With the 2016/2017 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to outstanding American skiers competing primarily, but not exclusively, at the Continental Cup level.
Ben Lustgarten, Craftsbury Green Racing Project
Before the start of the 2016/2017 ski season, Ben Lustgarten sat down to meet with his new coach, Pepa Miloucheva of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. After being based out of Sun Valley during the previous year, the Burlington, Vt., native had returned to the Green Mountain State to live and train an hour and half east of his hometown in Craftsbury.
With Miloucheva, he outlined some of his aims for the season. Two specific goals sat at the top of his list: 1) qualify for the Period III World Cup races in Otepää, Estonia, and 2) qualify for the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Lustgarten’s ambitions were high. Prior to this year, the 24-year-old had never won a SuperTour race. In fact, before this year he had never even stood on a SuperTour podium.
But past season stats were not a deterrent to Lustgarten. He went on to achieve both of his top two goals, qualifying for World Champs and ending Period II as the overall SuperTour leader, granting him Period III World Cup starts.
However, it’s not so much the races that Lustgarten qualified for that makes him deserving of FasterSkier’s U.S. Continental Skier of the Year Award. It’s the races it took to get him there.
Prior the 2017 U.S. Cross Country Championships, Lustgarten’s best U.S. national’s finish was sixth. He had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in a SuperTour sprint, let alone win. But by the end of the season, all those numbers changed.
In December, he raced to his first ever SuperTour podium finish, placing second in the men’s 15-kilometer classic event during the Bozeman SuperTour.
In January, during the Auburn SuperTour in Truckee, Calif., he not only advanced for the first time from the quarterfinals in a SuperTour sprint (the only other time he had advanced past the quarterfinals before that was two weeks earlier at U.S. nationals, where he finished fifth in his semifinal, 10th overall), he won his semifinal and eventually, the final.
“Top of the podium in a sprint! I never thought I’d see the day…” Lustgarten captioned a photo of himself atop the podium following the competition.
And before winning his first ever sprint, Lustgarten also earned his first national title, finishing the men’s 30 k classic race at U.S. nationals this year as the top male.
“This was something I only dreamed of,” Lustgarten wrote in a blog post in March of his victory in the men’s 30 k mass start event. “I crossed the line 1st, I was in shock and so excited. I was so happy that both of my parents were there watching and cheering, it was one of the best moments of my life!”
Jennie Bender, Bridger Ski Foundation
“Sometimes you just need to shake and bake out there…”
That’s what the Bridger Ski Foundation’s Jennie Bender wrote in an email to FasterSkier after she won the women’s classic sprint at this year’s U.S. Cross Country Championships.
And while Bender’s name is certainly not a new one to the top of the results sheet, the 29-year-old’s accomplishments this season made her a top pick for FasterSkier’s 2017 U.S. Continental Skier of the Year.
She started her SuperTour season with a win, taking both the women’s qualifier and the final during the opening races in West Yellowstone, Mont.
“My goal is to do better in qualifying, and I did that today, so that was a big win for me,” Bender said during an interview back in December.
The following day she placed fourth in the women’s 10 k classic competition, her best 10 k finish since her third place finish in the event back in 2014.
She raced to 12th in the 10 k freestyle at this year’s U.S. Cross Country Championships, her second best finish since 2012.
A little less than two weeks later, she competed in the Auburn Ski Club SuperTour in Truckee, Calif., where she won the women’s classic sprint. She finished up her SuperTour season with a third place finish in the women’s sprint in Ishpeming, Mich.
“I did today what I really wanted to do here,” Bender said back in January of her win in the women’s classic sprint. “I feel strong in my distance also. I feel a lot more put together as a whole athlete this year, which is pretty exciting.”