A year ago, Holly Brooks (APUNSC) burst onto the SuperTour scene, finishing 1st, 2nd and 4th in the three West Yellowstone races, a performance that set her on the way to a spot on the 2010 Olympic Team.
Twelve months later Brooks has gone from surprise to favorite, and lived up to expectations with dual victories in the SuperTour Sprint Showdown on Thanksgiving day in West Yellowstone.
Brooks dominated the field on a frigid day, defeating Kristina Strandberg (XC Oregon) by four seconds in the 1.6km classic event. Less than an hour later, she was back at it, powering to an impressive seven-second win over Elena Hajkova (CU) in the freestyle race.
“This is what I hoped for,” said Brooks, unsurprised by her strong performance so early in the season.
The long, challenging courses and slow snow suit Brooks’ style. “They [the courses] played to my strengths more than a high-speed type race,” she said.
Until recently, the 35-year-old Strandberg wasn’t even sure she would be racing this season. But after finishing as runner-up to Brooks in the classic (her stronger technique) and a still-solid 4th in the freestyle, she has shown that she still has something left in the tank.
She did not feel her fastest, nor was she able to push quite to the edge, telling FasterSkier, “I was trying to go fast, and I couldn’t really — you know when you feel like you’re just lacking a gear. I didn’t really feel like falling over when I was done.”
But even if her result wasn’t enough to assuage any concern, Strandberg is not worried. “That’s pretty normal for me this time of year — I’m not at my fastest.”
Brooks is also not firing on all cylinders, and has no fear of an early peak.
A strong summer of training and a solid base coupled with “feeling decent, but not amazing,” indicates that she has another level to tap into.
Sadie Bjornsen (APUNSC) took third in the classic event, less than a second behind Strandberg.
After a significant six-second gap, Bjornsen was followed by teammates Morgan Smyth, working to come back from an injury plagued 2010 season, and Kate Fitzgerald, giving APU an impressive four of the top-five spots.
Fitzgerald had an excellent day, bettering herself in the freestyle where she turned the tables on Strandberg, edging out the Swedish national for the final podium spot, 2.15 seconds behind Hajkova.
Despite appearing at her first West Yellowstone SuperTour, Hajkova is no rookie. Hailing from the Czech Republic, the 22-year-old has an impressive ski resume, including four top-11 finishes at World Junior Championships, an NCAA Championship podium, and a 24th in a World Cup sprint.
She took 6th in the classic portion today, kicking off her season on a strong note.
The athletes did not seem phased by the new format, or the cold.
“Everyone was making a big deal about it [the two race format],” said Brooks. “But in regular sprinting you race four times…I enjoyed it and actually felt better the second time around.”
Added Jesse Diggins (CXC) who took 5th in the freestyle and 14th in the classic, “It was cool. I’m looking forward to getting into heats with people, because I am working on holding my own in a sprint heat…but this was really cool, unique and fun.”
The course held up well, despite the nearly 200 racers. Brooks noted there was no real advantage to starting early, and with the cold weather, wax was straightforward.
“All the advantages [start position and wax] were taken out, so it was all about who could ski fast,” she said.
The cold presented a challenge, but not one that was insurmountable. Diggins raced with foot warmers in her boots and both she and Brooks were grateful for the heaters in the finish tent.
Brooks brought “a semi-truck of clothes and a thermos of warm gatorade” out to the stadium, and despite cold feet and hands did just fine.
The field dropped off relatively quickly behind Brooks with a spread of 25 seconds from 1st to 10th in both races. A number of racers, mainly juniors, opted to sit out the second event due to the cold.
Racing continues tomorrow with a 10/15km freestyle. Brooks will be back at it, and with temperatures expected to hit the 20’s it will be positively balmy.
West Yellowstone Classic Sprint Results (PDF) – scroll down for women
West Yellowstone Skate Sprint Results (PDF) – scroll down for women
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.