When the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) met last spring, they decided it was time for a bit of a change at the season-ending SuperTour Finals and U.S. Distance Nationals. Instead of a hill climb, they opted for a team relay at the races in Anchorage, Alaska, scheduled for the following March 22-28.
According to the event’s race director James Southam, a two-time Olympian from Anchorage, athletes brought up the idea of a team event last year. An opening in the schedule made the 4 x 5-kilometer relay possible for 2014.
But unlike most four-person relays, the one going off Tuesday at 5 p.m. Alaska time will be coed with a male scramble classic leg tagging to a female classic skier, then male freestyle skier, and finally, a female freestyle anchor.
“I think it’s gonna be fun,” Southam said. “The last distance relay I remember doing was I think in Bend [Ore.] in 1998 or something like that for nationals. I think having the coed is going to be cool. … You don’t need four good guys or four good girls; I think it makes it a little more competitive.”
Eighteen official teams (including two junior squads), each made up of two males and two females from the same USSA club, will compete for a national title — and $750 dollars in prize money to split four ways. The second-place team will receive $500, and third gets $300.
It’s the second-to-last competition before Friday’s 30 and 50 k classic mass starts, which will be held at a different venue than the rest of the races at Kincaid Park, at the Hillside Trail System on the east side of town.
Teams to watch include Alaska Pacific University’s first team, with Reese Hanneman, Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen, and Kikkan Randall, in that order. The top team from Stratton Mountain School T2, Andy Newell, Sophie Caldwell, Simi Hamilton, and Jessie Diggins will also contend for the title, along with Craftsbury’s Patrick O’Brien, Ida Sargent, Gordon Vermeer, and Caitlin Patterson, and Sun Valley’s Mikey Sinnott, Mary Rose, Matt Gelso, and Chelsea Holmes.
Several college teams, such as the University of Vermont, Northern Michigan, New Mexico, and the University of Alaska-Anchorage will also be vying with the best of them.
There are also few unofficial teams with skiers from different clubs that have a shot at winning for glory rather than cash. Fastest of the Fast Twitch includes Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), Liz Stephen of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), Noah Hoffman (SSCV/Team HomeGrown/USST), and Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus). The Vagabonds are Karl Nygren (Podiumwear), Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation), Mark Iverson (Rossignol), and Cambria McDermott (independent).
Each competitor will ski two laps of either a roughly 3.3 k classic loop (for 6.6 k total) or a 2.6 k skate loop (for approximately 5.2 k).
As for the 5 p.m. start? It’s all about getting the best bang for the buck in terms of participation, volunteers and spectators.
“We want as many of the kids from around town to be able to race in it as well and to come out and watch it,” Southam said. “When you have midweek races at 11 o’clock it’s hard to get the kids out to watch. One of the big reasons we wanted to host these races is, after the Olympics people have been paying attention to skiing all winter long and it’s pretty powerful for kids coming up to be able to watch Olympians and world champions.”
Of the 26 teams entered in Tuesday’s relay, the two official junior squads are from APU. One unofficial team includes three men and a woman, another has four junior males, and one has three males, which will complete three legs and then call it a race.