WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – Mads Strøm is a 22-year-old full-time student in his freshman year at the University of Colorado (CU), yet he’s been training like it’s his job.
In Saturday’s SuperTour 15-kilometer freestyle individual start – the second and final race in West Yellowstone – it showed as Strøm beat more than 120 men, completing the three-lap course at the Rendezvous Ski Trails in 34:22.9 minutes. He finished 14.1 seconds faster than runner-up Brian Gregg (Madshus/Team Gregg) and was 20 seconds ahead of Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown) in third.
“I know I’m fast, but we’ve been training almost 30 hours this last week so [on Friday] I didn’t feel that good,” said Strøm, who spent the summer working out with his home club Bærums Verk IF in Oslo, Norway. He was coming from a good place after last season, when he tallied placed 26th at Norwegian nationals in April in the 50 k classic.
It could’ve been West Yellowstone’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet, about 1,500 feet higher than that of his college town in Boulder, or the effects of the first race of the season: the 1.3 k freestyle sprint. Strøm didn’t advance through the quarterfinals on Friday after being knocked out in a photo finish with eventual winner Emil Johansson, of Sweden, and Skyler Davis (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team).
That left Strøm “kind of pissed off actually,” he said, which he used as fuel as the fifth starter on Saturday. Without many splits to work with early on, Strøm simply went fast. After the first lap, he heard was fighting for a top three – mostly with Ellefson – and 14 seconds out of first. One lap later, he was within 1 second of the lead, and by the third time around, up to 17 seconds ahead.
“I was really pushing it really hard on that last lap,” Strøm said.
Meanwhile, Ellefson and Matt Liebsch (XC United/Team StrongHeart), who started 30 seconds apart, respectively, were duking it out as well. Starting 6 minutes behind Liebsch, Gregg was also gunning for a top three, making all three SuperTour favorites push even harder along the working course, with little opportunity to rest.
From the splits Ellefson was getting, he heard Strøm was “just crushing it” on the first lap, but slowing on the second lap. “Then [he] got pissed off on his third lap and finished hard,” Ellefson said. “My goal being the first person in the A-seed was to set a good time. I think I went out just a little bit too hard.”
Ellefson said he suffered the effects on the last two laps, feeling less snappy like he would’ve liked, but “was able to hold a solid pace.”
“I have mixed feelings about today,” Ellefson said. “I am really happy with the result, but I wasn’t totally happy with the way my body felt.”
Gregg knew where he stood in regards to Ellefson and Liebsch, who ended up fourth, but wasn’t sure about Strøm. Down by 20 seconds on the first lap, he focused on building into the race, like his former coach Scott Johnston of the Methow Olympic Development squad had advised.
“I have a tendency to start out too hard and sort of fade in that last little bit,” Gregg said. “[I] tried to stay a little relaxed, but I was a little worried that I was so far back from those guys.”
Ultimately, Gregg’s plan worked. “I was able to pace pretty well,” he said as the second-place finisher (and top American), which puts him in a good spot for early season racing.
“My two focus races are this 15 k and then the 15 k at Silver Star next weekend,” Gregg said.
Unlike many SuperTour skiers, including his wife, Caitlin, Brian Gregg won’t be heading to Bozeman for the second series next weekend, instead opting to race the season-opening NorAm in British Columbia. Several Americans will venture to Canada for the first two weekends of NorAms (in Silver Star and Rossland) in an effort to boost their FIS points.
On Saturday, Caitlin won the women’s 10 k skate for her second win of the weekend. That puts her in a prime spot as the overall SuperTour leader shooting for World Cup starts in January.
“It was very good to have a win yesterday, and I actually was pretty happy about my sprint result, too,” said Brian Gregg, who qualified in 26th and narrowly missed advancing out of the quarterfinals in third. “We’re pretty excited about where our fitness is, and we have the whole family out here for Thanksgiving.”
Standing with his parents, brother and sister-in-law, and Caitlin after Saturday’s races, Gregg referred to them all as Team Gregg.
“My mom brought the sewing machine to sew all the [sponsor] patches on our uniforms,” he said. “And then my brother and sister-in-law and my dad were out there doing the splits, [and I had] a couple friends out there …”
One of his good friends, Liebsch was missing his family, which typically travels from the Twin Cities to watch him in West, but he understood the decision. His wife, Marybeth, wanted him to focus on racing, he said. And she was also due with their third child in late March/early April.
“I just talked to her, she’s a saint,” Liebsch said. “I was pretty sad that she didn’t make it out here with the kids this year, but we will make it out another year as a family. … This was not quite the result I was looking for today, but a good start.”
Despite feeling pretty good, Liebsch said he was still working into the race season.
“I didn’t have top gear when I tried to push it,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I went any faster that effort. I just skied really big and smooth and then tried to close as hard as I could.”
Up on Gregg for the first two laps, he knew what his friend was capable of. “I did intervals with him a week ago and he was moving really fast,” Liebsch said. “So I knew he would probably ski pretty well out here.”
Liebsch focused on catching Ellefson, who put time into Liebsch on the first lap. Liebsch ended up 10.8 seconds behind Ellefson, just off the podium. Next weekend, Liebsch will also race at Silver Star.
“This is a big season, trying to make the Olympic team,” he said. “I really would like to ski that 50 k skate at Sochi. We are all kind of gunning for race wins and low FIS points. We are not overseas racing, but maybe some of us might go over, it depends. I know nationals is really important, so I am targeting that this year.”
Strøm said he was excited for the NCAA season and will try to race at Norwegian nationals in January. “We’ve been training a lot and trying to do good races here, too, to show that we are able to ski fast even though we are living in the U.S. and studying full time,” he said.
In fifth place, NCAA champion Rune Ødegaard (CU) finished 55.7 seconds behind Strøm, and Miles Havlik (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) was sixth (+1:06.6). Tyler Reinking (Bridger Ski Foundation) finished seventh, Niklas Persson (Utah) was eighth, Pierre Guedon (Denver) placed ninth, and Sawyer Kesselheim (Montana State University) was 10th.
— Lander Karath and Matt Voisin contributed reporting
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.