HOUGHTON, Mich. — When Jennie Bender toed the start line of the final in the women’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Monday, she stood as the racer to beat.
Representing the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF), Bender, a 27-year-old two-time U.S. nationals sprint champion (in 2014 skate sprint and 2013 classic sprint), posted the fastest qualifying time Monday morning in 3:56.25. That put her in bib 1, which became the theme of her day as she skied to convincing wins in both her quarterfinal and semifinal to cruise into the final.
The women’s final was comprised of a mix of experienced and young talent and promised to be an interesting four minutes. The top two in Sunday’s 10 k classic, Caitlin Patterson and Kaitlynn Miller represented the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP). Two Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 skiers, Anne Hart and Erika Flowers, also reached the final. Then there was U18 phenom Hannah Halvorsen, of Sugar Bowl Academy, and Bender.
The sprint course exited the stadium at the Michigan Tech Trails and descended to the lowest part of the course before a short kicker climb and descent. It ended with a long, grinding climb over 500 meters back up to the finish. Despite the tough course, many of the races were decided in the last 100 meters, creating palpable excitement among the spectators.
The women’s final was tight for the first half of the race, but the last grinding climb proved to be decisive. As the women crested the top of the hill and headed toward the finish, Bender and Hart were clear of the rest of the field. In the end, Bender outlasted the 23-year-old Hart, who spends the bulk of her offseason training with several U.S. Ski Team members in Stratton, Vt., by 0.61 seconds at the line. She won in 3:44.79 for her third national title in the last four seasons.
Bender sat out Sunday’s classic distance race in order to focus on the first of two sprints at nationals and because her back has been bothering her.
“I did today what I needed to do and I’m excited for the next two races. Today and the classic sprints are the most important to me,” Bender explained.
In a race for third, Patterson held off Miller’s late surge to take the last podium spot, 4.19 seconds after Bender and 0.7 seconds ahead of Miller. Halvorsen matched her finish from last year’s classic sprint at nationals in fifth place (+7.46), and at 17, claimed top U18 honors. Flowers rounded out the final in sixth (+10.71).
After the race, Bender said she was pleased her fitness was reflected in race results.
“I’ve been feeling pretty fit and a lot better skating this year than I ever have, which is sweet,” she said. “All the heats I came into being relaxed and powerful and making sure I held together through the finishing stretch because it is such a long uphill.
“I am fitter this year so I can handle the long course with a long hill,” she added. “I think doing well today proved to me that I can handle both a Yellowstone sprint course and a course that is four minutes long.”
In the first SuperTour race of the season, Bender won the freestyle sprint in West Yellowstone, Mont. That was the only other skate sprint on the circuit before Monday’s first sprint at nationals.
The long, uphill finish Bender referred to was a major factor in each heat, and Hart played her cards perfectly to secure second place for her career best and first podium at nationals.
“Initially I was going to hop in and follow in all the heats, but then I felt good and wanted to stay out of trouble so I just kept the pedal down,” Hart said.
Second to Patterson in her quarterfinal and second to Bender in her semifinal, she made sure to finish second in both heats to automatically advance to the next rounds.
“In the quarters and semis I didn’t want to sprint up that hill because it is just brutal and I could probably only do that once,” Hart said. “I figured if I could save it for the final, I’d have the best shot at the podium and that’s what happened.”
After a slow start to her season, Hart was thrilled with her result.
“I put in a lot of work this summer and was a bit disappointed with some of my early season results. So I reflected on what I could do to work on what I could control and what I couldn’t control,” she said. “I knew on a good day, I could achieve a podium, but I am so thrilled and so excited because anything can happen in sprinting.”
Craftsbury’s Patterson notched her second-straight podium in third place, and Miller posted another personal best in a sprint at nationals in fourth.
Patterson qualified fifth and went on to win her quarterfinal and take second in a photo finish with Halvorsen in her semifinal.
“Anne and Jennie were really strong and pulling away and I sort of tanked and couldn’t move my legs the final straightaway,” Patterson said. “I wish I were a little better at the jump skating — really quick V1. I think that’s where the two frontrunners pulled away and had an edge on me.”
For Miller, her showing at nationals so far continues to surprise her.
“Up until yesterday I had never made a top ten at nationals and up until today, never made a semifinal at nationals,” she said. “I’m really happy, it went much better than expected.
“There was a lot of jostling in the hills and I was a little boxed out but I just held tight on the finishing stretch,” Miller explained.
Halvorsen’s fifth-place finish brings her one step closer to her goal of racing at Youth Olympic Games in February in Lillehammer, Norway. To qualify, Halvorsen needs to be the top U18 skier at U.S. nationals.
“I’m really excited with how the races played out,” Halvorsen said. “I felt really strong today and the course was really fun and really fast. I think I am recovering better this year [between the heats] just because I have a bit more experience.”
Overall, the sunshine, spectators, music, and competitive races made for a great Day 2 of nationals.
“Before the final, they played Taylor Swift so we were just shaking it off, T-Swift style,” Hart recalled. “It was really fun, really beautiful, really great group of girls.”