RUMFORD, Maine – Aside from their “bro” talk and Colorado slang, Team HomeGrown knows how to get serious when it counts.
It might not seem that way when its athletes, like U.S. Ski Team members Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman, jokingly hold hands. Most of Team HomeGrown thinks every race is “awesome” and “pretty sweet,” even if it isn’t their strength. That’s just their attitude.
In its third season as part of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, the team’s quiet intensity comes out on the course. During the 15 k freestyle individual start at the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships on Thursday, head coach Dan Weiland said he didn’t give splits to all his racers; he saw several internalize the news from the stadium loudspeaker at Black Mountain.
The laid-back approach paired with fast skis and faster racers worked for Team HomeGrown, as Elliott won the 15 k in 30:18.8 and one of the team’s founders Sylvan Ellefson finished third, 7.1 seconds back.
For Elliott as the first starter, feedback was critical. About two laps into the race with two to go, the 23-year-old heard he was in third. Hoffman was leading at the time and Ellefson was second.
Rather than feel flustered, the news put Elliott at ease.
“That’s pretty motivating to know that your teammates are sweeping the podium at that point,” Elliott said.
Even his coaches lost their cool a little bit.
“They were really fired up when that was going on,” Elliott said.
Ultimately, Matt Liebsch (Team Strong Heart/Team Birkie) kicked especially hard on the last two laps and finished second (+2.6). After battling a cold since the weekend and missing Tuesday’s sprint, Liebsch said he found “fifth gear” heading into the last 3.26 k lap. He also heard his wife’s voice in his head telling him to go.
“I was skiing for them today and really digging hard,” Liebsch said of his wife, Mary Beth, and two young children at his home in Minneapolis. “They’re sacrificing as a family for me to ski race.”
Hovering in the top 10 for most of the race, he had no idea he was second to Elliott.
“(It) was my plan to put myself in a position that I’m in it to go for it,” Liebsch said. “I’m real happy with that.”
After leading for the first half of the race, Hoffman placed fourth. He said he tried to ski consistently and work on cues – such as getting better traction on the new manmade snow – but suffered near the end.
“I was hurting on the last lap in a big way,” Hoffman said.
While he preferred not to hear splits, Ellefson said it helped to know how his teammates were doing.
“I was going anywhere from first to fourth and getting splits a couple seconds ahead of Tad, a couple seconds behind Tad,” Ellefson said. “It’s comforting knowing that your teammates are up there.”
While he specifically tried to ski harder from the start and was second for nearly the first two laps, Ellefson said his legs tired in the second half. He was able to hang on and ski the last 3 k strong, he said.
Elliott also said he felt it near the finish, especially after conquering the infamous “High School Hill” four times. But for the defending 30 k national champion, the 15 k was short.
“I wanted to go out hard here at sea level on a fast course and see if I could hold on,” said Elliott, who placed 29th in the 15 k classic at U.S. Nationals last year. “I was hurting by the end.”
After solid individual results in Tuesday’s freestyle sprint – with Elliott notching one of his best qualifying results in 16th – Team HomeGrown’s near sweep of the podium on Thursday proved it was on the right track.
Weiland credited Boulder Nordic Sport (BNS) for helping wax their skis. He and fellow SSCV coach Eric Pepper applied four layers to each of the six-person team’s several pairs of skis last night, and Roger Knight and his BNS crew added two or three topcoats to each at 5:30 Thursday morning.
“It takes a lot of work,” Weiland said. “We had good skis, but we have three great athletes, too.”
Coming from Vail, Colo., some 8,000 feet above sea level, Weiland said the hard course at an elevation of about 1,000 feet suited his athletes.
“If it was flat and superfast then we might be in trouble, but these guys like the hills,” Weiland said. “I think it shows that you can do it (live and train at altitude). There’s people that don’t think it’s possible, but here’s a good reason why it is possible.”
A new addition to the Craftsbury Green Racing Program, Bryan Cook was fifth. After starting 15 seconds ahead of Liebsch, he said the eventual runner-up caught him near the start of the third lap, and he managed to stay with him until the finish.
The result exceeded Cook’s expectations since the former Central Cross Country (CXC) racer, who recently moved to train in Vermont, had fewer early season races under his belt than usual.
“I guess I didn’t really have any goals coming into this one,” Cook said. “It sounds weird but I wanted to do well, like a top 10 I guess would be what I was looking for.”
Matt Gelso of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation was sixth, Brenton Knight (Alaska Pacific University) placed seventh, David Norris (Alaska Winter Stars) was eighth, Patrick Johnson (Middlebury) was ninth, and Brian Gregg (CXC) finished 10th.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.