University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA) freshman Erik Bjornsen feels well-prepared for the U.S. championships in Rumford, ME. But he points out that there is always an element of surprise in racing, and that nationals are special—particularly for younger athletes gunning to make the American squad for the 2011 World Junior Championships in Estonia.
“You never can feel confident that you’ll make the team. Especially with the juniors, you never know who’s going to be good. But I feel prepared,” said Bjornsen, who qualified fourth for the American team last year.
Adding to Bjornsen’s uncertainty, he has not competed on the domestic circuit this fall.
In Alaska, he raced a three-day mini-tour in Fairbanks—part of a competition between UAA and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks—but beyond that, Bjornsen has only done a local race in Anchorage and a time trial by himself.
Stronger and Fitter
Last season, Bjornsen went to senior nationals just barely recovered from a bout of overtraining. He was still the second junior finisher in one of the sprints, tenth overall.
“I’m hoping to feel as strong as last year, if not stronger. So far, I’ve felt good, and right now, I’m feeling the best I ever have,” he said. “Last year…especially in distance races I felt like I couldn’t recover. Now, I can charge a hill hard, and then recover on the downhill.”
Bjornsen said he is hoping to round out his junior racing career with strong performances in Estonia.
“My endurance is definitely better and I’m hoping to keep that going. But if I don’t make the team, I don’t feel like I should be on it. I’ll be disappointed, but I want the best U.S. guys to go,” Bjornsen said.
He also thinks the overall level among the top U.S. juniors is higher this year. Last year, the top American performance at World Juniors was Scott Patterson’s 19th place in one of the distance races. Bjornsen was 22nd in the sprint. This year, he is thinking medals for the team.
“I definitely think that some of the guys have potential to be on the podium at the junior worlds, and I feel like I could be one of them,” Bjornsen said.
Competing with the best
Aside from functioning as qualifiers for the American team heading to Estonia, Bjornsen said that senior nationals is exciting because it represents a rare chance to race against the best in the country.
“It’s fun to get out and race the best in the nation—measure yourself against the best and see where you want to be,” Bjornsen said, explaining that many top athletes and U.S. Ski Team racers are away on the World Cup and the SuperTour for much of the season.
While Bjornsen aims to use nationals to qualify for Estonia, and hopes to have strong races in Rumford, he is not peaking specifically for nationals. There are bigger fish waiting to be caught.
“I’m not peaking for nationals, but I really want to race well. I’m hoping to make the Junior Worlds and then make [the] NCAA [Championships] in the end of the season,” Bjornsen said.
Balancing college, training and life
Bjornsen admits that with the transition to student life at UAA, the fall has been distinctively different than last year, when he was pursuing racing full time with the Methow Olympic Development Project (MOD), a small club team.
This year, Bjornsen has to balance school, training and traveling, and while it’s been hard, he said he thinks it is worth it.
“It’s definitely been harder to get in two workouts per day with college, but I think I’ve managed pretty well. My first semester hasn’t been too hard, and I’m learning new ideas from the coaches here that I’m really excited about,” Bjornsen said, adding that he has only been sick once this fall, which he considers an achievement given that he’s making the transition to the college lifestyle.
Bjornsen will be racing the classic sprint and both distance events at nationals, but skipping the last sprint. He has to return to Anchorage, in order to chat with his teachers to arrange for spending three weeks out of the state, between World Juniors and NCAA races.
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Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.