Saxton, Ahmed Surprising OJ Winners at Junior Nationals

Alex KochonMarch 7, 2012
Ben Saxton (l) of Midwest/Minnesota Valley Ski Club edges Canadian Daviod Palmer (Black Jack) at the finish of the OJ 15 k freestyle mass start at the 2012 Cross Country Junior Nationals at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, on Wednesday.

All 2012 Cross Country Junior Nationals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic, in Bennington, Vt., committed to caring for the mind since 1987. Currently conducting clinical research on the Alzheimer’s disease vaccine.

MIDWAY, Utah – A lone Canadian more than 30 seconds ahead of the pack, Daviod Palmer seemed untouchable at some points of the OJ boys 15-kilometer race at the 2012 Cross Country Junior Nationals on Wednesday.

Either that or just plain risky.

Daviod Palmer (Canada/Black Jack) leading Wednesday's 15 k freestyle mass start, at least 30 seconds ahead of any OJ competitors. Palmer went on to place second after losing a sprint to the finish with Ben Saxton (MW/Minnesota).

An 18-year-old from Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland, British Columbia, Palmer jumped out to an early lead in the freestyle mass start at Soldier Hollow, cruising ahead with at least 10 kilometers to go.

Some might have wondered what he was doing. He had two laps left, and all that time to lose the lead.

Meanwhile, Ben Saxton of the Midwest/Minnesota Valley Ski Club hung on with about seven others, trying to chase Palmer without blowing up. Saxton didn’t think Palmer was out of reach, and he proved he wasn’t on the last downhill before the finish.

On the corner before the stadium, Saxton came up on Palmer’s heels. The Canadian must have felt it because the two sprinted down the straightaway, and Saxton threw himself over the line.

When he picked his head up, Saxton realized he did it. He edged Palmer and won the OJ title outright.

“I knew he was Canadian, but never want to win a race by default,” Saxton said after winning the photo finish by 0.3 seconds in 41:50.3. “I just went my hardest. It was a wicked race. I loved it.”

Palmer said he had fun as well; he just didn’t have much left on the last climb.

Ben Saxton (l) leads a chase group at the start of the last lap in the OJ 15 k freestyle mass start at the 2012 Junior Nationals at Soldier Hollow on Wednesday.

“I just felt that it was time to pick up the pace on the second lap so I just went my own pace,” Palmer said. “I was getting pretty tired on that last hill, but it was super fun.”

Saxton seized his opportunity on the long climb after taking most of the hills easy throughout the race. Recognizing his skis’ speed on the first lap, when he sped by the others on a major descent, Saxton reevaluated his game plan.

“From then on, I tried to take it easy on the uphills and hammer down,” he said. “I knew I could make a move. I wasn’t expending a ton of energy up there.”

Dartmouth freshman Silas Talbot finished third (+14.5) for New England after skiing outside the top 20 at the beginning of the race. He picked off competitors as he plugged along, eventually catching the chase group and challenging its contenders.

“I knew I was going to take it out pretty conservatively and I maybe took it out a little too conservatively,” Talbot said after notching his first podium in five years at Junior Nationals. “[I] got dropped by the lead pack on the second lap and had to close that gap. … I just dug deep and pushed it over the top of the hill. Coming into the finish I just had that next gear and was able to kick it in.”

Sawyer Kesselheim (IM/Bridger) came through in fourth (+19.2), and Tucker McCrerey (RM/Summit) was fifth (+29.7).

Also in the top 10, Kyle Bratrud (MW/Minnesota) was sixth, Jordan Fields (NE/Woodstock) was seventh, Kevin Bolger (IM/Sun Valley) finished eighth, Austin Meng (FW/Auburn) was ninth and Alexander Mahoney (Canada/RMR) placed 10th.

OJ boys 15 k freestyle mass start results


Elizabeth Simak (l) and Sarmila Ahmed (second from left) lead at the beginning of the last lap in the OJ girls 10 k freestyle mass start at the 2012 Junior Nationals on Wednesday.

Ahmed Advances on Descent

Elizabeth Simak came this close to locking up a Junior Nationals title. At least her teammate got it instead.

Elizabeth Simak (MW/F.A.S.T.) at right leads a pack of OJ girls up Hermod's Hill, the last big climb of the 10 k freestyle mass start course at Junior Nationals on Wednesday.

The OJ girls 10 k freestyle mass start might as well been a sprint given the way it turned out for the frontrunners. After Simak (Midwest/F.A.S.T. Performance Training) led for most of the two-lap race, she fell victim to her own exhaustion.

“Coming around corner, I kind of freaked out on the hill,” she said of the steep and sweeping descent before the finish at Soldier Hollow. “My legs were so dead. I snapped my pole between my legs. A New England coach handed me a pole and my teammate blew by me.”

Sharmila Ahmed (MW/Go Training) avoided her scrambling teammate and took the lead with a few hundred meters remaining. Fifth after the first loop, she had positioned herself in second on the final descent, and it made the difference.

Ahmed won the OJ championship in the last race of the day in 32:18. Despite softening conditions with temperatures reaching the high 30s, Ahmed kept up her speed to win by 11.9 seconds. Simak recovered and finished second to put the Midwest in the top two.

“I’ve never gotten a top ten in a distance race,” Simak said. “I really wanted to podium. I just got excited and went, just wanted to go my hardest. You know, it sucks not to win, but my teammate is a really good skier and I’m really happy for her.”

Simak and Ahmed initially pulled away from the pack together at the beginning of the second lap. They figured they were already halfway done and could go harder.

“We went for it then, kept switching off, talking to each other,” Ahmed said. “Over on the bridge, Simak pulled away. She was going for it; that was one of the best sprints I’ve ever seen.”

Ahmed chased her teammate to the top of Hermod’s Hill. Although she said she was gaining on the downhill, Ahmed wasn’t sure what happened.

Sharmila Ahmed (c) of Midwest/Go Training celebrates her OJ 10 k freestyle mass start at the 2012 Junior Nationals at Soldier Hollow. Elizabeth Simak (MW/F.A.S.T.) was second (l) and Rachel Hall (r) of NE/Middlebury was third.

“I was really confused,” she said. “I don’t know, I just went. It’s crazy.”

About four seconds after Simak crossed the line, Rachel Hall (NE/Middlebury) finished in third (+16.4) and immediately collapsed alongside Simak. The two had to be picked up and/or dragged away from where they fell just beyond the finish.

Hall recovered soon after and was excited about her first podium in four years at Junior Nationals.

“The lactate didn’t really hit you until the second lap so I just tried to gradually work into it so I didn’t explode,” Hall said.

When the two leaders broke away, she helped set a manageable pace with her New England teammates Isabelle Pelletier (Stratton) and Mary Kate Cirelli (Green Mountain). Together, they formed a chase group, and Pelletier and Cirelli finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

“I felt like I was catching number two, but not enough,” Hall said. “The finish was so slushy that it was hard to sprint to the end.”

Also in the top 10, Emily Stitt (NE/Green Mountain) was sixth, Alice Flanders (MW/Sisu) was seventh, Paige Schember (MW/F.A.S.T.) was eighth, Claire Galvin (MW/Go Training) was ninth and Rachel Mason (GL/MTU) finished 10th.

OJ girls 10 k freestyle mass start results

Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.

Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon ( is a former FasterSkier editor and roving reporter who never really lost touch with the nordic scene. A freelance writer, editor, and outdoor-loving mom of two, she lives in northeastern New York and enjoys adventuring in the Adirondacks. She shares her passion for sports and recreation as the co-founder of "Ride On! Mountain Bike Trail Guide" and a sales and content contributor at When she's not skiing or chasing her kids around, Alex assists authors as a production and marketing coordinator for iPub Global Connection.

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