Twelve athletes were named to the US Junior World Championships team Friday, after the completion of the the first three US Nationals events. They all bring experience and ambition to the races held in Otepää, Estonia, January 25-31.
US Junior World team head coach Matt Whitcomb says this year’s team is particularly deep and experienced. All of the skiers have raced in Europe, and several are embarking on their third trip to the World Juniors.
“That just makes for a smoother trip, and adds opportunities for better results,” Whitcomb said, noting that the result list is not the only way to measure success.
“I don’t lay down too many result-oriented expectations. It’s about the process of traveling internationally, adjusting and train well every day at pre-camp. For the race week, I expect them to prepare for, and approach the races like professionals, and honestly, we have never had a problem with this. They are so well prepared from their home clubs,” Whitcomb said.
But while the coaches are careful to spell out specific expectations, the athletes are well dialed on what they want to achieve.
Coming off his best US Senior Nationals and feeling stronger than ever in both sprint and distance events, Erik Bjornsen believes both he and the rest of the US guys have a shot at the podium.
“I think there are a couple of US guys that can be on the podium any day there. I think if things feel right, I think I could be on the podium,” said Bjornsen, who traditionally has done best in the sprints.
Joanne Reid also thinks this year could be a good one for her. Last year, she delivered an 18 place in the pursuit and helped the team to an eighth place in the relay. Her ambitions for this year are no less.
“I’m going out there to see what I can do and race my best of course. I’m hoping for another top 20 this year,” Reid said, noting that she feels her best chances are in the pursuit and the distance skate.
“I’m definitely better at skating than striding. I really hope they don’t put me in the sprint. I’m the worst classic sprinter ever,” Reid said with a laugh.
For Bjornsen, going to World Juniors one last time in his career has been on his mind all fall. And going into Nationals, he thought he had a decent shot at making the team.
“I didn’t expect to be named, but I was feeling pretty good and felt like my chances were pretty good,” Bjornsen said.
Fourth place in the classic sprint, his best result ever at Nationals, didn’t hurt his chances. Additionally, his distance results were also his best ever. Now, Bjornsen is looking forward to showing his game to the world.
Tyler Kornfield, also a veteran of the World Juniors, focused his season around peaking for the championships, hoping he would race well enough at nationals to snag a spot on the team, even if his peak is planned for the end of the month. That proved to be a piece of cake: Kornfield was eighth overall in the classic sprint and ninth in the 15K classic. To him, the latter was the most exciting.
“Doing so well in the classic distance shows that I have distance speed as well, and that’s really encouraging. These are definitely my best races, at least distance-wise,” said Kornfield, who so far has been most dominating in the sprints.
Making the team: a complete surprise
While some of the athletes had a pretty good idea of where they ranked, being named to the team was a complete surprise to Reid.
“I was pretty surprised when they called my name. My face was very entertaining to watch,” said Reid, who didn’t feel like her first two races at Nationals were particularly strong bids for a ticket to Europe.
“I had two bad races before the skate race, both classic,” she explained. However, winning the skate race on Wednesday clinched the deal, and Reid is set to go.
Experience = confidence
Having raced at the world-level before doesn’t take anything away from the excitement, the athletes say. It simply adds to the experience.
“I’m definitely really excited, but being named to the team is just a part of the process. I want to go to World Juniors to do well, not just to have fun,” Bjornsen said, who spent a couple of months racing in Europe last year. Heading into his third World Juniors, he is as seasoned as they come.
“The first year, everything was definitely a big surprise, and I felt out of place. Now I feel like I can go there and race well,” Bjornsen said.
Jessie Diggins, who is also going to her third World Juniors, agrees. She finds it comforting to know what she’s headed for, and thinks experience adds to the confidence level.
“The first year, it was pretty overwhelming. I was trying to figure out what I was doing. Now I can focus on racing, and the scene doesn’t overwhelm me,” said Diggins.
“You know what to expect, you know the food will be different, you know what can distract you or even throw you off,” Diggins explained, adding that she is also excited that so many of the racers were there last year too. “We’re a good team. It’s good to know your coaches and your teammates. I find that pretty nice.”
Relax – and race like heck
At this point, the athletes have to trust that they have laid down the volume and done the work. Now they just need to polish the details and sharpen the tools.
Whitcomb’s only concern is that some of the athletes will do too much leading up to the races.
“It’s easy to get caught up in how other athletes train, that might already be adjusted to the time and train too much,” he explained.
The trip is sponsored by the US Ski Team and the National Cross-Country Ski Education Foundation, but the athletes also have to pay $1,700 each, plus airfare to cover the costs. However, any athlete who posts a top-3 result in an individual competition will get their travel costs reimbursed by NCCSEF. Additionally, the US Ski Team will reimburse the travel costs for the top two female and top two male racers. To be eligible for the USST reimbursement, a junior must post a top-10 in an individual competition.
“This is just an added incentive,” said Whitcomb, who knows that all the skiers will race their best at the championships regardless.
The World Juniors team consists of six girls and six boys, plus nine coaches. The girls are Jessie Diggins (CXC), Heather Mooney (Stratton Mountain School), Joanne Reid (Colorado University), Kinsey Loan (APU), Isabel Caldwell (Dartmouth) and Amy Glen (UVM). The boys are Tyler Kornfield (UAF), Erik Bjornsen (UAA), Scott Patterson (UVM), Skyler Davis (Stratton Mountain School), George Cartwright (NMU) and Andrew Dougherty (Denver University).
The coaches are head coach/trip leader Matt Whitcomb (USST), service tech Randy Gibbs (USST), service tech and jack of all trades Oleg Ragilo (former USST), service tech Andrew Johnson (UVM), and service tech Casey Fagerquist (APU), as well as coaches Justin Beckwith (GMVS), Amy Caldwell (Boulder, Colo.) and Dan Weiland (Ski and Snowboard Club of Vail, Colo.)
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.