RIPTON, Vt. — In the world of college skiing, a lot can change in a year — just ask newly crowned NCAA 5 k classic champion Anja Gruber. The University of Vermont junior was her team’s fourth woman last season and had never competed at NCAA Championships before Thursday. But in her first appearance at the most important race of the college season Gruber bested the entire 40-woman field and won the first nordic event at Rikert Touring Center by 11.1 seconds.
Dartmouth College freshman Mary O’Connell finished second and University of Alaska, Anchorage, freshman Marine Dusser took third. With the completion of the giant slalom and classic events at NCAAs, UVM sits in the lead at the halfway point of the championships with 389 points to the University of Colorado’s 368.5 points.
“It’s pretty unbelievable right now,” Gruber said after the podium ceremony made her national title official. “I’m not sure if this actually just happened!”
The 21-year-old from Leutkrich, Germany, stepped from the beginning of the carnival season to make up the hole left by three senior women who graduated from the 2012 championship squad. It was a big void to fill, but UVM nordic coach Patrick Weaver says Gruber rose to the occasion spectacularly, and particularly on Thursday at NCAAs.
“Anja was the clear number four skier for us last year, always in fourth, kind of like the domestique of the team,” Weaver said. “With everyone graduating last year I think she realized this was her opportunity. She came back in great shape and I always had it in the back of my mind that she had as good a chance as anybody in this race, so [I’m] just super-excited to see that happen. Really happy for her.”
Between six regular-season competitions Gruber tallied two classic victories, one freestyle win and helped lead UVM to an undefeated EISA season headed into Thursday. And once NCAA competition began at Middlebury, team was everything. UVM’s alpine squad drew first blood in the giant slalom on Wednesday and the nordic athletes wanted to do their part to maintain the momentum.
“It’s really great to have a good result for yourself, but more important than that is that you get those points for the team,” Gruber said. “Our alpiners are definitely pulling their weight and we want to do that, too. Everyone knows they have to do their very best in order to make this work and that’s what we all do.”
When she lined up as 37th starter out of 40 on Thursday, Gruber’s goal was a simple one: ride the energy of a successful 2013 campaign and ski the best race she could for the Catamounts.
“I came here and — we were joking, this is just the strawberry on the frosting on the cake,” Gruber said. “But we also knew that this whole season, it worked out great, so we were just saying, ‘Why shouldn’t it work today?’ I definitely wanted to have a good race and you can’t really influence how the other people will do, so as long as you ski your best…yeah. That worked.”
The second, third and fourth-place finishers on Thursday all ended up being the only three skiers behind Gruber on the start list. It was a finicky day for kick wax at Rikert and some teams appeared to struggle with the grip, but Gruber said she and her teammates had great skis, which helped her on the deceptively challenging course.
“I went out really hard, I think,” Gruber said. “I was telling myself, ‘You fell good, this is good,’ and then when the hills started my skis were working and I said, ‘Oh, my skis are working, this is good.’ And then I was starting to hurt pretty bad, like, ‘Oh, I’m dying.’”
Spurred up the last hill by a slew of Catamount fans, teammates and coaches, Gruber finished hard on Rikert’s newly-homologated trails put a few more seconds of space between herself an the remaining competitors. O’Connell got a final split saying she was only five seconds down, but in the end Gruber won by over 11 seconds.
“Anja made up quite a bit of time in the finishing stretch,” O’Connell said.
The Dartmouth freshman from Steamboat Springs, Colo., put together an impressive race in her own right. Like Gruber, 2013 is also O’Connell’s first NCAA Championship appearance, and with a goal of reaching just the top-10 on Thursday she finished ahead of nearly everyone on the stacked start list. As the final starter, O’Connell left the gate 30 seconds behind CU’s Joanne Reid, a pre-race favorite, and set out to use the position to her advantage.
“I had the last starting position, which I was both excited and nervous about,” O’Connell said. “It’s a good position, because then your splits are very accurate. I started right behind Joanne Reid and I guess she was one of the favorites to win, so I just wanted to keep her in my sights. And it’s a 5 k, so I pretty much just went hard the whole time and tried to ski the down hills really well.”
When she crossed the finish line, O’Connell bumped Dusser out of second by just 0.8 seconds. The result has her looking forward to Saturday’s freestyle race, particularly since she won the 15 k at Rikert earlier this season at the Middlebury carnival.
“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’m much better at distance skating, and the last time we did a 15 k skate here I won the race,” O’Connell said. “So I have good confidence going into it — you know, a top 5, a top 10, would also be great.”
As Dusser is former French National Biathlon Team member, she wasn’t too upset at the last-minute demotion from silver to bronze. The UAA freshman from Villard de Lans, France, only began training for races in the classic technique this year, and as the third-ranked RMISA skier at NCAAs this year she had top-5 expectations for Thursday’s race.
“It’s my first championship and I’m a biathlete, so I wasn’t really good in classic before,” Dusser said. “So I didn’t really know what to expect but this season was pretty good, so yup — I’m happy.”
For the 24-year-old, cross-country races are generally more enjoyable experiences that what she’s used to on game day.
“Biathlon is really stressful with the shooting, so I enjoy and feel it’s more fun, but at the same time I feel [NCAAs] is really important, so I’m happy,” Dusser said. “When I see all the people around me…I think it’s a really important race, so I’m glad to be here and to try.”
Under two seconds behind Dusser, Reid placed fourth for CU. Sloan Storey (University of Utah) was fifth (+31.0) and Maria Nordstroem (CU) placed sixth (+32.2). UVM leads CU in the team standings by a slim twenty points headed into Friday’s slalom events at the Snow Bowl. The fourth and final event of the NCAA championships is the 15/20 k mass start freestyle, which takes place at Rikert on Saturday.
Does UVM feel any pressure to maintain their lead and repeat their 2012 title?
“We try not to think about defending, we just want to win this one,” Weaver said. “We try not to look back and we like to look forward, so we’re just taking this one day a time… We did our job today and I think we’re still in the lead, so we’re going to send good vibes to the alpine team tomorrow and hopefully they can do what they do best. And then we’ll see what happens Saturday.”
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting.