All 2012 Cross Country Junior Nationals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic, in Bennington, Vt., committed to caring for the mind since 1987. Currently conducting clinical research on the Alzheimer’s disease vaccine.
MIDWAY, Utah — When he woke up before the mass start skate race on Wednesday morning, Karsten Hokanson (Intermountain/Wasatch Nordic Ski Academy) felt a bit ill. The 5 k course at Soldier Hollow was home turf for the J2, who is a junior at the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah.
“I kinda wanted to see how it went,” said Hokanson after clinching the win in the freestyle mass start. “But, it was a really good race.”
With the home-course advantage on Wednesday, Hokanson took it easy out of the start, hovering around the tenth position. He gradually turned it on towards the end, using Hermod’s Hill—the enormous wall of a climb towards the end of the course—to start his attack.
“It was really hard, but that’s where I’d planned on making a move,” said Hokanson.
Hermod’s Hill was a deciding factor for nearly every distance race that took place on Wednesday, sapping skiers of every bit of strength they had. Those who attacked too hard risked fading later, while those who saved just enough for the long final straightaway prevailed.
In Hokanson’s case, his ability to stay on his feet helped also him towards the gold medal. He moved within striking distance of the front on the big climb, and on the “whale’s tail” of a descent on the other side, the race leader lost control and fell, losing valuable momentum. Hokanson came screaming by and held the position all the way to the finish, clocking in at 12:23.7 on the icy, fast course. Tanner Ramey (AK/Alaska Winter Stars) took silver 9.7 seconds back and Peter Holmes (FW/Tahoe XC) finished third (+11.7).
At the 2011 championships in Minneapolis, Hokanson finished in the top-10 in both individual distance races. One year can make a big difference, as his gold medal-performance shows. This is Hokanson’s first national title, and when asked if he thought a repeat was a possibility for Friday’s interval start classic, he shrugged. Nothing is guaranteed.
“We’ll see, I don’t know… It depends on how I feel and how it plays out,” he said.
At Her First Junior Nationals, Blanchet Notches 5 k Win
With hardly any expectations prior to the start of the J2 girls 5 k, Lydia Blanchet (AK/Alaska Pacific University NSC) pulled off her first career Junior Nationals title, finishing 5.8 seconds ahead of Julia Kern (NE/Cambridge Sports Union). Alayna Sonnesyn (MW/Sisu Ski Club) was third (+6.3).
For all three skiers who ended up on the podium, the 5 k mass start freestyle was a waiting game. They came to Soldier Hollow from sea level, and no one wanted to make a move too early and risk digging herself into a hole. As a result, the lead group kept an inconsistent pace, no one wanting to take the lead.
For the winner, the race played out perfectly. Blanchet skied towards the back of the lead pack in the early kilometers and gradually moved up.
“Everything happened just how I wanted,” said an awestruck Blanchet. “I was in third on Hermod’s Hill, and managed to pass people on that screamer downhill, and it was just to the finish from there.”
“I don’t think it could have turned out any better for me.”
The pace was a different experience for those at the front for the early sections.
“It was a rugged race—it went fast, slow, fast, slow,” said Kern.
“Then it was just, like, pain cave on the hill,” she said of the long ascent to the high point of the course at the top of Hermod’s.
After the podium ceremony, Blanchet still couldn’t quite believe her luck in winning.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” she said. “This is my first year at JNs. I was just kind of checking out the scene and it turns out I can compete at this level. It’s really, really exciting for me.”
Blanchet’s reaction is a reminder of what these Junior National championships do best: open athletes’ eyes to exactly where they stand against the rest of the country and inspire them to come back next year even stronger.