Alaskan athletes aim high at U.S. Nationals 2018
Alaskan skiers compete annually in the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships, racing on the Upper Peninsula’s frosty roller-coaster trails, the oxygen-deprived Olympic course at Utah’s Soldier Hollow, and on New England’s mostly artificial snow.
This year, Alaska’s skiers are back home at Kincaid Park for nationals. They’ve lined up at the start in this stadium countless times. They know the trails. They know where they’ve crashed, bonked, passed and excelled.
APU elite skier Reese Hanneman, is looking forward to the familiar.
“It really is such a cool feeling, to remember back racing so much here as a kid, and now so many years later, to try and ski much faster around these same loops,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to race at home in U.S. Nationals.”
Reese and his brother Logan Hanneman are just two of the many Alaska skiers to look for at these races.
While the blue Alaska Pacific University (APU) race suits will be prominent at Kincaid, some well-known Alaska skiers might be missing. Four-time Olympian Kikkan Randall, and fellow APU skiers Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Chelsea Holmes, and Scott Patterson, are overseas competing in the early stages of the World Cup season. Their aim is to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team on that European circuit. If they don’t, they’ll be back in Alaska for nationals, which is another door to the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. If any spots still remain by New Year’s, the series at Kincaid Park is a last opportunity to prove up.
APU head coach Erik Flora explained that the competition in Alaska is the final week of racing in the U.S. for the Olympic qualification process and for World Juniors.
“For our APU elite team, this is an opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympics,” the coach said. “This is a goal they have spent the better part of 10 years preparing for and many thousands of hours training.”
His roster of senior Alaska skiers to watch include Reese, Hanneman, Logan Hanneman, David Norris, Tyler Kornfield, Erik Packer, Forest Mahlen, Thomas O’Hara, Rosie Frankowski and Becca Rorabaugh. Many of these skiers competed together on Team AK at Junior Nationals.
Rorabaugh said she and her team are looking forward to Kincaid Park and Alaska offering some “good old-fashioned winter conditions” and a chance to shine on the big stage.
“We’ve had time to really cohere as a group and that’s made each of us stronger,” she said. “I think we’ve got an amazing cohort of skiers who will be in the mix for Olympic qualification this year.”
APU’s Flora is optimistic about his athletes’ chances and advises not to underestimate the power of the hometown crowd.
“This is the biggest competition we will have this year in the United States,” he said. “It will be great to see our community out on the trails in January to cheer a tremendous event.”
Olympic slots aren’t the only incentive during this week of racing. For college skiers in the Rocky Mountain division, the first two skate races are NCAA qualifiers. Alaskans Tracen Knopp, Sadie Fox and Jenna DiFolco will be skiing for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Seawolves, and Anna Darnell, Sarissa Lammers, Max Donaldson, Seiji Takagi and Logan Mowry will be skiing for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Nanooks. Further afield, but also returning home to compete with the Montana State team, is Emma Tarbath. Other collegiate Alaskans retuning to race are Dartmouth skiers Lydia Blanchet and Taryn Hunt-Smith, Williams’ skiers Jack Consenstein and Andrew Hull, and Middlebury skier Jacob Volz.
Along with Olympic and NCAA goals, younger skiers are focused on qualifying for the World Junior Championships in Goms, Switzerland, and the U18 Nordic Nations Championships in Vuokatti, Finland. Getting a spot on either of these teams is based on age and points accrued in all four nationals races.
Junior Worlds, explains Flora, “starts the road toward international racing and one day the Olympics.”
Alaskan locals competing with their sights on Junior Worlds include Alaska Winter Stars (AWS) Juniors Molly Gellert, Gus Schumacher, Quincy Donley, Eli Hermanson and Luke Fritzel; APU Juniors Hunter Wonders, Canyon Tobin, Luke Jager, and Dawson Knopp; Alaska Nordic Racing Juniors Emma Nelson, Heidi Booher and Adrianna Proffitt; and FXC (Fairbanks) Juniors Ti Donaldson and Kendall Kramer.
AWS skier Gellert scored enough points in last year’s nationals to make it to the Nordic Nations Championships. She said the familiarity of Kincaid Park will be reassuring during the tough week of racing.
“It’s super awesome that nationals are on home soil this year because the races will be on trails we spend countless hours training on,” she said.
Add up all of these athletes and Alaska undoubtedly has a strong presence in this competition, from high school racers to college graduates. There will even be some local senior masters jumping in to see how they stack up against the younger field. The common denominator to this powerful bench of skiers, according to APU’s Hanneman, is Alaska’s support for the sport.
“We have some of the best coaches in the country, lots of options for skiing most of the year, and a community that really gets excited about ski racing,” he said. “A bunch of our junior clubs are really strong right now, and I think we are going to see even more Alaskans competing at a high level.”
Hanneman should know – he’s stood on more than one podium at U.S. nationals, the top step as well. Look for him and all of the other Alaska skiers during this exciting week of racing. Don’t forget your cowbell.