With U.S. Nationals looming, there’s quite a collection of domestic skiers who think they could ski to a podium finish in the biggest races of the year.
Besides the eternal glory of winning a national championship, there’s more on the line: for seniors, the races will be their best shot of earning low National Ranking List (NRL) points, which will qualify them for World Championships, and for younger skiers a strong result could mean a chance to race at U23 or Junior World Championships or on the J1 Scandinavian Cup trip.
And while a few racers will see their hopes and dreams come true in Rumford, Maine, competition is going to be fierce. Here’s a summary of what to watch for in the men’s races.
U.S. Nationals is bookended by two sprints. Racing kicks off with a classic sprint on January 2nd, and finishes with a skate sprint on January 8th. The course is identical for each sprint: a winding, spectator-friendly loop introduced last year in Eastern Cup competition.
Andy Newell, the top U.S. sprinter, won’t be in attendance – he’s racing the Tour de Ski.
In his absence, the two skiers to look out for are in all likelihood Simi Hamilton (U.S. Ski Team/Sun Valley), fresh from off a 16th-place finish at the World Cup in Davos, and Torin Koos (Methow Olympic Development). Koos has had an up-and-down beginning to the season – in FIS races in Rovaniemi, Finland, and Gaalaa, Norway, he finished 4th and 2nd, but didn’t qualify well. However, in a domestic race he should have no problem making the heats, and he has more experience with head-to-head sprinting than anyone else in the field.
As for who else might make a final, sprinting is unpredictable, so it’s really anybody’s guess. But Hamilton’s Sun Valley teammate Mikey Sinnott was the top American in both the Sovereign Lakes and Rossland NorAm sprints. And Colin Rogers, who finished third in the skate sprint in West Yellowstone, could easily give Sun Valley three men in the final.
The other club to look out for is, of course, Alaska Pacific University (APU). Lars Flora finished second – the top American – in both of the West Yellowstone sprints, and was the second American behind Sinnott in Sovereign Lakes. Teammate Mark Iverson was third in the West Yellowstone classic sprint, while Reese Hanneman made the final of the classic sprint last year.
Tyler Kornfield of the University of Alaska Fairbanks made a name for himself in the sprints at Nationals last year. He hasn’t competed in a single FIS race so far this season, so it’s somewhat unknown whether he has the same form this year.
U.S. Ski Team alums Chris Cook (Steinbock Racing) and Garrott Kuzzy (CXC) haven’t had excellent starts to the season, but are some of the more experienced sprinters in the field and could definitely make an appearance in the finals.
And don’t forget about the Eastern skiers. Although most of them haven’t raced at the NorAms this fall and are flying a little below the radar, unlike the rest of the field, they’ve had a chance to race on the sprint course. Tim Reynolds (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) won an Eastern Cup sprint last weekend over Kevin Cutts of Northern Michigan University. And Pat O’Brien (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) finished in the top-20 at the FIS sprint in Rovaniemi, Finland. Finally, Dartmouth junior Eric Packer made the final of the classic sprint last year – can he do it again?
The 15 k interval start classic race held on January 4th will use basically all of the trails available at Black Mountain. While the men will head up the fabled High School Hill twice, they’ll also have to navigate the longer climbs at the back of the trail system. With every man having to grunt it out for himself, some interesting results could occur.
The 30 k mass start skate to be held on January 6th won’t cover quite as much ground. Skiers will have to complete 5 laps of a 6 k loop including High School Hill and the longer, larger climb behind it. Unlike the classic race, tactics are going to be in play, and there should be some exciting sprint finishes, since the course ends with a kilometer of rolling downill from the high point.
With Kris Freeman off racing the Tour de Ski, the U.S. Ski Team’s best hope in the distance races will be Noah Hoffman. In the first period of World Cups, Hoffman had some great results – he finished 31st in the 15 k skate at Gallivare, and then the next day, as the Americans’ third relay leg, tagged off to Cook in seventh place. No matter whether Hoffman tops the domestic field or not, his results compared to other American racers – who he hasn’t faced yet this year – will reveal a lot about the state of American distance skiing.
Of the men who have a shot in the sprints, Flora is probably the one who has the best chance in the distance races, too. He won two NorAm distance races in Canada – a 10 k skate in Rossland and a 15 k skate in Sovereign Lakes.
Also look out for Flora’s APU teammate James Southam, who won the mass start classic race at last year’s nationals. This season, his best result to date was fourth place in the 15 k skate at Sovereign Lakes. A two-time Olympian, Southam definitely has the experience necessary to ski to some strong results in Rumford.
Relative youngsters Tad Elliott (CXC) and Leif Zimmerman (Bridger Ski Foundation) round out the podium favorites. Each won a race in West Yellowstone, and each have had podium finishes at U.S. Nationals before.
Behind the frontrunners, though, there’s a solid pack of skiers who will be fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the top ten. A few of them are true all-around skiers: Sinnott and Kuzzy have each had some solid distance results out west this season, and Reynolds and O’Brien had strong races in Finland.
CXC teammates Brian Gregg and Bryan Cook have had some good NorAm results so far, while Team Homegrown’s Sylvan Ellefson won a pair of NRL races in Colorado in December. APU’s Bart Dengel and Iverson haven’t done too badly either.
From the East, look for last year’s college standouts Dylan McGuffin (now skiing for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project) and Nils Koons (Dartmouth College), as well as UVM freshman Scott Patterson. Justin Freeman, who puts the “blast” in “master-blaster”, could have another top-ten result, and the 30 k skate seems tailor-made for Eli Enman (VTXC), who is training more than he has in the last several years, to make a comeback.
Finally, 2009 NCAA Champion Glenn Randall (Bridger Ski Foundation) should factor in the skate race – he finished an impressive 36th at the stacked Muonio, Finland FIS race in November – while 2010 NCAA Champion and classic specialist Juergen Uhl (VTXC) is returning to the course where he won his title.