In the women’s 10 k classic in Rumford on Wednesday, it was an athlete in the familiar blue, white and black of Alaska Pacific University to climb to the top step of the podium. It just wasn’t the one you’d expect.
After Holly Brooks’s win in Sunday’s classic sprint, she was a clear favorite coming into the first distance race of the 2011 U.S. National Championships. But instead of Brooks coming out on top, it was her teammate Sadie Bjornsen collecting a surprise win—her first-ever in a domestic distance race, let alone in a national championship.
The victory was convincing, too: Bjornsen topped her teammate Morgan Smyth by 31 seconds, while the U.S. Ski Team’s Morgan Arritola was third, nearly 50 seconds back. After putting four in the top five on Sunday, the APU women flexed their muscles again on Wednesday, taking the top two spots, and four of the top eight.
They were led by Bjornsen, whose strength has typically been in sprinting—not longer events. She said after finishing on Wednesday that she’d “never really considered myself a distance racer.”
Even after a third place finish in a Nor-Am race in Canada in December gave her some confidence, Bjornsen still didn’t have high expectations.
“I knew that it was a possibility, but I definitely had my eyes set on the sprints,” she said. “This is super-exciting.”
Wednesday saw the women taking four trips around a 2.5-kilometer loop that organizers in Rumford had scrambled to prepare over the last three days, after warm temperatures left the trails at Black Mountain looking more like dirt roads than race courses.
The loop included all of the 1.4 kilometers used in Sunday’s sprint, with an additional one-kilometer extension tacked on.
The product was a surprisingly challenging course with two sustained climbs—including one steep pitch on the second ascent that slowed most women to a herringbone. Among the victims was Brooks, who faded in the later laps to finish out of the top five. (Unofficial results had her in a dead heat for sixth with CXC’s Jennie Bender and CU’s Eliska Hajkova.)
“It skied harder than I anticipated, really,” Brooks said. “It wasn’t bad at all in the sprint, and today it was kind of like everyone was all over the place, myself included.”
Two other favorites, the U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen and Craftsbury’s Ida Sargent, also struggled.
Sargent was among the leaders early in the race, but ended up dropping out before the finish. She said that she was trying not to push too hard, with the after-effects of a car crash in December still dogging her.
“I’m just not there right now,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out how to get myself back.”
Stephen finished 10th, unofficially, in her first race of the year on American soil, after spending the fall on the World Cup.
“I didn’t have the race I was hoping to have, but no big deal. I’m looking forward to tomorrow already,” she said, referring to Thursday’s distance skate race.
But while some women struggled to ski smoothly and hit the pacing, Bjornsen said that she enjoyed the course. She had the benefit of skiing her first lap with Stephen, then turned on the jets.
After her freshman year at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Bjornsen took a year off to ski with the Methow Olympic Development Team, then switched this year to the APU program. There, she has trained alongside Brooks, World Championships medalist Kikkan Randall, and the rest of the women’s team under Head Coach Erik Flora.
In the last three years, Bjornsen had never finished higher than sixth in a distance race at national championships. But Flora said that Bjornsen had made a conscious effort to improve in the discipline since she joined his program in the spring, upping the volume and intensity of her training.
“It was just something that we needed to develop a little bit more,” he said. “If you would have asked me last spring, you could see it was possible—it was just in the preparation.”
Contributing reporting and photography by Matthew Voisin.
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.