FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The J2 boys national championship sprint was only seconds old, and already Koby Gordon feared disaster had struck.
“My pole grip came undone so I had to grab my pole and put it back on,” Gordon said. “Yeah it was (stressful). I was like ‘This could put me in last’ but I was able to keep pushing really hard with my legs.”
Gordon, of Stratton Mountain School, quickly regained second place behind teammate Henry Harmeyer, the event’s defending champion. “I was comfortable there,” Gordon said.
Then on the final hill of the winding 1-kilometer course Thursday evening at Birch Hill Recreation Area, Alaska’s Jake Bassett surged.
“Jake came up and challenged on that hill and I just went for it so deep on that last climb,” Gordon said. “And I realized I was in front. I wasn’t planning on being in front. I wanted to come in second and get the slingshot (at the bottom of the final hill).”
That set the stage for a frantic sprint to the tape decided by 0.22 seconds in Gordon’s favor.
“I wasn’t sure who got first there until I saw my coach put up a big one (finger) in the air, so it was really exciting,” Gordon said.
Afterwards his coach examined the Velcro on Gordon’s pole straps and delivered another message, telling him “You’re not using these poles again.”
Bassett, meanwhile, won the qualifying round and coasted to first place in his quarterfinal and semifinal heats. But he expected a challenge in the final and got it.
“Those guys went out hard and I was just doing my best to not get boxed out,” Bassett said.
Bassett liked his position of second on the final downhill, but it didn’t spring him ahead.
“I kind of caught a little bit of a slingshot, but it wasn’t fast enough to get (Gordon),” Bassett said. “He definitely is a fast skier and he definitely deserved (to win).”
Harmeyer of New England took third 0.84 seconds after Gordon.
When the J2 qualifying round kicked off the third day of competition at the U.S. Cross Country Junior Nationals at 11:45 a.m., the temperature was 8 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill read minus 8. However, by the final J2 race shortly after 4 p.m., the temperature had risen into the teens, though the bluebird sunny day offered little warmth.
In the J1 boys final, Alaskan Thomas O’Harra broke up a Norwegian sweep and claimed the U.S. national championship by placing third.
“I wanted to stay in the mix the whole race and not lose contact with those guys, but I also didn’t want to push myself too hard in the beginning,” O’Harra said. “I knew I had to keep something in the tank for that second hill otherwise they were just going to leave us behind.”
In the end, Norwegian Mattis Stenshagen got away and cruised to a 2.26-second win over teammate Sjur Slettom. O’Harra couldn’t quite outsprint Slettom but bested Norway’s Martin Thon.
“(A sweep), that would have been very fun, but 1-2 is not bad either,” Slettom said.
While O’Harra is impressed by the Norwegians and respects them, he didn’t sound intimidated.
“They’re people too. They put their pants on one leg at a time,” O’Harra said, adding that he’s drawn inspiration from World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall. “If she can beat ‘em — Kikkan’s just an Anchorage girl born in Alaska — I think anybody can.”
For more photos from 2013 Junior Nationals, visit bertboyer.zenfolio.com. Proceeds go to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).