The Alaska Pacific University women’s team was finally dethroned on Thursday—but it took a world-class athlete to do it.
After Holly Brooks and Sadie Bjornsen took the first two races of this week’s U.S. National Championships in Rumford, the U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen finally broke up the monopoly with a persuasive win in the women’s 20 k.
Brooks preserved her squad’s pride by placing second, 58 seconds down, while Morgan Arritola (USST) was third.
Just 24 hours removed from a disappointing finish in Wednesday’s classic race, Stephen was back where she belonged on Thursday, and she wasted no time in establishing herself at the front of the race on a crisp, sunny day in Rumford.
She started 30 seconds behind her teammate Arritola, closed down the gap in just over five kilometers, and kept on charging, skiing with a quick, energetic tempo.
“She blew past me—she was moving fast, and I figured I needed to ski my own race so I didn’t blow up,” Arritola said.
Thursday’s race was Arritola’s last one in Rumford; she flies home Friday. After her second consecutive third-place finish, she said that she was satisfied—even if she had hoped to ski a bit better.
Arritola had a “hell of a travel schedule” to get from the World Cup in Europe to her home in Idaho in late December, then back to Maine five days later.
“I’m ready to go home…and get kind of settled into some training,” she said. “I went hard, and that’s all I can ask for right now.”
“Hard” was still enough to crack the podium, though. Thanks to some steady pacing, Arritola made up a 30-second deficit to
CXC’s Caitlin Compton, who faded after a blistering start to finish fourth.
Compton’s first two laps were the fastest of all 76 starters, but Stephen was just getting rolling, and she had plenty of time—the women made seven trips around the 2.7-kilometer course.
Stephen’s performance was a sharp contrast to her lackluster 10th-place finish on Wednesday, which left her a minute and a half behind APU’s Sadie Bjornsen—all the more surprising given that Stephen was coming off a career result a few weeks ago on the World Cup.
On Thursday, things were back to normal—Brooks was the only woman who could come within a minute of Stephen’s time.
She said that the technique and distance of the skate race suited her—but also added that she simply felt better.
Stephen’s coach with the U.S. Ski Team, Matt Whitcomb, had no explanation for the turnaround—but he said that she didn’t make any big changes between the two days.
“The body’s a crazy thing,” Whitcomb said. “She just didn’t show up with the ideal fitness yesterday. The plan going into today
was to show up with confidence, show up angry, leave happy.”
With the win, Stephen added to her tally of national titles, but neither she nor organizers knew just where it stood. The one thing Stephen did know, though, was that she would relish it.
“You have to soak in the good days,” she said.
Brooks, who finished second, said that the 2.7-kilometer loop left her with no time to relax. She said she knew to go out hard after discussing the course with her teammate James Southam, who couldn’t overcome a slow start in the men’s race.
“It was a 20 k where you just have to charge, the whole time,” she said. “I think the people who went out really conservatively probably regretted it.”
Brooks also said that she was fueled by her frustration with a poor race on Wednesday. She finished seventh that day, and her reversal on Thursday mirrored Stephen’s.
“I’m sure she was trying to make up for yesterday, as I was I,” Brooks said. “I think both of us came out here ready to land on the podium today, after a disappointing race.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.