Thirteen Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) athletes had the honor of traveling with the Intermountain Division (IMD) to the Junior National Cross Country Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska, last week. The Last Frontier was extremely cold with temperatures barely reaching -4F on competition days. But the squeaky snow proved no problem for the BSF athletes and their IMD teammates from Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.
“Overall our athletes skied really well,” said BSF Nordic Program Director Andrew Morehouse. “We had several athletes in the top 10, which is awesome. We had a lot of personal best performances out there.”
The first race of the week was a 7.5k classic individual start. Athletes left the start gate in 30 second intervals straight into a one kilometer downhill. The athletes then wound their way through the Birch Hill Trails grinding up hills and around corners. This played to the strengths of IMD skiers, with several impressive performances.
"It's always a toss up with high altitude athletes racing at sea level. Your heart rate performs the same, but your aerobic system recovers much faster. A lot of times you finish a race and feel like you could do it again," noted BSF Coach Julia Hayes.
Top 10 finishes of the day for BSF skiers were Max Kluck (2nd in the U20 category), Callahan Waters (4th in the U16 category), and Natalie Nicholas (10th in the U18 category), with several others in the top 20.
Day two's competition was a skate sprint and another very cold day with start times being delayed, making for a very long event. All athletes raced around a 1.3k course with no rest in hopes of snagging a time in the top 30 and a chance to race three more times in the subsequent heats. BSF athletes that qualified into the heats included Isabella Waters (U16), Callahan Waters (U16), Woody West (U18), Max Kluck, Phineas Fischer, Gray Wasson, and Cole Shockey (U20).
Athletes performed exceptionally throughout the afternoon, even with several of the U18 and U20 boys encountering crashes in the semi-finals. At the end of the day, BSF had three athletes in the B final heats; Woody West (7th), Max Kluck (7th), and Phineas Fischer (12th).
“We had a few unlucky situations,” noted Andrew. “Max took a fall in the sprint. Cole broke a pole in the mass start. But that’s racing. The kids came away from the week with a really valuable experience.”
After a much needed rest day for coaches and athletes, the week finished off with a 5/10/15k skate mass start. With the continuous cold weather taking its toll, athletes lined up with buffs and face tape one last time. Team IMD was sitting narrowly in second place in the Alaska Cup standings behind team New England. (The Alaska Cup is the team award that scores all three races; the IMD team hadn’t won since 2007.)
“One of the best things was seeing the kids really paying attention to the team scores,” noted Andrew. In an individual sport like skiing, that doesn’t always happen.
Knowing that the team is stronger together, all the BSF and IMD athletes made their way around the 5k loop skiing with courage and tenacity in hopes of securing the Alaska Cup. At the end of the day, IMD came up short in second place, only 37 points behind. Even with stellar performances by all BSF athletes, including top 20 finishes from Callahan Waters (8th), Necia Nicholas (19th U16), Landon Wyatt (19th U18), and Max Kluck (18th U20).
"IMD won the week" Team Leader Ashley Knox (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) told the kids. "It is truly special to see a group of young people come together in an individual sport and fight for the same purpose."
Andrew pointed out that at the end of the week, the 13 BSF athletes in attendance and their coaches had to acknowledge that while there were 13 athletes at Junior Nationals, they were there because of the work of the entire team throughout the season. The athletes at home and those racing in California at the Western Region Championships played an important role in their success.
The week in Fairbanks was full of learning opportunities and new experiences. BSF was recognized as one of the top five ski clubs in the country. The 2023 Junior National competition was a great success. Athletes competed with pride for their club, town, and community. Congratulations to all the athletes and coaches!
Full results: https://zone4.ca/event/2023/07683C52/
Photos thanks to Michele West, Douglas Fischer, and Sarah Nicholas