SOLDIER HOLLOW, Utah (Jan. 10) – Olympians Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) and Wendy Wagner (Park City, UT) took early leads Tuesday and led all the way to win the final events of the U.S. Cross Country Championships – the men’s 30K and women’s 20K pursuits – at sunny Soldier Hollow. Wagner overcame an equipment malfunction midway through the race.
It was the second gold medal of the week – and fifth of his career – for Freeman, who took the 10K classic technique race Saturday. Wagner collected her fifth national title.
Freeman, a diabetic who is healthy this season being hobbled a year ago by viral problems, followed his game plan to win in 1:15.54.4. Andrew Johnson (Greensboro, VT), the pursuit champion a year ago, took the silver medal in 1:16.23.9 while James Southam (Anchorage, AK) completed the podium in 1:17.20.5.
â€œI enjoyed racing today and the other days I didn’t, and that’s the difference when you’re on and you’re off. Andrew’s skiing well, James in skiing well and I’m sure we’re going to have a great Olympics,â€ Freeman said.
’02 Olympic trails similar to ’06 trails
He won Saturday in the 15K classic race but said he didn’t have the snap he wanted, so he skipped Sunday’s 10K, which was won by Southam, and the day of rest paid off with his pursuit victory. He likened the Soldier Hollow course to the Olympic tracks in Pragelato next month. â€œThese trails are very, very similar to Pragelato – and the exact same altitude; the only difference is there’s more humidity in Pragelato, but I like that so it’s all right…
â€œMy plan for today was the attack from the start and that’s what I did. I just wanted to ski off the front and be in control of the race.â€
Wagner, who best previous result was fourth last Thursday in the 1.3K freestyle sprint, finished in 1:01.57.1 after overcoming a lost ski midway through the race. Northern Michigan University senior Lindsay Weier, an Olympian teammate in 2002, as silver medalist (1:03.13.6). Abi Larson (Bozeman, MT), who appeared to have clinched an Olympic berth with Wagner as nationals got underway after they both had top-30 results in World Cup races in Canada before Christmas, was bronze medalist in 1:03.15.1.
In the pursuits, skiers race in classic technique, then pull into a â€œpit stopâ€ and change into skating skis and poles. However, as Wagner headed back onto the course, her right ski popped off because she hadn’t closed the toe-binding and she had to retrieve it, get back into the binding and try to resume her quick tempo. Fortunately, she had enough of a lead that no one was able to gain appreciably on her.
â€œI had to dive on my stomachâ€ to catch the ski, she said with a grin. â€œThe ski was going across the snow and I was going to have to dive on it and chase it across the snow for 10 meters. I dove on it, put it on and lost a few seconds.â€
Quick refocusing pays off for â€œWagsâ€
However, she said, she didn’t â€œfretâ€ too long about the situation because that would have cost her even more time. She refocused and resumed the lead…and came in unchallenged. With her dad and boyfriend cheering – â€œmy mom thinks she’s bad luck, so she wouldn’t come down,â€ Wagner laughed, the win was especially sweet because of all the support she’s received from local donors so she could reach her second Olympics.
â€œI really, really wanted to win for everybody in the community that’s helped me out,â€ said Wagner, who plans to retire from World Cup skiing after this season. â€œI wanted to show them, y'know, their money was going to a good place and I’m gonna do the best I can with it. I’m really, really happy to win this championship for that reason…
â€œI heard so many cheers out on the course. I was smiling from the bridge [last 300 meters] in, I was ao happy when everyone was cheering. This is really neat to win at Soldier Hollow in front of everybody who’s supported me, not just my hometown but people have actually helping me out, and that’s huge.â€
The Olympic Team of up to 16 skiers, no more than eight of one gender, will be announced Jan. 17.