You had to look hard, but the signs were there.
Over the past two years, Kate Fitzgerald’s results had been steadily progressing, topping out with a 14th place at last year’s U.S. Nationals. A few weeks ago, she was nearly as fast as 2010 Olympian Holly Brooks in a time trial with her club, Alaska Pacific University (APU). And in Thursday’s double sprint qualifier, she finished third and fifth.
Still, no one expected Fitzgerald’s victory in the 10 k skate race in West Yellowstone on Friday. Not least herself.
“Surprised? Yeah, I’m surprised,” she said afterwards. “I didn’t think I was going to win.”
But win she did, by a single second over Brooks, and by nine more over third-place Maria Graefnings, a Swedish import skiing for the University of Utah. XC Oregon’s Kristina Strandberg and Sugar Bowl Academy’s Chelsea Holmes rounded out the top five.
While Fitzgerald didn’t enter the day as a total unknown, it seemed more likely that the race would belong to Brooks, Thursday’s double winner, or to fellow Olympian Caitlin Compton (CXC), whose best results have come in the freestyle technique.
But according to CXC Head Coach Jason Cork, Compton is recovering from illness and shut things down mid-race, while Brooks said that she hasn’t yet found her top gear this season.
“I think I just need to be able to hurt a little bit more—push that upper limit,” she said.
Instead, it was the 22-year-old Fitzgerald, who, as Brooks put it, “skied out of her mind,” with a smooth, deliberate tempo and a stony, determined race face.
“I knew she was coming, and she had some breakthrough races yesterday,” Brooks said. “People should watch out for her all season.”
According to Erik Flora, her coach at APU, Fitzgerald has skied with the club since she was 17, when she would make a 45-minute drive into Anchorage five days a week for training sessions. Since then, she has graduated from the APU junior program to the club’s elite team.
Her rise, Flora said, has been a product of years of hard work—making the slow progression through top-50’s, top 20s, top 15s.
“She’s just a very straightforward, hard-working athlete…It’s not the traditional route of podiums when you’re young, and podiums when you get older. It’s like this coming from behind, and just having an exceptional response to training,” Flora said. “Every year, she’s just taken a big jump up in the field.”
This season, Flora said that his high expectations for Fitzgerald were for a top five finish, and “she just blew through that.”
Fitzgerald didn’t have a whole lot to say about her race Friday, other than that two trips up West Yellowstone’s Telemark Hill made for a tough course. Like Flora, she chalked up her improvement to nothing more than “training really hard.”
But if Fitzgerald was taciturn, Flora more than made up for it with his own enthusiasm. Pausing to collect himself, and to wipe away a tear, he rated Fitzgerald’s result on Friday as “one of my top experiences, so far, as a coach.”
“I was just beside myself,” he said. “Coaching, you have your experiences that just totally knock you off your feet. That’s it.”
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.