Spring skiing is all about warmth, fun, sun and speed, and this past weekend’s ConocoPhillips Alaska Junior Championships did not disappoint.
Seventy skiers, most from Alaska’s interior, competed in the re-born event hosted by the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks’ FXC program at Birch Hill Recreation Area. Formerly an annual highlight for many of Alaska’s juniors, it had been three years since the last time Cross Country Alaska’s championship races for the J2-J6 age categories had been held.
The stated objective for this weekend’s event was to not only bring the event back, but to reinvigorate it with an action-packed schedule of event formats J2-J6 athletes rarely get to try. Judging from the smiles on faces and the exuberant exchanges between competitors, the event was quite successful.
Racing began on Friday evening with a freestyle sprint relay on a 750-meter course that featured one particularly sharp bend that claimed more than a couple racers. Race winners included Marit Rjabov and Teresia Schnurr (UAF – Open Class), Gentry Johnson and Robin Baker (Salcha – J6 Girls), Brad Baker and Martin Ramirez-Calkins (Salcha – J6 Boys), Amber Hajdukovich and Emma Jerome (NSCF – J5 Girls), Ti Donaldson and Kent Yoshikawa (NSCF – J5 Boys), Amber Lenze and Maya Yoshikawa (FJN Comp – J4 Boys), Dawson Knopp and Tracen Knopp (ANR – J4 Boys), Kiana Hamlin and Allison Hebard (FJN Comp – J3 Girls), Joe Bue and Max Donaldson (FXC – J3 Boys), Claire Ferree and Mikayla Hamlin (FXC – J2 Girls), and Alex Loan and David McPhetres (ANR – J2 Boys).
Friday evening’s high clouds remained in place through the night and brought with them temps in the mid-teens that allowed the tracks to set-up hard and fast for solid kick and good glide. Racers stared at 15 second intervals in Saturday’s first event, the 1, 2.5 and 5km classic individual start. The course featured rolling terrain, a couple of tight corners and a few single track sections through some of Birch Hill’s not-so-frequently skied ‘moose’ paths. The varied terrain required athletes to not only perform physically, but technically as well.
Salcha’s strong contingent in the younger age group continued to ski well on the 1k track as brother and sister combo Brad and Robin Baker claimed the top spot in the J6s. First place in the J5 Girls was Amber Hajdukovich (FJN Comp), while Kevin Baird (Salcha) claimed the J5 Boys win over Ti Donaldson (NSCF) by only 2.5 seconds.
In the 2.5km event, the Knopp brothers Tracen and Dawson again went 1-2 in the J4 boys, while Jade Hajdukovich (FXC – J3 Girls), Amber Lenze (FJN Comp – J4 Girls), and Max Donaldson (FXC – J3 Boys) claimed top honors in the other divisions. In the 5km J2 event, Claire Ferree (FXC) and Riley Troyer (West Valley HS) led the way in the girls and boys categories, respectively.
As the temperature rose, so too did the speed of Saturday’s racers. A mid-day start for the 100m classic sprint meant that conditions were changing as the tracks got a bit warmer and teams moved into the violet hard wax range. The gradual uphill finish lane also meant that skiers in the older age classes had to make the tactical decision whether to use skate skis and double-pole, potentially giving up some distance off the line for better top speed at the end. In all age groups, the high speed and tight finishes of a pure drag race made for some of the best race action of the day.
In J6 boys, Martin Ramirez-Calkins was able to turn the tables from the morning race and claimed top spot over teammate Brad Baker, while Baker’s sister Robin led the way for the J6 girls. Ti Donaldson (NSCF) and Amber Hajdukovich (FJN Comp) were first for J5s, while Tracen Knopp and Amber Lenze continued their streak in the J4s. Ti’s brother Max (FXC) was able to take the top spot in a deep J3 boys final, and Jade Hajdukovich (FXC) used a high-tempo double-pole to outdistance Kiana Hamlin (FJN Comp) for the J3 girls win. In the J2 boys final, Alex Loan (ANR), with classic skis under foot, used a superior lunge to edge a rapidly-closing, skate ski-wearing Brandon Kowalski (FXC). In J2 girls, Claire Ferree (FXC) used a powerful double-pole to cross the line first.
As the temperature soared into the 40s in the early afternoon, skiers headed up the hill to get a couple of practice runs or just practice their tricks on the 600m freestyle ski-cross course. The course started on the wide section of the Relay Start loop before hanging a right after 50 meters and joining with Birch Hill’s sprint course heading over ‘the Wall’ and dropping down around ‘the Elbow’. As they emerged from the woods, racers came face-to-face with ‘Bob’s Bump’ a two-foot jump that gave the skiers the opportunity to get some hang-time before landing, regaining their balance and completing a hard turn to the left. The skiers then proceeded straight before an off-camber, high-speed, right turn around the Lone Spruce and a quick left down West Ramp, around Competition Island and into the finish.
J5 and J6 skiers had the option of bypassing Bob’s Bump, but all of them conquered their nerves and went for it, some cutting off speed to help them absorb the drop on the far side. In J6 boys, Alden Jerome (Pearl Creek) strode out of the gate and never looked back on his way to the win. In J6 and J5 Girls, Salcha’s Robin Baker and FJN Comp’s Amber Hajdukovich continued their streaks and picked up the win, while Kevin Baird (Salcha) matched his performance from the morning topping the J5 boys. In J4 boys, the Knopp brothers (ANR) continued their dominance with Tracen again claiming top honors. Maya Yoshikawa (FJN Comp), after missing the morning races due to a swim competition, returned to water’s frozen variety to claim the J4 girls win. In the J2 and J3 girls, FXC teammates Claire Ferree and Jade Hajdukovich continued their streaks, while David McPhetres (ANR – J2) and Sam Hiltenbrand (FJN Comp – J3) notched the victory for the boys while pulling off a grab on ‘Bob’s Bump.’
In a fitting end to the racing, J3 skier Jonathon Koenig (FXC) opted to cruise the race and hot-dog it off the jump, launching and landing a 360, before skiing the rest of the course backwards on his twin-tipped Jib Skates. While there may not have been much speed in his race in reverse, he was able to soak in the warmth and sun, and he was definitely having fun!