MIDWAY, Utah — Classic sprint day at U.S. Cross Country Championships. Nothing was simple. The 9:05 a.m. start time brought a daylong chess match for athletes and wax techs. Temperatures hovered near freezing all day — the entire spectrum of precipitation seemed to fall: drizzle, swollen wet snowflakes, and graupel.
One by one the big names set off at 15-second increments. There was Bend Endurance Academy’s Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, then Reese Hanneman, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), followed by an elite list of North America’s best sprinters absent those few racing on the World Cup.
The men’s course featured three climbs, the last of which was positioned before a sweeping descent back into the stadium about 0.5 kilometers from the finish. Early on, even with the first few starters, it was evident on this hill that the chess match’s checkmate move pivoted on the wax.
Up that hill, some skiers strode, many slipped. Some athletes employed a herringbone-run mash up, some double poled on skate skis. Others suffered the indignity of balled up snow under foot and the awkward dance of shedding that snow and attempting to make forward progress.
APU Head Coach Erik Flora helped put the qualifier in perspective.
“This is the first time ever that I have been in a sprint race when we haven’t had any men in the heats,” Flora said about his men’s results. “And that’s the first time in ten years.”
For a club like APU, it’s clearly rare when a perfect storm impacts an entire men’s side.
“I don’t think it was one thing, it was a combination of a few things,” Flora said after the racing was completed. “We have a few guys that came in sick and that didn’t help. And we have a lot of guys that are seeded really high in the start list with points and if you look through the top 30, there’s a lot of unusual places.”
On many days, a high race seed correlates with good results.
“But sometimes there are those days when being in a certain place in a seed helps. I think for the leading men it was a disadvantage today,” Flora added.
Along with some recent sickness, the seeding and weather conditions, and skis that Flora noted weren’t “anything special”, APU’s qualifying positions portended a rough day for many.
Some athletes’ misfortune opened doors for others. No one kicked that door open with more force than University of Utah’s 23-year-old Kevin Bolger. He was the only American in the men’s final and won his first-career national title outright by winning the final over second-place skier Moritz Madlener (University of Denver), and Canadian national-team member Jess Cockney in third.
“100 percent. Absolutely,” Bolger said when asked if he was surprised by the end result. “Usually just qualifying for the heats is kind of my biggest goal. And today, I just, with the qualifying seventh I was in awe, actually.”
Bolger qualified seventh in 3:41.69, only a few seconds behind best qualifier, Ben Saxton of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team, who rounded the 1.5 k course in 3:38.35.
The Utah skier had a four-leaf-clover day. Bolger said his coach nailed the wax every round which complemented his fitness. In his quarterfinal, Blackhorse-von Jess set the tempo.
“I knew he was a good sprinter, I kind of look around in my heats before each, kind of see who I’m around, who I can play with,” Bolger said. “And I saw he was there, I knew he wanted to get to the final, so I was like, ‘He’s going to try and race well.’ And I got in behind him, he made a move and I stuck with him.”
On the back hill, where the skiers race up and away to the backside of the course, Blackhorse-von Jess played his hand.
“I think he got 10 meters off on me,” Bolger said of Blackhorse-von Jess’s stamp of authority.
But on the descent into the last kicker climb, Bolger’s skis were running.
“And my skis just – they glided right up to him,” Bolger described. “And I came up to that hill and they kept going, and I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to run up this sucker.’ And I went for it.”
Now Bolger was off the front widening a small gap. Behind, it appeared Blackhorse-von Jess’s skis momentarily stalled out, resulting in a fall and snapped pole. Unaware of changing fortunes behind, Bolger cruised in. But he’d not simply cashed out, satisfied with a quarterfinal win. He banked some important knowledge. He wasn’t slipping on his skis when kicking at decisive moments.
“Knowing that I can charge up that [last] hill 100 percent and trust my skis, that’s huge, I think, in our sport,” Bolger said.
Luck struck again in his semifinal — Bolger placed fourth in a fast first semifinal; he was the second lucky loser, both of whom came from his semifinal.
In the final, Cockney made a bold move from the start, but the group behind yo-yoed, never losing significant contact. And on that same last hill, Bolger charged again.
“I was like, ‘OK, I think this is the time to go,’ ’cause I don’t have quite the turnover in my double pole,” Bolger said. “I know I’m big, strong and powerful, but the turnover I think isn’t quite there. So I thought that that was my time to go.”
Up and working over the top, Bolger was gone for his first national title.
“It kind of hit me like 10 meters from the finish that I was gonna win this sucker, and I was like, ‘Holy sh*t,’ ” he said.
Second-place finisher, 23-year-old Madlener is a student in the U.S. but grew up skiing in Germany. (It was Madlener’s second podium in as many races at senior nationals. He placed third in Saturday’s 15 k freestyle.)
Madlener is a multiple NCAA podium placer.
“I had second and third in NCAAs last year, and second the year before during my sophomore year,” Madlener explained in a post-race phone interview.
Although pleased with his podiums at Soldier Hollow this week, he explained his year-end goal remains winning an NCAA individual title.
“I want to win it at some point,” Madlener added. “This is my senior year, this year is it. I am aware it is difficult to win a race at NCAAs but that is my goal and of course to win again as a team, which I think we have a good chance to do.”
Madlener told FasterSkier he will not be pursuing a post-collegiate ski career and has accepted a job that will eventually base him in Salt Lake City after graduation.
The U.S. Podium
As part of U.S. nationals, a separate, U.S.-only podium is also recognized. Bolger still stood atop in first, 22-year-old Sun Valley Ski Education (SVSEF) Gold Team member Jack Hegman was second, and his teammate Cole Morgan, also 22, third.
Hegman and Morgan both skied in the second semifinal and neither advanced; Hegman finished third, Morgan fourth.
For Hegman, it’s his last year as a U23 so his main goal this week at nationals is qualifying for U23 World Championships.
“I’ve had two really solid races so far, so I’m pretty stoked on that,” Hegman told FasterSkier after the race, referring to Sunday’s classic sprint and Saturday’s 15 k skate. “Yesterday I ended up sixth, I think, fifth American, and second U23. So that was a really awesome race for me, I was pretty fired up.”
Double poling was Morgan’s golden ticket. He qualified fifth on skate skis.
“Then it started raining before the quarters,” Morgan explained. “I came out to do the warmup, and it was super icy when I warmed up, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely going to double pole it again in the quarterfinal.’”
In the third quarterfinal, Morgan took second place to automatically advance.
Like Hegman, Morgan’s ride ended in the semis. But his goal of obtaining an U23 World Championship berth remains.
New names, emerging names, and some old ones: a crazy day in SoHo.
— Gabby Naranja and Gavin Kentch contributed