This past weekend a contingent of American athletes hit the road, looking for racing experience. Their first stop? Rogla, Slovenia, and two races on the OPA cup circuit.
Rogla is no stranger to high-level racing – the venue has hosted World Cups in the past, and is considered a tough race, as it is at altitude, sitting 1500 m above sea level.
While the snow coverage was a little sparse, and as the Americans arrived, workers were busy with heavy equipment moving snow on to the trails, by the time the races started, the grooming and snow coverage was excellent.
Racing began Saturday with 5/10 k individual start classic races, followed by 15/30 k mass start freestyle racing on Sunday.
Sylvan Ellefson, a member of Team Homegrown, was the top American male in the 10 k individual start classic on Saturday. Ellefson placed seventh, and while he was pleased with the entire weekend, he felt the classic race was especially notable.
“Our techs nailed the wax, which allowed me to really focus on digging deep and going for it,” Ellefson said in an e-mail to FasterSkier.
For Ellefson the altitude also played a factor; “Skiing at altitude is something I am pretty familiar with,” he said “I tried to ski within myself the first lap and then go for it on the second.”
And the seventh place result was impressive – it was the young American racer’s best finish on the OPA circuit to date.
And Ellefson wasn`t the only American male to have a top finish. Simi Hamilton (USST), fresh off a 25th place finish in the Oslo 2011 World Championship sprint, finished 10th, just 15 seconds back of Ellefson.
Patrick Johnson, of Alaska Pacific University (APU) finished 26th. Tim Reynolds, part of a three-man Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) team that joined the group, tied with another athlete for 35th position, and Leif Zimmerman (CXC) crossed the line 38th. Patrick O’Brien (CGRP) and Dylan McGuffin (CGRP) were 56th and 59th respectively.
The women skied one loop of the 5 k course, and Kate Fitzergerald (APU) led the American contingent in sixth place, 23 seconds out of top spot, which was occupied by Elodie Pin Bourgeois, a French skier who has several victories at the OPA Cup level already this season.
Ida Sargent (USST/CGRP) finished 10th, Hannah Dreissigacker (CGRP) crossed the line 26th, and Rebecca Rorabaugh (APU) finished 35th.
On Sunday, during the women`s 15 k mass start freestyle, Fitzgerald led the American women.
After finishing sixth in the 5 k classic, she went one better in the 15 k freestyle race, earning fifth place.
Despite considering mass start racing something she still needs to work on, Fitzgerald felt she skied a strong race.
“Out of the start I was kind of sucked back into the pack and I was told I was a few places from last,” she said.
After picking her way through the pack over the course of the race, Fitzgerald found herself in group which was in contact with the leaders for most of the race, until about 3 k from the finish.
Fitzgerald ended up with a pack of three other skiers, and it came down to a lunge for fifth place, which she ended up winning.
The fifth place finish put her 44 seconds off the leader, France`s Anouk Faivre Picon, who has been a regular on the French World Cup team this season.
The men, who skied 30 k freestyle, were once again led Ellefson, who finished in 14th place, two minutes back of German Thomas Bing.
Meanwhile, Patrick Johnson (APU) finished 22nd, while Leif Zimmerman (CXC) crossed the line 26th. Tim Reynolds (CGRP) finished 28th, a boot-length ahead of team mate Patrick O’Brien (CGRP) in 29th, and Dylan McGuffin (CGRP) finished 34th to round out the American contingent.
The trip covers two OPA Cup race weekends, and features 10 athletes. Three coaching staff, Bryan Fish, Casey Fagerquist, and Gus Kaeding are responsible for keeping the groups skis waxed, feeds ready, and in general under control.
OPA trips are organized for the purpose of gaining young American athletes European racing experience, which some see as crucial for domestic development.
And Ellefson agrees – the OPA circuit is the place to be.
“I love the OPA circuit and would honestly think about traveling with the circuit in future years,” said Ellefson.
“I especially like the opportunity for success – you can win an OPA cup and if you do, you get great FIS points along with it.”
And while Ellefson has yet to compete on the World Cup, he`s confident that his OPA experience will be useful down the road.
For Fitzgerald, her experience was much the same, considering it an important building block to racing success down the road.
“My OPA experience has been great so far,” Fitzgerald said, “It has been an excellent learning experience racing new people, and traveling to new spots.”
“The coaches have been doing a great job with skis and organizing the trip and the athletes are very motivated, fun to be around, and talented – we make a good group.”
Oslo 2011 World Championships
As an added bonus, the Americans were able to catch some of the action at Oslo 2011 World Championships as well . Not only is the television coverage in Europe excellent, but unlike North America, the races were at reasonable times.
According to Fitzgerald, the athletes would gather at the hotel to watch the races live on a big screen.
“It was really cool watching with all of the other athletes,” she said.
“The Americans were getting plenty of face time on the tube,” said Ellefson. “It was fun to get fired up watching fellow Americans and Canadians kick some tail at World Champs.”
Specifically, Ellefson was watching Noah Hoffman, as Hoffman joins the OPA trip for the next weekend of racing. Ellefson described it as “pretty fun” especially because Ellefson is planning on “crushing him in chess” when Hoffman joins the trip.
The group remains in Europe, and are currently in Ramsau, Austria, where they will compete in an OPA Cup mini-tour competition this weekend.