RUMFORD, Maine — Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol) made it three straight U.S. National sprint titles Tuesday at Black Mountain, using his veteran racing experience to navigate a fast, tactical day. In a tightly packed A-final, Bend Endurance Academy’s Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess was close behind in second, and in a fight for bronze that was close enough to protest, Tyler Kornfield (University of Alaska Fairbanks) completed the men’s podium in third mere millimeters ahead of Sylvan Ellefson (SSCV/Team Homegrown).
“I felt really good — I’ve won here before, so that probably gives [me] confidence,” Koos said. “It’s all about you and your lane. You don’t think about that other stuff going on in the other four or five lanes around you.”
The men’s racing began at 10 a.m., where Blackhorse-von Jess posted the fastest qualifying time and set himself up nicely for the rounds. Mike Sinnott (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) and Ellefson were both less than a second behind in 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
Smart tactics, fast skis and a knack for avoiding crashes were the trick making it through the subsequent rounds. The trails at Black Mountain were hard-packed and slick, which favored athletes that could confidently balance on their skis. With the help of cold temperatures overnight and all of Tuesday, the crew at Black Mountain was able to repair the parts of the course made thin Sunday night’s rain. Meanwhile, the wind made positioning and drafting of the utmost importance for all but the gutsiest racer.
Ten athletes — the top two finishers in each quarterfinal — automatically advanced to the semi-finals, along with lucky losers Ellefson and Dave Norris (Alaska Winter Stars), who had the fastest qualifying times of the all the 3rd-place quarterfinal finishers.
The semifinals were hard fought. Tim Reynolds (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) entered the final few hundred meters of the first heat with a substantial gap over the rest of the field but lost his balance, ending his run for the podium. Reynolds chose not to start in the B-final, perhaps saving energy for the back-to-back races to be held later in the week.
In the B-final, Patrick O’Brien (CGRP) showed that he still had plenty left in the tank. He skied well, outpacing the rest of the field, which consisted of Norris, Reese Hanneman (APU), Sinnott, and Ryan Scott (Montana State University). O’Brien ended the day seventh overall, adding another U.S. Cross Country Championship top 10 to his name.
When it came time for the A-final, Koos proved he had a tactical expertise that only comes with race experience. The former U.S. Ski Team member made a risky move in deciding to lead for the majority of the race. In interviews afterwards, his competition said their early strategy was to let others — whoever makes the early move — do the work, and hope to slingshot out of his draft coming into the stadium.
“I think everyone was kind of trying to figure out what everyone else was going to do,” Blackhorse-von Jess said about the final. “Everyone was going ‘let’s go, let’s go,” the whole race, and the first climb [Koos] was just skiing easy.”
When Blackhorse-von Jess found himself still on Koos’ tail as the pack moved down the final hill, he thought he could end up winning. But it was not to be.
“He’s a crafty old veteran, man,” he said afterwards. “Dude pinched me out … as soon as we stood up he just started sprinting to the finish. You could feel everybody coming.”
At that point, he said he knew he was fighting for second.
Koos explained his ability to win from the front of the pack as a confluence of his experience and everything coming together at the right time.
“It was a race more from the front in the final,” he said. “But I thought I had enough energy for that. I had rocket skis today too. When you have that it allows you to do a bit more.”
Behind the top two men, the fight for bronze between Kornfield and Ellefson was too close to call with the naked eye, but upon film review, Kornfield was deemed the third-place finisher.
Kornfield skied each of his heats conservatively, and in the final, came from fifth off the last downhill to swing into third in the last 50 meters.
“I got a little lucky I think, but it was a good heat,” he said before he learned his unofficial third place withheld the protest. “I’m pretty excited with fourth or third — whatever I got.”
Ellefson, who is less of a sprint specialist than his A-final competitiors, was right in the mix as the pack moved through the first part of the course. He felt he had a good position in the middle of the group as he passed under the bridge, but ended up having to swing wide into the icy and little-used far left lane, where it was more difficult to see the other racers.
“I’m not sure what happened in the finish,” Ellefson said, “But I’m pretty excited on the day.”
Veteran Lara Flora (APU) and CXC skier Karl Nygren rounded out the heat finishing fifth and sixth, respectively.
Flora said he’s definitely more focused on the distance races this week, but felt good about his result.
“It was really sprinting tactics out there,” he explained. “There were four true sprinters, and Sylvan and I were kind of the distance skiers in there, so there was a lot of yo-yoing.”
Alex Matthews and Sam Evans-Brown contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.