Who the heck is Tyler Kornfield? That’s what a sizable portion of the U.S. skiing community was left asking yesterday, as the 18-year-old skied his way to a fourth place finish in the freestyle sprint national championship.
Though the name may be unfamiliar to many around the country, Kornfield is known around Alaska as the 2009 state champion in the 7.5k classic race. When he signed to ski at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), the school’s web site trumpeted him as a “supreme talent.” At 6’1 and 180 pounds, he cuts a big figure on the race course.
After Kornfield’s big finish yesterday, FasterSkier got him on the phone to answer some questions about his training and his performance in the sprint.
FasterSkier: So you’re from Anchorage, and you are in your first year skiing at UAF?
Tyler Kornfield: I’m a freshman at UAF. I’m from Anchorage, and I went to Service High School and skied for Alaska Winter Stars for the past eight or nine years.
FS: And you’re redshirting this year? Who does that mean you’re training with?
TK: No, that was a misprint [online]. I’m racing with NCAA eligibility—yesterday, I was skiing with [UAF coaches] Scott [Jerome] and Matt [Dunlap].
FS: Has your training this year been going particularly well?
TK: Not really. I hadn’t noticed leaps and bounds—I’ve always been a pretty decent sprinter and I’ve shown up pretty well at the Junior Olympics, but the Besh Cups (an Alaskan race series) a couple of weekends ago were the first feedback that I was doing something right. I didn’t think this would get me that far, with the training that I’ve been doing, but something worked.
FS: Have you made any big changes in your training in the last year?
TK: Nothing really changed—with the Winter Stars, we’ve been able to use the same training methods that [Coach] Jan [Buron] has been using for years, and it’s just all come together this year for some reason. It really helps that we’ve had a lot of good juniors—Eric Packer, Andrew Dougherty, and Lex Treinen—that help me race faster and the whole team race faster. That’s really what gets us going. But really, training-wise I didn’t change anything special this year.
FS: Do you train with all those guys [Packer, Dougherty, Treinen] over the summer?
TK: All of my training is with Winter Stars—I just started getting in with Scott and his program. Before that our group had been together for the last five years, so it’s just us. Actually, it’s also Mike Hinckley, who got second yesterday. He was with Winter Stars as well—we always looked up to him, and he always really pushed us.
FS: How many hours have you trained so far this year, and how many do you have planned?
TK: I think I have maybe a bit more than 400 so far this year. I’m planning on getting upwards of 600, but we’ll see if I can get it with all the races I have coming up. That’s the plan.
FS: Do you focus on the sprint in training?
TK: I definitely feel like I have been a sprinter, but I don’t want to specialize. We didn’t do specific sprint training [with Winter Stars]. I feel like the things that we do incorporate intervals a lot more, and maybe less distance, but it’s not specifically for sprinting. If I were to choose, I wouldn’t choose just sprinting. I’d rather be an all-around skier.
FS: What were your goals for yesterday? I noticed last year you didn’t even qualify for the heats at all.
TK: Definitely qualifying [for the heats], that was my first goal. When I saw that I was twelfth, I knew that I had done what I wanted to do that day. To a point, because there were also seven other juniors in the top 30. My main goal for this championships is to qualify for World Juniors, so I knew that I had to take [the seven others]. At that point I made it my goal to beat all of them, and somehow I made it to the A-final.
Last year I messed up a little bit with the sprint—the cold definitely had something to do with it—but this year it came together.
FS: Walk me through your quarterfinal and semifinal heats.
TK: For every [heat], I’m not a fast starter, so I was in the back of the pack up until the top of the steep hill [the one major climb on the course]. Then going around the [ensuing] turn, I was able to pass at least one person each heat, except the final. Every single turn I cut as sharply as possible, and that enabled me to pass a lot of skiers, just by doing that. It was a really tactical race for me, and when I got free space I just hammered.
FS: And then in the finals, what were you hoping to do there? It must have been pretty exciting to line up with guys like Chris Cook and Garrott Kuzzy, who have raced on the World Cup.
TK: I really had no idea what to expect. First of all, I knew that I was going to be the top junior, which almost solidified my spot at World Juniors, so however I did beyond that point was pretty much icing on the cake. When we started I was off the back again—I was right with the pack but I was at the back—but I felt like I could still stay with them. I just hung in there and used the same tactics that I had before. Going back into the stadium I got cut off a little bit, so I had to swing around the group, and I had to make up the ground that I didn’t get there. But I knew that I could stick with them, and then Mark Iverson broke a pole with 200 meters to go. That definitely improved my placing because I was able to get behind Cook and out-sprint him at the line.
FS: While fourth place in the National Championships is a very solid result, was there anything about the finals, any moment where you felt like you missed an opportunity?
TK: I’m definitely not unhappy, but there are parts that I could have improved. For instance, getting off the line better, I would have been able to get a better position coming back into the stadium. With sprinting, anything can happen, and there are always portions that you could have done better, even if you win.
FS: It must have been pretty cool racing at home, presumably in front of your family and friends.
TK: It definitely was. I had a huge crowd cheering for me, especially with the announcer Adam Verrier saying that I was the hometown favorite. It was really exciting going through that—it’s close as I’ve ever gotten to the World Cup crowds, and it was fantastic. It encourages me for what might come later on, if I move up a little bit more.
FS: Did the crowds give you a boost?
TK: It definitely does give a boost—the adrenaline gets pumping when the crowd roars. But I feel like a lot of the people were affected by the crowds. They were definitely the best crowds I’ve ever been in.
FS: Do you know the course really well, given that it’s in your home town?
TK: In the summer, I’ve run it dozens of times, and I’ve skied it this winter and last year dozens of times, if not hundreds. So I definitely know every single bump and every single corner like the back of my hand. That helped me with my tactics—I had an advantage.
FS: What was the first thing you did yesterday after you got home from the race?
TK: I just wanted to stay in the moment—I didn’t really do anything fantastic. I just relaxed, getting ready for tomorrow.
FS: Does the result yesterday change your outlook on the rest of the season?
TK: Since all those skiers are more World Cup-caliber, if I go to World Juniors, I think that I have a strong chance of qualifying and a strong chance in the heats. It gives me some encouragement—I didn’t expect this, so it’s definitely going to help me out.
FS: The fact that [yesterday’s winner] Simi Hamilton was fourth in a nationals sprint two years ago—what does that say to you?
TK: The Middlebury coach just told me that, so it’s definitely a good sign. Sometimes you see a junior have an amazing race, and then you never see them again, but I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Hopefully within the next few years I’ll be able to do the same thing.
FS: There were a few mentions on our site yesterday after the race that you had kind of ‘scored a point’ for college skiing. Does the result represent that for you?
TK: I think it is. When I went to UAF, I didn’t feel like the U.S. Ski Team was an option at that point, so I’m very satisfied with college skiing at the moment. I’m just starting, and the base that I have right now is mostly off of Winter Stars, so I can’t really say that it’s college skiing that has brought me to this point. I guess I’m just going to have to see in three years what happens.
FS: Given that you’re already training at 600 hours a year, do you feel like you’ll be able to keep growing that for the next three years?
TK: I think I can improve on what I’ve been doing. Even right now I know that I can train more hours, especially during the summer, and I don’t think that I’m pushing it. I definitely have a lot more room to improve on my training, and I don’t think that college is going to disrupt that. I think I have a while to go for hours and intensity.
FS: I read somewhere online that you speak Japanese. What’s the deal with that?
TK: I was in an elementary immersion program from first grade to eighth grade, and then I took classes at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. At elementary school, half the day was with a Japanese teacher, learning Japanese math and science, and then the second half was in English.
I’ve almost lost that now, though—if I ever go to Japan, then maybe I can pick it up.
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.