RIPTON, Vt. – Joanne Reid knows exactly what it takes to win. The University of Colorado senior has been no stranger to the podium in her four years at Boulder, placing third as a sophomore at the 2011 NCAA Skiing Championships.
But this season was an exception. In 10 total Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) races, Reid won eight of them. Her unrivaled dominance made the 20-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., the clear-cut RMISA MVP.
The question was: how would she fare against eastern-collegiate skiers on what was essentially their home turf at Rikert Nordic Center in Vermont? On Thursday, in the first of the two-day nordic NCAA Championships, Reid placed fourth in the women’s 5 k classic individual start. It was the first time she hadn’t made the top two all season.
Saturday was a different story. With teammate Eliska Hajkova, Reid was confident they could get out front in the 15-kilometer freestyle mass start and stay there. Just as they’d done all season (including when they swept the podium with teammate Maria Nordstrom at regionals), they planned to feed off each other to achieve what they both wanted: the podium.
The CU seniors led from the start: Reid in a blue headband, Hajkova in a pink one. The way they were skiing, that was one of a few ways you could tell them apart.
Changing leads throughout the first and second laps, Reid took charge for good on the third and final loop around a twisty, turning and technical 5 k course. Hajkova remembers her dropping the pack – with Marine Dusser of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA) and Mary O’Connell (Dartmouth College) – on the third of several hills.
“She kind of went and we couldn’t follow,” said Hajkova, who hails from the Czech Republic. “We were, like, falling apart.”
About a half kilometer from the finish, Reid entered Rikert’s spectator-packed stadium in first without any contenders in sight. She cruised around the field’s final curve more than 30 seconds ahead, grabbed a CU flag a few hundred meters before the finish, and carved some turns while making her way across the line.
Reid finished in 38:17.8 for her first NCAA title, 26.8 seconds ahead of Hajkova, who outlunged Dusser for second. The RMISA MVP runner-up, Dusser placed third for the second-straight race at NCAAs, 0.4 seconds behind Hajkova.
Colorado University’s top-two sweep put the Buffs in prime position against the University of Vermont (UVM) for the combined alpine-nordic NCAA team title. Trailing by 54 points to start the day, CU overtook UVM by 16 points after the women’s race.
Thanks to some solid men’s performances in the following 20 k, CU rolled to a 43-point victory over the University of Utah (which put three men in the top five) and topped UVM by 56 points. Last year, UVM edged CU for the team win, but in 2011, CU took it.
“Our girls were not such a surprise because they were consistent and forming all season,” said CU head coach Richard Rokos, who’s in charge of both the university’s alpine and nordic programs. “I was a little surprised that UVM didn’t put a little more resistance on us.”
With Reid, it was somewhat of a blast from the past. Her mother Beth Heiden skied for UVM and won the 1983 NCAA Nordic Championships. Before that, she was the all-around world speed skating champion in 1979, the 1980 world road cycling champ and a bronze-medalist speed skater at the 1980 Olympics.
“I saw her at the finish line and it was great,” Reid told BuffZone.com. “It’s cool that we have both now won NCAA individual titles … Every time I go skiing with her, they just list all her awards so now I have one that she has. I just need a few more world championships in other sports now to catch up.”
Reid’s uncle, Eric Heiden, won five gold medals at the 1980 Olympics, and set four Olympic records and a world best there. According to the CU website, he was the only athlete in the history of speed skating to have swept five events in a single Olympics.
On Saturday, Reid put down a commanding performance of her own and said she couldn’t have done without her teammate.
“It’s always better if I can have this one right next to me,” she said of Hajkova. “That’s what makes it really complete.”
After a somewhat relaxed first lap, the CU women led a group of four the last two loops with Dusser and O’Connell, who placed fourth.
“I was more comfortable in front and I just kept skiing how I felt,” Reid said. “I guess I ended up in front.”
Hajkova said they had “great skis,” which Dusser noticed early on. The former French national-team biathlete wasn’t having as much luck with hers.
“I tried to keep my energy and stay behind Eliska,” Dusser said. “But she was a better sprinter. I was tired at the end so she beat me by not a lot, but that’s a race.”
A 2011 NCAA champion in the 15 k classic, Hajkova said placing second to Reid was about as much as she could’ve asked for after struggling to get healthy since last fall.
“I couldn’t dream for more,” Hajkova said. “If I had been second to somebody else, and Joanne didn’t win, it would be a little bit sad, but this, I’m just on top of my happiness.”
Dusser, too, was thrilled with another podium in her first NCAA Championships. Unsure what her plans are next year, she’s hoping to ski another year at UAA, but said it depends whether she can get another scholarship.
“I would like to stay in Alaska,” Dusser said. “It was out too quick with biathlon and I don’t regret. I really like nordic skiing; I really like the spirit of NCAA race. It’s a lot of fun and people are really nice and I like my team.”
Thursday’s runner-up, O’Connell finished 33.3 seconds behind Dusser (1:00.5 after Reid). Silje Benum of Denver University was fifth (+1:03.2) and the University of New Hampshire’s Anya Caldwell Bean was another 5.4 seconds back in sixth.
“Top ten I thought it would be awesome,” Bean said. “But I didn’t really know what to expect.”
She avoided several crashes, but top contenders like Elizabeth Guiney (UNH), Anja Gruber (UVM) and Annie Pokorny (Middlebury College) did not. Guiney placed 16th, Gruber ended up 21st and Pokorny did not finish after falling on a downhill less than two kilometers into the first lap.
After hitting a tree in Thursday’s 5 k and knocking her hips out of alignment, Pokorny wasn’t sure she would be able to compete Saturday. Finally able to bend at the waist again that morning, she decided she could.
“It would’ve been fine if I stayed on my feet,” Pokorny said while watching the men’s 20 k on crutches.
She completed the first lap, but ultimately did not finish. After an initial look at her injury, Pokorny believed she had bruised her femur.
As for the rest of the field, Rosie Frankowski of Northern Michigan University placed seventh, Dartmouth’s Annie Hart was eighth, Utah’s Rose Kemp (who also fell) was ninth, and Denver’s Makayla Cappel finished 10th.
At the end of the day, the happiest coach had to be Rokos. He said getting his alpine and nordic teams to combine for a national title was tricky, especially because of the nature of downhill racing.
“On the nordic side, it’s a race to go and ski your best and race fast,” Rokos said. “In alpine, all year long we go pretty much the same until NCAA Championship and then we put them in a dilemma, ski fast but finish, and there is no compromise between those things.”
He told his alpine squad they had to finish and was proud of those athletes for using such discipline. And while UVM beat CU on the downhill runs at Middlebury College’s Snow Bowl, the Buffs made up for it at Rikert.
“Every single person on the team made a great contribution,” Rokos said of Colorado’s 18th NCAA victory, his seventh with the team since 1991. “It’s teamwork and it came that way.”
He also credited the team’s success to head nordic coach, Bruce Cranmer, in his 13th season with the Buffs.
“Both Eliska and Joanna are in their last year; they were maturing athletically throughout all their career with CU and they have a great coach,” Rokos said. “[He] did a great deal of work with them and it paid off.”
For more photos from the 2013 NCAA Skiing Championships, visit Flying Point Road Photography. All proceeds go to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).