After four years in college, Simi Hamilton isn’t supposed to know how to sprint. Try telling that to Mike Hinckley.
With 500 meters to go in the freestyle sprint at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Hinckley made a huge move on the field, passing Hamilton on the outside of the last significant hill on the course. After finishing second last year, it looked like Hinckley had this one in the bag.
But on the ensuing downhill, Hamilton tucked in behind Hinckley, and used the draft to slingshot himself past on the final corner.
“I thought about standing up and staying right behind him until the last 100 [meters],” Hamilton said afterwards, “but I was coming up on him pretty hot….I realized that he was taking the corner just a little bit wider—he wasn’t quite on the apex, so I cut in, and that’s when I started to make my move.”
After easily winning his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, Garrott Kuzzy ended up off the back in the final round, hindered by a tangle with Mark Iverson. He recovered and still managed third place, but the disappointment showed at the finish.
“I’m looking forward to Monday,” he said afterwards. “Today’s just a tune-up.”
Like Kuzzy, Hinckley and Hamilton also had relatively easy paths to the finals. In both of his initial heats, Hamilton was able to stake himself to an early lead by the midpoint of the 1.5k course, and his speed showed as he took the hole shot each time the gun went off.
Though he had captured a number of sprint qualifiers already this year, today was the first time that Hamilton had been able to keep his lead all the way through the end of the rounds. Travis Jones, Hamilton’s coach at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, said that his athlete’s difficulties stemmed from a lingering illness that he picked up during a training camp in Lake Placid this fall.
“I think he has probably been racing at about 85, 90 percent the whole fall,” Jones said. “He’s the healthiest he’s been right now, but he’s still not 100 percent.”
Unlike in other professions, Hamilton’s bachelor of arts degree from Middlebury College might lead some to discount his prospects on an international stage. But Jones said that because his athlete wasn’t training big hours when he graduated from high school, Hamilton didn’t make any sacrifices by going to school for four more years.
“If a kid graduates from high school and they’re already training 600 hours, then it’s hard to go through college and continue to progress,” Jones said. But Hamilton, he added, was only doing about 450 hours at that point.
As for the $1,200 check that goes to the national champion, Hamilton said that it will be going towards rent. But of that $1,200, he’ll only be keeping 90 percent for himself. The final tenth, he said, will be going towards the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund.
Founded after its namesake was killed this summer in a rollerski accident in Maine, the fund is dedicated to the same kinds of initiatives that Neal worked on throughout his life. Hamilton said that he and his teammates Mike Sinnott and Max Durtschi will be donating ten percent of their race winnings this year to the cause.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.