One by one, the favorites crumbled in the men’s classic sprint. The first to go was Garrott Kuzzy, who went down coming into the backstretch in his quarterfinal. Illness quashed Simi Hamilton’s hopes. And as he led his semifinal heat, Chris Cook took himself out on a downhill corner.
When the snow finally settled, it was a Swede, Erik Soederstrom, who remained standing. A sophomore at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) hailing from Ostersund, Soederstrom passed APU’s Mike Hinckley on the final downhill before the homestretch and never looked back. He crossed the line with his arms in the air and his jaw hanging, gliding all the way through the crowd and out of the finish pen before finally coming to a stop.
Second place went to Tyler Kornfield, the nineteen-year-old UAF freshman who shocked himself and his home crowd with a fourth place in the freestyle sprint last Saturday. By beating out Hinckley by a boot at the finish, he actually became national champion—Soederstrom, as a Swede, is ineligible.
Kornfield had no idea that he’d won until a reporter informed him at the finish. After the race, he seemed almost incredulous as Soederstrom.
“I don’t know what to say. Pretty overwhelming,” he said.
Soederstrom’s finish ended a messy day of sprinting in Anchorage. Leading his quarterfinal heat, Kuzzy fell trying to re-enter the tracks on the backstretch after a corner.
“I don’t really know what happened—I had one or two opportunities, as I was flailing around, to catch it, and just couldn’t get things back together,” he said. “The track started really close to the corner, and they were just there before I expected to see ‘em.”
Hamilton, who won both qualifying and the heats in the freestyle sprint, has been sick for the past few days, and last night he was kept awake by stomach problems, according to his coach Travis Jones. Today he didn’t have the pop to make it out of the quarterfinals.
Illness has taken a particularly large toll at the championships here: a number of skiers were under the weather today, and the U.S. Ski Team lost a number of their staff.
Cook struggled here all week, but he seemed to have finally pulled things together today. He was leading his semifinal heat when he crashed coming off the top of the course’s major downhill.
That left “a very unusual A-final,” as USSA Nordic Director John Farra put it. All the skiers in the heat were under 25 years old, two were Europeans, and all six had Alaska connections.
After two second-places in sprints here in the last two years, Hinckley seemed to finally have one in the bag with a few hundred meters to go. Passing through the stadium in the middle of the heat, he moved into the lead by the time the pack started climbing the penultimate hill on the course.
But the opening he’d established wasn’t quite enough to stay away on the final downhill, where both Soederstrom and Kornfield used their blazing skis to close the gap to Hinckley. On the flat finishing stretch, the tall, lanky Swede managed to hold off his UAF teammate by two-tenths of a second.
“Double poling is my specialty,” Soederstrom said.
With the third place finish, Hinckley earned the American silver medal, while Fairbanks’s Reese Hanneman ended a strong day with the bronze by taking fourth.
The finish by Soederstrom and Kornfield capped a stellar day for UAF, who had three in the top five, with Einar Often rounding out the group.
Coaches Scott Jerome and Matt Dunlap clearly nailed the wax. Dunlap said that they stayed with the same kick wax throughout the day, and used a special spray version of Cera F—“Rocket”—for glide.
“Going down that [last] hill…the skis were just flying, and that’s probably what boosted us past Mikey,” Kornfield said.
Soederstrom said that he’d never managed better than tenth in the Swedish junior championships, but his speed proved to be just enough today.
“This is my best discipline—classic sprint,” he said. “I just felt so good—I never got tired today.”
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.