for Dartmouth College beginning this fall.
In U18 boys, Blake Hanley of Alaska Winter Stars placed sixth in 23:23 while Marley Ireland of Anchorage paced the girls in 18th.
Olivia Soderstrom of Alaska Winter Stars led the Alaska U16 girls skiers in 21st.
More than 400 teenagers from across the country — including about 50 Alaskans — are participating. In addition to Alaska, teams from Far West, Great Lakes, High Plains, Intermountain, Mid Atlantic, Midwest, New England, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain are entered. New England has won the “Alaska Cup” awarded to the top team 13 of the 21 years it has been awarded, while Team Alaska has claimed the honor six times.
Fairbanks is hosting the races for the fifth time ever and first time since 2013, when “guest class” Norwegian sisters Tiril and Lotta Utnes Weng dominated (Tiril Weng, now 26, currently leads the World Cup overall standings).
Time will only tell, but it’s likely a handful of future World Cup and Olympic skiers are participating at these championships.
A unique aspect of this year’s competition is equal-distance racing of 7.5 kilometers in the interval start regardless of age and gender. In the past, the youngest boys and all girls have raced shorter courses than the U18 and U20 boys.
The races were held on the “Black Funk and a Half” course, which is exceptionally challenging. Black Funk is considered Birch Hill’s toughest 5-kilometer route. The course includes steep ascents and descents and 964 feet of climbing over about five miles.
Adding to the challenge was single-digit temperature — but sunny skies — that had many racers donning buffs and other protective clothing. Temperatures did warm a bit for the girls races that started at 1 p.m.
The championships continue on Tuesday with a full day of freestyle sprints (the sprint starts were been pushed back two hours to 11 a.m. to allow tempertures to warm above the legal minimum of minus 4 Fahrenheit). After an off day on Wednesday, racing concludes Thursday with mass-start freestyle races. Unlike previous championships, no relay races will be contested.
Racing can be watched live at here. For results, visit here.
Much more information is available at the event website and the championships also have a Facebook page (“Junior Nationals 2023 Fairbanks”) with additional news.
Feature photo courtesy Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks.