FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Spectators watching halfway through the Junior 1 national championship girls sprint race on Thursday must have wondered whether three Norwegians were on their way to a sweep.
At that point, twins Tiril and Lotta Weng seemed in control, while fellow Norwegian Lisa Kvamme trailed slightly and American Annika Miller fought to stay close.
The next time spectators in the Birch Hill Recreation Area stadium spotted the skiers one tough climb and several hundred meters later, many must have been shocked to see Miller en route to a clear win at the U.S. Cross Country Junior Nationals.
“I really wanted to (win). I was like ‘You know, the U.S. needs to be on top today,’ ” said Miller of Team Intermountain, whose win was no fluke considering that she finished the qualifying round in first as well.
But keeping up with the Norwegians, who competed as guests and are not eligible to claim U.S. Championship medals, was no easy task.
“I was really worried coming up that first hill because they were just hammering,” Miller said.
Miller, from McCall, Idaho, quietly stalked the Norwegians and then charged past them on the final East Ramp uphill.
“I was kind of neck-and-neck with them coming up the last hill and then just off the top they just didn’t have enough left, I guess,” Miller said. “And so I hammered the top and hoped they didn’t have too much of a draft and just went for it.”
It was a risky strategy that could have backfired had the Norwegians hopped in Miller’s slipstream and slingshotted past her at the bottom of the hill leading into the flat finishing stretch.
Instead Miller won going away in 3 minutes, 4.14 seconds. Tiril Weng was runner-up a half-second behind, Lotta Weng placed third and Kvamme finished a distant fourth.
The other two skiers in the A Final, Marion Woods of Alaska and Zoe Snow of New England, placed fifth and sixth, respectively, but won the U.S. silver and bronze medals.
In the J2 girls race, Lydia Blanchet of Anchorage could hardly believe she won.
“It just hadn’t crossed my mind that I could be a sprint champion,” said Blanchet, who considers herself more of a distance skier.
That Blanchet, the 2013 Alaska High School Skimeister, would top Julie Kern of New England seemed improbable, given that Kern was the defending J2 sprint champion and won Thursday’s qualifying round.
Blanchet grabbed the lead halfway through the 1-kilometer course with a nifty move on the inside of a tight corner. She held off Kern by 0.46 seconds and was never seriously threatened on the homestretch.
“I knew (Kern) was there. It wasn’t until I looked around and didn’t see anyone’s shadow that I kind of started realizing that ‘Oh my gosh, I might be able to win this race,” Blanchet said. “To pull this one off is just a good confidence boost for me.”
Hannah Halvorsen edged New England teammate Leah Lange to win bronze.
In girls OJ, Felicia Gesior credited her fast skis.
Clearly her talent had plenty to do with the decisive victory that gave Great Lakes its first gold medal of the championships.
Gesior, who competes for Northern Michigan University, placed 11th in the same race a year ago at Soldier Hollow, Utah. This time she and Stephanie Kirk of Alaska, the top two qualifiers, broke away from the pack early on. Gesior bided her time just behind Kirk for half the race, then blew past her on the final climb of the 1.25-kilometer course.
“Once I was gone, I kind of went,” Gesior said.
As Gesior powered through a stiff headwind on the finishing straight, Kirk struggled home 5.75 seconds later. Celia Haering of Alaska took bronze.
For more photos from 2013 Junior Nationals, visit bertboyer.zenfolio.com. Proceeds go to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).