FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — Despite illness, disrupted training, disappointment and frustration with her early season, Jennie Bender (Central Cross Country) will not quit. The odds were stacked against her at Soldier Hollow, but with each successive stage of the classic sprint on Wednesday at U.S. Nationals she moved closer to the kind of comeback usually found in fairytales. With an incredible come-from-behind finish the story was complete: Bender was the first national champion to be crowned in 2013, sneaking just in front of Sadie Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) and Rosie Brennan (APU) in second and third, respectively.
“I’m a little in shock,” Bender said after the podium ceremony. “I mean, I felt good in my other races and knew this would be my best chance of doing well [but]… you never know what’s going to happen.”
After missing months of off-season training when she contracted both mono and lyme disease, after trying to make the Canadian World Cups but finding her body wasn’t yet there, after hoping the setbacks didn’t foretell the end of her entire season, and after, just a little bit, questioning her chosen profession — after all that, Bender was finally where she’d wanted to be all along, standing at the top of a national championship podium for the first time.
“This morning I was like, ‘I would love to be on the podium,” Bender said. “That would have for sure been last year’s goal, and I’ve just tried to roll the goals over this year even though I never know how I’m going to feel on the start line.
“This whole summer and fall has just been a rollercoaster of emotions and results. So I hope this is a good sign of what’s to come.”
The 1.3 k sprint course was perfect for an athlete like Bender, who favors short classic races and is a phenomenal double-poler, a quality necessary for the impossibly long final straight into the finish. The caveat to that statement is that it was perfect for a fully fit and healthy Bender, and prior to Wednesday she hadn’t seen that version of herself since last season.
“I was trying to be positive but I was a mess sometimes,” Bender admitted of her fall mindset. “I needed this really, really badly.”
Even after she had qualified in sixth and won her quarterfinal, she wasn’t quite ready to say she was on her way to a comeback. “Don’t say that yet, just wait a little bit more,” she said when a reporter suggested as much in between heats.
Then she won her semifinal against Brennan and Sophie Caldwell (SMS T2), who have each had strong December results.
When the A-final got underway Bender was up against women who had all been to the World Cups she’d dreamed of, too, people she had been able to ski with easily the season before. Perhaps that was fuel for the fire as she skied up the hollow with them to head out on course. She tucked into the third position, a few paces off Bjornsen and Caldwell, as the group reached the plateau.
“We came up there and I was like, ‘OK, I think I can stick with these guys,’” Bender said.
At the front of the pack Bjornsen was trying to drop the field, so no one could catch her draft.
“I kept waiting for somebody to come up beside me and nobody was, and so I tried to push over the top of the hill really hard,” Bjornsen said.
It didn’t quite work out as planned. Bender caught up to the group on the last uphill and was in a good enough position to draft the leader for a slingshot around them the curve.
Caldwell’s plan had also been to put distance on her competitors before the descent, as she knew her double-pole to be a weakness. But Soldier Hollow’s course can be cruel and erases that distance no matter the effort.
“Even when you put in the effort early on you can still sort of get swept up in the finish,” Caldwell said. “That worked really well for my first quarterfinal but then not as well for the final.”
The group crossed the bridge and rounded the final bend into the stadium. Bender passed Caldwell, “and then it was me and Sadie neck-and-neck all of a sudden.”
The final meters of a close race become the stuff of legends. Bender sat a few boot-lengths behind Bjornsen at the top of the straightaway, but a long stretch of snow provided time for redemption.
“The double-pole happened to be just long enough, because I was able to slowly inch forward,” Bender said.
“I dug deep for that one. I kept having flashbacks of last year when I ate it. I was like, ‘Just don’t fall!’ But this is double-poling, not skating, so I had that under [control].”
Bender drew even with Bjornsen less than 50 meters from the finish and edged in front of her for a slim but clear win.
“In the finish I could see everyone come up beside and I just double-poled as hard as I could,” Bjornsen said. “At the finish line there were no flags or anything marking it so all of a sudden Jennie was screaming and I was like, ‘Wait, I didn’t even lunge.’ So it definitely came as a surprise.”
Many emotions at once went into Bender’s cry for joy and arms lifted to the sky in triumph.
“I’m trying to go through my reel of things I want to be saying and I’m blanking,” Bender said. “ I definitely really wanted it. It put a lot of things into perspective for this summer.”
Bjornsen was gracious in defeat. “Jennie has had so many challenges this year and I just feel like we’re in the same boat in that way, so I’m sure it means so much to her.”
Brennan, on familiar turf at Soldier Hollow, came in just behind Bjornsen in the same lane. She’d put herself in a good position off the top of the descent and moved nearly within striking distance of the top two.
“Sadie and Jennie are probably some of the best double-polers in the country, so I was just trying to keep up to the finish,” Brennan said.
A Park City native, this is Brennan’s first nationals medal. “I’m really exited about that. I feel like I’m stronger at distance racing so to have it in a sprint I think is a good sign for the rest of the week.”
APU had four women in the A-final. After a short break in the group behind Bjornsen and Brennan, Kate Fitzgerald finished fourth.
“I think it went quite well; that was really fun,” Fitzgerald said.
Caldwell’s fifth-place showing, though not the same sprint results she’s produced recently, was still a personal best at nationals for her.
“I was especially excited with the prelim, being that close to Sadie. I really had no idea how I’d stack up in a classic sprint, because all we’ve been doing is skating,” Caldwell said.
In sixth place, Becca Rorabaugh got dropped early and wasn’t able to reconnect with the pack. She, too, was excited about a best career finish at U.S. Nationals in her weaker discipline.
On Wednesday evening, even after that the title was hers for several hours, Bender isn’t quite sure what to make of the result — almost as if it hasn’t really happened. She doesn’t even think she’s back to 100% speed yet.
“The fact that I now can see improvements makes me see the big picture a little more, but I don’t feel like I did what I did today, I’m not really sure why,” Bender said. “In previous years this would have been a finishing goal, but now this is a process goal. I’m excited but I’m looking past it because there were bigger things I’d have liked to be achieving this year. This is where I want to be, but I want more consistency in general.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.