With 15 titles over the past decade, Kikkan Randall has turned the U.S. National Championships into something of a one-woman show.
In the 2010 edition, which was held in her hometown of Anchorage, she swept all four events—collecting nearly $5,000 en route to wins in two distance races and a pair of sprints.
This year, the country’s fastest women will assemble at Black Mountain in Rumford, ME. But when the first event of the championships kicks off on January 2, Randall will be 3,000 miles away, competing in the Tour de Ski in Germany. Her absence should make for a wide-open series of races, with the cream of the domestic crop facing off against Randall’s teammates from the World Cup circuit.
Headliners will include U.S. Ski Team members Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola; Dartmouth College’s sprint phenom Ida Sargent; domestic stalwart Caitlin Compton; and a deep contingent from powerhouse Alaska Pacific University (APU).
“I think it will be a really great opportunity for other people to kind of step up…and take the reins,” said APU’s Holly Brooks.
The 2011 championship program for the women is identical to the one from 2010—and to 2009, for that matter, although that series was truncated due to cold.
The schedule is essentially a sprint sandwich: a classic sprint kicks things off on January 2, which is followed by two distance races—a 10 k classic and a 20 k mass start freestyle—on January 4 and 6. A skate sprint closes out the event on January 8.
The winner of each race will take home $1,200, with $600 awarded for second place, and $300 for third. While that top prize is $450 more than is typically awarded for a victory on the domestic circuit, the SuperTour, the payout is only half as deep.
There’s more than just cash on the line, though: all four races will be scored to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s National Ranking List, which can play into the selection of the American team for the 2011 World Ski Championships, in late February in Norway.
In addition, the races will help serve as qualifiers for the U.S. teams heading to the U-23 and World Junior Championships in Estonia in late January—as well as an annual junior trip to Scandinavia.
Nationals will mark the first time this season that the country’s best women—with the exception of Randall—will all appear on the same start list.
For the last two months, that field has been split between the U.S. and Europe. The domestic athletes raced over three weekends in Montana and Canada, while Stephen and Arritola, along with Sargent, have competed mainly on the World Cup.
“None of us have gotten a chance to race those, and so I think everyone’s looking forward to it,” Brooks said. “It’ll be great to have a full field.”
Below, we offer a quick rundown of the competitors.
U.S. Ski Team member Liz Stephen is coming off her best-ever World Cup result, which came in France earlier this month, but her form has been inconsistent this fall. She followed a strong race in the World Cup opening weekend in Sweden with three mediocre results, before turning things around in France. A distance specialist, Stephen plans to skip the first sprint, and as a strong skater, look for her best effort to come in the 20 k freestyle mass start.
Morgan Arritola, Stephen’s teammate, is also a distance specialist, and she skied to a personal best earlier this month as well. Her form, though, has been even more inconsistent than Stephen’s: until her 19th-place finish in France, she had failed to break the top 45 in her five previous World Cup starts this year. If she can keep riding her recent fitness through Rumford, she’ll be a threat to win either distance race. If she can’t, she’ll have trouble cracking the podium.
After running neck-and-neck with stars Justyna Kowalczyk and Petra Majdic in an early-season sprint race, Ida Sargent (Craftsbury/Dartmouth) proceeded to finish 33rd in her World Cup sprint debut in Finland in November—the top American result on the day, ahead of Randall. Sargent will head into Rumford as the favorite for both sprint events, although a recent car accident left her with a concussion and some neck problems. “My training hasn’t been ideal these past few weeks, but I’m making a full recovery,” she wrote in an e-mail.
After finishing on the podium in seven of the nine domestic races she entered this fall, Holly Brooks will lead the charge of the stacked APU women’s team. In an interview, Brooks said that she would be racing all four events in Rumford—and she will be a threat to win each of them. Brooks is high up on the latest edition of the National Ranking List, putting her in good position to qualify for the U.S. World Championships team, but she said she’s not taking anything for granted. “Anything can happen at nationals,” she said.
Sadie Bjornsen and Kate Fitzgerald are APU’s two other biggest podium threats. After her first domestic win in Canada earlier this month, Bjornsen could be Sargent’s toughest challenger in the sprint races. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, made a big jump in the off-season, which culminated in a win in her first domestic distance race of the year in Montana.
CXC’s Caitlin Compton got off to a slow start to her season, but her skiing came around as the domestic circuit moved to Canada in December. A 2010 Olympian and an owner of multiple U.S. championships, Compton’s best results will likely come in the two skate events. Her teammate, 19-year-old Jessie Diggins, has achieved some breakthrough results this fall, and with her win in a mini-tour in Rossland earlier this month, her fitness appears to be still improving.
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.