Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that U.S. Ski Team member Jessie Diggins was the top American in four consecutive U.S. nationals races in 2012, winning the freestyle sprint, 10 k skate and 20 k classic mass start outright and placing second to Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova in the classic sprint (but topping the podium as the first American). This week, Caitlin Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, became the first woman since Diggins to be the top American in four U.S. national races as well.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Maybe there’s something to be said for growing up in Alaska. Or maybe there’s something to be said about the mystique of Kincaid Park, its surrounding Tordillo, Chugach and Alaskan mountain ranges all bathed in sunlight at the start on the last day of 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships during the women’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint.
Be it either of those, Caitlin Patterson became the first woman since U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Jessie Diggins, to earn four consecutive titles at a single U.S. nationals. Diggins did it in 2012 in Rumford, Maine, two years after Kikkan Randall, a USST member who trains with Alaska Pacific University (APU), swept four races outright at Kincaid. (Both Randall and Patterson grew up in Anchorage; Randall was born in Salt Lake City, born in McCall, Idaho. Patterson, 27, attended South Anchorage High School while Randall, 35, went to East Anchorage High).
Even if Patterson, who’s currently based out of Vermont with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), had not won the final event of 2018 nationals, she had already posted a banner week. She started it by racing to first in the opening women’s 10 k freestyle individual start last Wednesday, amidst slushy ski trails, falling wet snow and a standard dark Alaskan winter morning sky.
After a training day on Thursday, she returned to the Kincaid trails on Friday — which had transformed from 48 hours before — racing once again to first, this time in the women’s freestyle sprint for her first sprint title.
Saturday brought another training day before Patterson returned on Sunday for the women’s 20 k classic mass start.
Up against Sweden’s Hedda Bångman, a University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) freshman, and Rosie Frankowski (APU), the two of whom led much of Sunday’s four-lap race, Patterson had met her match. However, Frankowski’s fall on the final hill paired with Patterson’s strong skiing led Patterson to finish as the day’s top American. Bångman took the outright win while Patterson placed second overall, ahead of Frankowski in third. The two were first and second on the U.S. podium.
If she had left it at that, Patterson would have tied Rosie Brennan — of the U.S. Ski Team and APU — who won three out of four U.S. nationals races in 2015.
But Patterson took it one step further.
With no training or rest day in between, the CGRP skier joined the remaining U.S. nationals field on Monday. Some skiers had already left, including Australian and APU skier, Jessica Yeaton, who flew out Monday morning to prepare for next weekend’s World Cup in Dresden, Germany.
Based on her qualifier alone, it might have seemed Patterson was beginning to feel the effects of four days of racing since last Wednesday. She qualified seventh, 4.77 seconds behind the fastest qualifying time of 3:41.40, posted by Finnish skier and University of Denver (DU) junior Jasmi Joensuu.
“Today qualification was really good, I felt really good,” Joensuu said after the race. “But then, my throat is really sore after the qualification … so I didn’t know if I could race actually. But I decided to race, I knew that I could win this race. I knew that there were some good girls but they also had 20 k yesterday, which I didn’t race, so that was good for me.”
With Joensuu, 21, having sat out Sunday’s mass start and Patterson having expended herself over 20 k, the Finn may have had a leg up on the American.
What Joensuu had not counted on was Patterson’s familiarity with the course and what the American had learned from Friday’s freestyle sprint.
“I think that bottom corner was a really good one for me all week and in the skate sprint I figured out how to ski it with good momentum,” Patterson said after Monday’s race, referring to the slightly inclined corner about 100 meters before the finish. “Even with that big gap that she put on the hill, I think just knowing how to ski the hill here at Kincaid … the finish stretch was mine.”
In their semifinal, though Joensuu had gapped both Patterson and and another CGRP skier Kaitlynn Miller at the top of Gong Hill — the sprint’s final major climb — both Craftsbury skiers had caught Joensuu by the bottom of the descent’s corner back towards the finish.
A similar scenario played out in the final.
“In the final I did a tactic, I would ski the uphill as fast as I can, I don’t save anything and that almost worked,” Joensuu recalled.
Joensuu and Petra Hyncicova, a CU senior from the Czech Republic, had pushed hard out of the start of the final, followed by Patterson and Miller, as well as Dartmouth skier Lydia Blanchet and APU’s Becca Rorabaugh.
“I tended to lose time in the beginning of the race and then catch back up,” said Blanchet, who had to catch a plane within an hour of finishing the final. “I had great skis and downhills are one of my strengths.”
While the two non-Americans raced to the front halfway through the course’s major climb, Blanchet, Rorabaugh, Miller, and Patterson hung behind. Then halfway through the final hill, Joensuu attacked, attempting to distance herself from the pack.
By the top of the hill, she had done just that, with 4 meters separating her from the rest of the field. Miller and Patterson followed, tucked into the downhill swooping curve.
As Joensuu disappeared behind the trees blocking the corner from spectator’s view, Miller and Patterson were already hot on her heels. Using her momentum, Patterson swung around Joensuu and emerged from the corner first, double poling with a sizeable lead to her fourth victory in a row in a time of 3:39.58.
“It felt surreal coming down the finishing stretch today, realizing that I couldn’t hear people behind me and realizing that it was going to be number four,” Patterson said. “I could not have imagined this if I tried, but I’ve just had really good feelings all week. Great support from the staff and waxers and everything, and it’s fun being back here in Anchorage, especially.”
Finishing second, 2.36 seconds behind Patterson, was Joensuu. Capturing third for her third American podium this week was Miller (+3.9). Miller finished second to Patterson in Friday’s freestyle sprint and was the third American in Sunday’s 20 k.
“I’m really pleased with how everything panned out,” Miller said. “To me the big sign of improvement has been in my skating and I was really excited with my skate sprint and obviously really excited with yesterday and today as well, but it’s nice to see my skating moving up a little bit.”
Despite being the 2016 national classic sprint champion, Miller, of Elmore, Vt., explained she entered Monday’s race with nothing held over her head.
“I don’t ever go into a race expecting a certain result,” she said. “Anything can happen, even to strong, very experienced skiers … [but] it is exciting to be in the mix.”
Though Miller also explained she “felt pretty tired” by the time she lined up for the final on Monday, she also acknowledged that she was, in all likelihood, not alone.
“I think that was the situation for all of the women out there today, after the 20 k yesterday. It was sort of like, well, the snap isn’t there, the energy isn’t quite there, but everyone was in the same boat,” she said. “Everyone’s making the best of it, and your body knows what to do once you get to the start line.
“All things considered, I felt great, had a really great result, and I’m very happy with it,” Miller added.
Rorabaugh finished fourth overall (+9.92) and was the third American. The Fairbanks native, who has spent the last 10-plus years living and training in Anchorage, was the top American qualifier on Monday, 1.31 seconds behind Joensuu in first overall.
“I was extremely excited with my qualifier,” Rorabaugh said. “It was rather unexpected. I was the first American and I had one really good qualifier in West Yellowstone this year but the other two so far have been pretty medium for me, so I was really excited really happy with this morning.”
Though the qualifier is what counts for the Olympic points list, Rorabaugh indicated that was of less importance to her than just “getting her qualifier back.”
“It’s been a couple years since I’ve been having a very strong qualification in sprint racing so I was just trying to work on having enough energy and having enough heat pumped to really crush a qualifier first thing in the morning,” she said.
“I wanted to have something special at home,” she added, referring to the friends and family that came to Kincaid to watch her race. “So it was good to have something at the end of the week.”
With firm tracks, cold temperatures reading around 10 degrees Fahrenheit and a low sun in the sky, Rorabaugh described the final U.S. nationals event as “a quintessential Alaskan day.”
“That was quite nice,” she added.
Rounding out the final was Hyncicova in fifth (+10.03) and Blanchet in sixth (+11.21).
“Today I was kind of tired. I finally hit the jet lag over the weekend,” Hyncicova, the two-time defending NCAA champion, said. “But … making the final, and even being third in the quarterfinal is awesome. It’s just proving that I am kind of in good shape so that’s a good start of the season.”
Rounding out the remainder of the women’s top 10 was Bångman in seventh, Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation skier, Kelsey Phinney in eighth, Central Cross Country’s Felicia Geisor in ninth and Stratton Mountain’s Erika Flowers in tenth.
In the junior women’s classic sprint, Wasatch Nordic’s Sarah Morgan took the win in 3:54.93. Novie McCabe (Methow Valley Nordic) placed second (+1.5) and her teammate teammate Ella-Sophie Kuzyk placed third (+6.66).
–Ian Tovell, Andrea Pontyondy-Smith and Gavin Kentch contributed