FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah – Natalja Naryshkina just needed another day. Acclimating to racing at Soldier Hollow’s elevation of more than 5,500 feet was hard enough, and Naryshkina had flown in from Russia just over a week earlier.
A student in Saint Petersburg, she had to adjust to an 11-hour time difference. But more than a decade of World Cup racing had taught her that racing is racing – and when you feel your best, you can achieve it.
“She expected it,” said Dmitriy Ozerskiy, a Moscow native and Naryshkina’s teammate at the Wisconsin-based Central Cross Country (CXC), who translated for her on Friday after she won the classic sprint at U.S. Cross Country Championships.
In the last of four races at nationals, the 1.5-kilometer classic sprint, the 29-year-old Naryshkina clocked the fastest qualifying time by 0.02 seconds over Rosie Brennan of Alaska Pacific University (APU), then won her quarterfinal and semifinal to start as the A-final favorite.
There, Naryshkina hoped the good feelings from earlier in the day would help her win the final. She did so, leading out of the start then skiing even with Brennan up the lone-yet-massive climb known as Hermod’s.
Brennan reached the top first, but Naryshkina trailed closely down the descent while Nichole Bathe (University of Alaska-Fairbanks), Becca Rorabaugh (APU), Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation), and Lauren Fritz (APU) followed, respectively.
As the two frontrunners rounded a tight corner toward the finish, Naryshkina stepped left and nearly tangled with Rorabaugh, who had caught up on the descent. Brennan continued on in first while Naryshkina moved right to the inside lane to stay in second. Meanwhile, Rorabaugh recovered and searched for an opening, which Bathe found to make her way to third. Naryshkina pushed over the last rise into the stadium, accelerating past Brennan as she double poled to the line.
Brennan jumped in the track behind her, following closely to ensure second and a national title as the first American. From her perspective, it was hard to know who was behind her and how close they were.
“My back was giving me a lot of trouble today so I was nervous about the double pole,” Brennan said. “So I thought, ‘I’m just gonna get in behind her and try to hold off anyone that comes off behind,’ and I started catching her more and more.”
A few feet before the finish, Brennan stood up to avoid riding up on Naryshkina’s skis, stepping to the side just across the line as Naryshkina took the win in 3:53.1. Brennan finished second, 0.3 seconds back, and the 18-year-old Bathe captured her first national podium in third.
“Retrospectively I probably should’ve stepped out and tried to do something, but I don’t know, it just worked out,” Brennan said with a laugh. “I just didn’t really think about it until I was practically running into her and then the line was right there. So I’m like, ‘No one’s coming behind me so it’s good.’ ”
“The first race here when I have so many people cheering for me it’s like, ‘Oh God, I have to do so well, there’s so much pressure.’ But then as the week goes on, I start to just relish in it.” — Rosie Brennan (APU), first American, second overall
Bathe finished 2.2 seconds later after outsprinting Rorabaugh by three-tenths of a second. Rorabaugh placed fourth, 1.3 seconds ahead of Bender in fifth, and Fritz placed sixth, 9.6 seconds behind Naryshkina.
“Today, I’m feeling better,” Naryshkina said. “Yesterday was acclimatization. Today is better.”
In her third season with CXC, the Russian is a familiar face on the SuperTour circuit and in marathons like the American Birkebeiner. However, Friday’s victory was special after she placed 52nd in the 10 k classic and 13th in the skate sprint earlier in the week.
“I love this course,” Naryshkina said. “It’s the very best competition. [Everyone is] very strong, good shape, very good conditions.”
CXC Head Coach Bill Pierce wasn’t surprised, but said she gave them a scare in her quarterfinal and semifinal, which she led from start to finish.
“You watched her double pole in really easy,” Pierce said. “She just saved it for the last [race] … smart bold moves in the final. It was cool.”
Another highlight for Pierce was Bathe, a UAF freshman whom he’s worked with since her first year as a J3. A former CXC athlete, she’ll return to the Midwest to train with the team next summer, Pierce said.
“She’s been through the whole program,” he explained. “She’s just strong. She’s doing well up there, doing really well.”
The fourth-fastest qualifier after Naryshkina, Brennan and Bender, respectively, Bathe won her quarterfinal by nearly a second ahead of Dartmouth’s Anne Hart. In her semifinal, she placed second, just 0.2 seconds behind Naryshkina.
“The quarterfinals and semifinals were good; I went out from the start pretty hard,” Bathe said. “In the finals, I knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to hold that if I tried, so I just kind of went behind people and it just seemed to work out for me.”
Following Brennan and Naryshkina up Hermod’s with Rorabaugh, she put herself in fighting position for the finish.
“I tried to go as hard as I could, push over the top and try to hold on at the end,” Bathe said.
As for her best senior nationals result by 36 places, she said it was a confidence booster heading into her first collegiate season.
“I’m planning on going to Junior Worlds so I’m hoping [after] the results here, I can help our team out there,” Bathe said.
Rorabaugh had mixed feelings about her week after opening with her first national title in the 10 k classic individual start. The next day, she placed seventh in the skate sprint and was 13th in the 20 k freestyle mass start on Wednesday.
“It’s been a crazy week, lots of ups and downs,” Rorabaugh said with a laugh. “I think I’m in better classic shape than skating shape right now so I’ll see where that takes me.”
The final turned out to be interesting after Brennan decided to pick up the pace early.
“Rosie would much rather have it come down to the hill than come down to the final sprint, so she took it out as hard as she could, which made it fun because it was definitely all-out the whole time,” Rorabaugh said.
Fourth up the hill, Rorabaugh soared back into contention on the descent with noticeably faster skis.
“I had amazing skis; our wax techs really killed it today,” she said.
Skiing in third, she said both she and Naryshkina moved to the outside track around the 180-degree corner.
Naryshkina eventually took the inside lane, but the tangle gave Bathe “an opportunity to come in with a little more speed,” Rorabaugh said. “We had a good sprint finish; it was really exciting. I think I gained on her a little bit toward the finish, but didn’t quite get it so ended up fourth, which is still a pretty darn good day.”
Brennan was also excited about her second U.S. title after she won the 10 k freestyle last year at Soldier Hollow – her home course.
“I can’t say I ever expect to win a sprint, but it’s sprinting so you really never know what happens,” Brennan said. “It’s cool that way. I’m excited.”
With a new sprint course this year that included a grueling ascent up Hermod’s, Brennan said it suited her strengths.
“I felt like, ‘If I can just wear people out and take the sprint out of them a little bit then I have a chance,’ ” she said.
After breaking away in her quarterfinal, she avoided a downhill crash that left Deedra Irwin (Michigan Tech University) on the ground for several minutes, but ultimately able to walk off the course.
“I had no idea that that happened,” Brennan said. “Everyone was like, ‘You can slow down, you’re winning by a lot now.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Thank you.’ ”
She went on to lead her semifinal before ending up third, 1.9 seconds behind Bender and 1.7 behind Rorabaugh, but she didn’t regret going out hard from the gun.
“It worked out perfectly because I don’t think I would’ve been lucky loser if I didn’t do that,” she said.
As for her best result of the week, the Park City native said it felt great.
“The first race here when I have so many people cheering for me it’s like, ‘Oh God, I have to do so well, there’s so much pressure,’ ” she said. “But then as the week goes on, I start to just relish in it. It’s so awesome to have so many supporters that come out. My best friend from since I was born is out her cheering for me and my brother and my dad and mom … so it’s really nice.”
— Lander Karath contributed reporting