JACKSON, N.H. — Two years ago, Martin Bergström quit skiing.
A month ago, Petra Hyncicova took three weeks off skiing following U23 World Championships due to a painful bursa between her Achilles tendon and heel bone.
Less than a week after resuming training, Hyncicova, a 22-year-old Czech Republic native and University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) junior, raced to two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Skiing Championships titles — the first of her career — in Jackson, N.H.
Bergström, a 25-year-old Swedish freshman at the University of Utah, did the same, winning both nordic races at 2017 NCAA Championships and leading the Utah Ski Team to its first team title since 2003.
Both started off with decisive victories in the women’s 5-kilometer and men’s 10 k classic individual starts last Thursday, with Hyncicova topping the former by 18.7 seconds and Bergström winning the latter by 26.8 seconds.
Then on Saturday, with temperatures hovering just above the legal racing limit of -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and winds ripping across the field that served as the stadium, the two international skiers completed their championships sweep with wins in the women’s 15 k and men’s 20 k freestyle mass starts.
“When the season started, I figured that I was in really good shape this year,” said Hyncicova, whose previous best NCAA Championships result was second in the skate race last year in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “I was hoping that I could be on the podium again at NCAA’s and maybe hoping that I could win the skate race, but after winning the classic race and after the injury and everything I can’t believe it. It’s insane for me.”
“Two years ago, I quit skiing back in Sweden and I took one year of just studying,” Bergström said. “And then a friend of mine was on the [Utah] team, and he said there were spots open and that I should try a different environment of skiing and studying and that I could come over here. So I talked to the coaches, and eventually went for this trip and have had so much fun and made many friends. I’m just so happy I came here.”
On Saturday, Bergström led three Utah men in the top 10, with Martin Mikkelsen placing eighth and Kevin Bolger 10th. The three scored 84 points and their women’s team emerged as the second-highest scorers in the second race of the day to give the Utes a 16.5-point win over Colorado (CU) to end the championships.
Reflecting on his win on Saturday, before the women’s 15 k, Bergström anticipated it would be a tall order to win the team title.
“It’s been amazing, and it’s an amazing team,” he said of his season with Utah. “All the training we’ve done and the work we’ve put in this fall and winter. I’m just so happy. Hopefully there’s a slim chance the girls can pull off an amazing race. We’ll see.”
Utah Director of Skiing Kevin Sweeney later explained just how difficult it was to come from second place on Friday to take the win over CU and Denver University (with Denver finishing third, just one point behind Colorado). In the last decade of NCAAs, Colorado has placed first or second seven times, according to a press release. Denver is next in line with six top-two finishes (including five titles) since 2008.
“We’ve been crunching numbers and have been able to beat Denver and Colorado by about 30 points on a really good showing during the RMISA [Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Skiing Association] season, but didn’t know if we could do it in the championships,” Sweeney said, according to a Utah press release. “Bergström was skiing at a whole new level this week, and Mikkelsen had stepped it up, and I knew Kevin Bolger could get top 10. I was also confident in the women, who have been skiing awesome, so I felt good there. It’s awesome to be able to take this new trophy back to our new ski building.”
Bergström’s Late Move
The men’s 20 k came down to a five-way sprint to the line, with Bergström taking the win by 0.5 seconds over Mads Ek Strøm, CU senior and two-time 2016 NCAA champion.
After Denver’s Moritz Madlener led most of the race, Bergström moved to the front on the start of the fourth and final lap. With 5 k remaining, six men remained together: Bergström, Madlener, Strøm, Adam Martin of Northern Michigan University (NMU), Fabian Stocek of Dartmouth College, and Petter Reistad (CU). On the final lap, the group began to string out and Bergström opened up the narrow lead he needed to win at the finish, crossing in 46:02.8 minutes.
“I just went for it,” Bergström said. “Tried to check who still had power in the legs. Moritz just answered when I upped the tempo, and he continued my push in the second lap, and I knew I was faster in the finish than Moritz, so he had to make his move before the sprint. As an old sprinter, I feel pretty comfortable making a pass. I can maneuver pretty efficiently. I was just happy too see that it was a high-tempo, pack finish, and with the wind and everything, I think it was smart to go a little before the final stretch.”
On the final lap, Strøm, the defending champion who won both races at last year’s NCAAs, tried to position himself near the lead going into the first climb out of the stadium, just in case someone attacked.
“They went kind of fast up there, but not too fast, and I was in fourth and I felt pretty good,” Strøm, a 25-year-old Norwegian, said. “Adam Martin caught me sleeping, and gave a gap, so I had to pass him.”
With about 2 k to go, Strøm said about four men remained in the front group before his teammate, Reistad, pushed to latch back on.
“Petter came back up, and I was like, ‘Come on dude, just use the speed and try to move up and take the lead,’ and he did,” Strøm said.
On the pivotal last A-climb at the top of the course, Strøm found himself in third and unsure of his next move.
“I wasn’t sure how strong the people in front of me were,” he said. “I should have done something sooner, over the last hill of the race. It’s kind of short, the last stretch of the race. I felt pretty good so I’m a little disappointed in second.”
Saturday stood as Strøm’s second skate race of the season. He had appendix surgery in January.
“I hadn’t raced much this year,” he said. “At first, I felt pretty good, actually.”
He started Thursday’s 10 k classic in bib 1 and double poled to eighth place.
“We decided on double poling and I started bib 1, and I got pretty screwed by that because I had to plow all the snow out of the way,” Strøm said. “I knew the shape was good, and today I was just… I mean second place is OK, but I wanted to win.”
Just 0.1 seconds behind Strøm on Saturday, Madlener, a 23-year-old German senior who placed second and third at NCAA’s last year, achieved his first podium of the week, 0.6 seconds out of first.
Reistad finished fourth (+1.2), Stocek fifth (+1.9) and Martin, who was in podium contention until the final lap, sixth (+18.7).
Asked what his skiing plans are now, Bergström wasn’t sure.
“I started a civil engineering program back home, and I have two years of eligibility here, but I don’t know,” he said. “I took a chance, and came here, but I haven’t decided if I’m going to stay or not, but we’ll see.”
Hyncicova Goes For It
Two-time 2017 women’s champion Hyncicova, who broke away from the pack with the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Alayna Sonnesyn halfway though the women’s 15 k, said coming to the U.S. was one of her best decisions.
“I’m so glad I went to the U.S. Every year I’m more and more glad,” she said. “This year was actually supposed to be my last year. I have one more year of NCAA eligibility so I applied for a master’s program so I can be here next year also and I’m so excited.”
She raced to a 21.1-second victory over Sonnesyn on Saturday in 39:21.6. The next-closest finisher, Hyncicova’s CU teammate Christina Rolandsen, crossed 17.8 seconds later in third (+38.9).
“Starting with bib 1, it’s easy to be first out of the start,” Hyncicova said of leading out of the start.
After setting the pace for the first 5 k, she tucked behind Rolandsen, a Norwegian sophomore, to start the the second lap.
“I was trying on each lap to make a little bit smaller group, and I saw my teammate Christina so I was trying to get her in the group [so] we could go together,” Hyncicova added.
When she noticed Rolandsen tiring on the second lap, she surged back to the front.
“Then I took off a little bit,” Hyncicova said. “It wasn’t intentional, but Alayna stuck with me, so I was like, ‘OK, we can do it together. It will be nice to go just in two.’ ”
Sonnesyn, a junior from Minnesota, led the two-woman breakaway for roughly four kilometers, up until the final A-climb of the race.
“Coming through this field, it’s so windy, no one wanted to be up front,” Sonnesyn reflected. “I knew that she didn’t want to take the lead, I could tell, but I thought that if I sat back and didn’t take the lead either, the other girls were gonna come back and catch us and I didn’t want that to happen.
“I kind of knew what was going to happen,” she added of Hyncicova’s game-changing move on the last hill. “She made a really great move up one of the hardest hills up to the high point and I was so impressed with how fast she could ski. I wanted to stay with her, but I just couldn’t. … I mean, she just took off. It was impressive.”
While the women’s race included several downhill crashes on a hard-packed course, including a close one from Sonnesyn while she was leading on the second lap, Hyncicova said she wasn’t afraid to send it.
“I love downhill skiing on nordic skis, so for me, it was really fun,” Hyncicova said. “I’m not scared and I enjoyed it.”
For Sonnesyn, second place marked her second podium of 2017 NCAAs after placing third last Thursday. In two NCAA appearances before that, she had yet to crack the top 20.
“I am so happy with the way things went,” Sonnesyn said on Saturday. “I definitely had some high goals for this week. I haven’t had the best luck with my NCAA experiences in the past and so I knew I could be competitive this year, but I didn’t know how competitive I could be.”
She made a point to focus on how she was feeling and not worry about anyone else, both in Thursday’s individual start and Saturday’s mass start.
“It’s tough to break away on this course, so I knew that if someone was going to break away I didn’t want to be the one to do it, but I wanted to be with them,” she added. “And that’s kind of exactly how it happened. I’m just so happy with the way things went this whole week. … I feel like I’ve improved so much over these last few years with Patrick Weaver as a coach. He’s helped me so much just to become a better skier. I love the sport and I’m just so excited for next year.”
After Anika Miller of Montana State University (MSU) placed fourth (+44.0), Utah took fifth and sixth with Merete Myrseth (+1:01.5) and Guro Jordheim (+1:16.1), and was the only women’s team with all three in the top 14 with Natalia Müller in 14th (+1:32.1). In all, the Utah women scored 73 points (behind Colorado with 77) to help their program notch its 11th NCAA Skiing title.
“The turning point of today is when Guro broke a pole, and she was back in the 20’s, and she and Natalia were skiing together,” Sweeney said, according to the press release. “We told them that they had to go and they busted out and made a big move. The men’s results were tremendous, but whether or not we were going to win was based on those guys making the move. It was exceptional athleticism and gutsy performances.”
Behind Utah with 541.5 points, CU (525) and DU (524) in the top three, Dartmouth placed fourth (400), UVM fifth (355), and MSU sixth (320) in the four-day alpine-nordic, season-ending series.
— Jake Ellis contributed