WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – The highlight of Caitlin Gregg’s day was seeing all her Midwest fans, her Loppet Nordic Racing buddies, at the finish of each heat on Friday during the first SuperTour race of the season.
That gave her reason to celebrate and smile every time she won, which the 33-year-old Gregg did all morning and early afternoon at the Rendezvous Ski Trails. After posting the fastest women’s qualifying time of 2:55.52 in the 1.3-kilometer freestyle sprint, Gregg went on to ski away from her competitors in each round thereafter.
Pushing all the way across the line for the fourth time of the day – seconds ahead of Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation), who placed second, and Becca Rorabaugh (Alaska Pacific University), who finished third in the final – Gregg threw her hands in the air. Couldn’t have gone any better, she thought.
“This is probably one of the biggest races for me,” said Gregg, of Madshus Racing and more recently Team Gregg.
“We’ve got my family, my husband’s family here, all of the other people on the circuit that we’ve worked with. Just to have that energy here right now actually means some of the most to me. I think I had six or seven Loppet Nordic Racing kids … at the finish line [of every heat]; that’s the best feeling ever. You just realize that’s what it’s about. It’s ski racing, and it’s just fun to share with everyone.”
In her first official race of the 2013/2014 season, Gregg won the qualifier by 2.18 seconds over Becca Rorabaugh. She went on to dominate her quarterfinal, beating runner-up Sylvia Nordskar (University of Denver) by 3.5 seconds.
Gregg then commanded her semifinal in 2:48.3, six-tenths of a second faster than runner-up Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project). Patterson went on to place fifth in the final, ahead of Andrea Lee (University of New Mexico) in sixth and behind Erika Flowers (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) in fourth.
For Gregg, it was a great start – one that puts her on the path to World Cup starts in January if she continues to rule the SuperTour series, which next stops in Bozeman, Mont., Dec. 7-8.
“I’m very grateful that we’re starting out with skate races,” she said of her preferred discipline. Saturday’s SuperTour 10 and 15 k distance races in West Yellowstone are freestyle as well.
“It’s always nice to feel that’s in your favor and you’re starting off on a good foot,” she added.
With the University of New Mexico waxing for Gregg and her husband Brian this weekend, she quickly credited the team’s coaches and staff.
“They just nailed the waxing so, for me, it became very easy,” she said. “[In the heats, I] kind of hung and tried to stay out of trouble, and then it was pretty obvious after that first little bit of the downhill my skis were just awesome so I just decided to go for it.”
Rorabaugh, who won her quarterfinal and was second to Bender in a photo-finish semifinal, recalled when Gregg took off in the final: not too far in, right after the last downhill.
After descending from the flat stretch out of the stadium, the five other women tried to keep up with Gregg on the low-lying backstretch, still nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. It was curvy and technical. “Lots of jostling for position,” Bender explained.
“I knew that Caitlin was probably just gonna go for it and I still wasn’t ready to go with her, which was silly,” said Rorabaugh, who was jockeying for third when Gregg accelerated across the flat.
Earlier, Rorabaugh tried to control her heats and ski conservatively, knowing she could make the final if she played her cards right.
“The danger is sometimes you check out a little bit rather than being in full-on go mode the entire day,” she said. “I think it made it harder for me when Caitlin decided to take off.”
Meanwhile, Bender was trying to come back from an early slipup just outside the stadium, in which she dropped to sixth.
“I got in a bad spot and everyone passed me and I was like, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Bender recalled. “But there were good places to tuck in behind people and then swing around them. … I tried to plan it so that coming up that last hill, I would be in a decent spot.”
As Bender picked people off, Gregg held her gap up the final climb and skied out of reach by the time she entered the stadium. Bender followed, and Rorabaugh tried to challenge her for second, but Bender had the better line.
Uncontested through the finishing stretch, Gregg had strung out the entire group, yet she pushed entirely through the finish.
“Honestly, I’m a nervous wreck,” Gregg said of lining up against talented sprinters like Bender and Rorabaugh. “I think that’s the best thing to be because if you get too complacent you forget to go for it. I was telling the little kids that: never assume anything until the race is over. You’ve got to work every inch of the way.”
After qualifying in eighth, Bender owned her quarterfinal with a 1.5-second win over Anika Miller (Montana State University), the third-fastest qualifier. Troubled by a back injury throughout the summer and even a few days ago, Bender was pleased to be pain free on Friday and able to give her all through the heats. She had made a point to do as much precautionary work as possible (stretching, ibuprofin and ice) while training in West Yellowstone.
“I felt like it’s the one thing that’s been throwing off my balance, but it felt good today,” she said. “So I was happy about that.”
In her first race with the Bozeman-based BSF, the former CXC skier said its been a good transition.
“I do miss my Midwest crew for sure, but the Bozeman people have been amazing,” Bender said. “Both parties have been really supportive and understanding … I’m hoping for a healthy year because I feel like I have more to give.”
While Rorabaugh said she made some tactical errors and got a little tired in Friday’s final, she was excited about her first SuperTour podium in two years.
“I know that this is a big year and in order to go anywhere from a domestic-racing standpoint, you have to make a pretty big impression,” Rorabaugh said.
From a World Championships biathlete to a 2010 Olympian and SuperTour favorite, Gregg has seen her share of podiums. But this could have 2014 Olympic implications if she makes it to Europe and meets U.S. Olympic-qualifying criteria on the World Cup.
But Gregg didn’t get ahead of herself. On Friday, she soaked up the support of her Midwest crew, including friends, family and fellow Loppet Nordic Racers. After recently launching Team Gregg with Loppet Nordic, the Greggs were already watching one dream unfold.
“With our travel and our schedule and where we’re based out of [Minneapolis], we kind of see it as an opportunity,” she said of the decision to part ways with Methow Olympic Development, which she and Brian joined earlier this season, to form their own elite team.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge we’re piecing together some wax support and so forth, but people have been super willing to help out,” she said. “The opportunity to race in your true home club – we see these kids day in and day out. I can’t think of anything better to have some older elite athletes racing in the same suits.”
The funny thing is, those juniors think she’s wearing their suit. “The kids came up to me and said, ‘Hey! You’re in our Fast Kids uniform!’ ” Gregg said. “We’ve always had [this] in the back of our head and never knew how it would work out and it all came together this year.”
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.