VERNON, British Columbia — Before the Alaska Pacific University racers stepped onto the course at Sovereign Lake, many of them sensed what it felt like to win.
Their teammate and winner of Sunday’s World Cup freestyle sprint, Kikkan Randall gave them that feeling. While she won in Davos, Switzerland, the associated emotions resonated several thousands of miles to her APU counterparts in Silver Star, British Columbia.
Upon hearing the news that Randall and another teammate, Holly Brooks, broke the top 20 on Sunday, the APU skiers hooted and hollered and then prepared for their NorAm Cup races Sunday morning.
“Usually we end up waking up in the morning and checking for the results, so there’s kind of an excitement at breakfast,” said Becca Rorabaugh, who tallied a career-best distance result on Sunday of fourth in the 10 k women’s individual-start classic.
While the APU athletes didn’t get up early enough to watch the World Cup races live on Sunday, the results hit them all the same.
“Every morning we wake up and it’s like, ‘Yes, our team’s kickin’ it,’ ” said Rosie Brennan, who notched her best performance yet this season of fifth in the 10 k.
After Randall secured his second World Cup win in two weekends, the APU women nabbed three of the top five spots at the NorAm opening distance race. Kate Fitzgerald led the team in second.
“It’s so inspiring,” Fitzgerald said the APU women’s recent successes in Europe, including Sadie Bjornsen’s and Randall’s second-place finish in the team sprint last weekend.
“I’m so happy for them,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s like, I train with them. One of these day’s I’ll do that.”
She harnessed that motivation on the course, and paired with fast skis and some indirect tips from a competitor, Fitzgerald pulled off the solid NorAm finish. When Jessie Diggins, who wore the yellow leader’s jersey after winning Saturday’s sprint, passed Fitzgerald near 5 k, the runner-up responded by hanging on.
“(It) was really cool to see how she skis and how I can ski better,” Fitzgerald said. “I can’t remember where she ended up taking off, but, man, she definitely had some good speed there at the end.”
Pushing her top gear to the finish, Diggins crossed the line breathlessly. Once she regained some strength, she extended a hand to Fitzgerald, who had collapsed on the ground after finishing just behind her.
With the victory, in which Diggins clocked the fastest women’s time of 31:38.3, she sealed the weekend sweep. Fitzgerald was second (+56.7) and CXC’s Caitlin Gregg was third (+1:15.4).
“I like the individual starts because you have a chance to really push yourself,” Diggins said. “Sometimes in a mass start, people play games and kind of putz around … In an individual start, you have to hammer the whole way, which I like.”
Diggins burst out into a high-tempo race pace from the start, and found herself doubting her strategy at the top of the massive initial climb, about 1.5 kilometers in.
“I was going, ‘Man, maybe I took it out a little hard,’ but I just kept pushing,” Diggins said. “Eventually on the downhills you start to get a little more rest and you kind of work back into it. The course is cool that way.”
It might be pleasant to someone who liked hills — since there were several in the first half of the 5 k loop — and skied the course technically well.
According to APU head coach Erik Flora, his women did.
“I think all the girls have been training really hard and doing a good amount of preparation,” he said. “It shows on courses like this and you have to rely on fitness.”
Flora knew firsthand how his racers were doing as he called out splits on a hill in the women’s race. While most approached the inclines aggressively, few transitioned well about halfway through the climb. He noticed his APU women were among the minority.
Their smart skiing proved to Flora that they were filling in the gaps left by Brooks and Bjornsen. They raced at the Sovereign Lake NorAm Cup last year.
“It leaves kind of a younger, less experienced team and you see the girls are stepping up and making the next step forward,” Flora said. “So it’s really exciting.”
Another racer capitalizing off fond memories at Sovereign Lake, Gregg made the podium after placing second in the 10 k freestyle race there last year.
“It’s a fun place to ski,” Gregg said. “I get in my rhythm here and feel like I can carry my momentum all the way around.”
She did so in a way that likely annoyed her husband, Brian Gregg, who finished seventh in the men’s 15 k on Sunday.
“It’s always a competition, who does better for the day,” said Caitlin, who won honey, coffee and socks in addition to $150 Canadian dollars for her performance.
“Yesterday he didn’t get on the podium but he was higher than I was. That was a big deal,” she added. “Just a little rivalry, a maritial rivalry. It pushes us.”
After APU’s Rorabaugh and Brennan occupied fourth and fifth, Morgan Arritola of Sun Valley placed sixth in her first ski race since Nov. 26. She had since been in Hawaii, where she won the Xterra Trail Run World Championship on Dec. 4.
Saturday’s sprint runner-up Alysson Marshall of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) was seventh, and Jennie Bender (CXC) placed eighth.
Emily Nishikawa (AWCA) was ninth and Amanda Ammar (Canmore) finished 10th to kick off her comeback season. Two years ago, Ammar left the sport because of health troubles, and she reentered the scene by racing two events at the 2011 Canadian National Championships.
“Coming back to the sport, I can only do my best and see how it goes,” she said. “I feel like I have the fight back.”
Ammar said she left racing in part because her body could no longer endure the training grind. She gave it another shot last year and had enjoyed nationals.
“Racing is fun and you feel pain,” Ammar said. “And when you’re racing and you feel the pain, sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh my god, why am I doing this?’ But that’s why we do it. All of us are a little sick and twisted and like that pain.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.