FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — Rounding Soldier Hollow’s 2.5-kilometer sit-ski course on Tuesday, Oksana Masters and Lt. Dan Cnossen muscled through methodically, powerfully.
Even with two victories apiece behind them from earlier in the week at U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Nationals, these two had business to tend to: take care of some optimal conditions in Utah, then get ready for the Jan. 16-19 World Cup in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Sochi was undoubtedly on their minds, with the 2014 Winter Paralympics exactly 60 days away from Tuesday’s 5- and 10-kilometer sit-ski races, but neither Masters or Cnossen were getting ahead of themselves.
“I’m just gonna focus on the next step which is the World Cup right now and then being named to the team hopefully, and go from there,” said Cnossen, 33, after winning his third out of four races at nationals in 32:21.9 minutes, 18.2 seconds ahead of U.S. Paralympics teammate Andy Soule (Army) in second.
A Navy SEAL who lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2009, Cnossen is one of the team’s frontrunners in the leadup to Sochi, yet he was looking forward to seeing how he fares on internationally before turning his focus toward what would be his first Paralympics.
Last year, he won silver in the first race of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., in the 10 k. At the IPC World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, from Dec. 9-16, Cnossen notched a couple top 10s and put himself 11th in the Cross-Country World Cup standings. As of Dec. 15, he was 14th on the Biathlon World Cup list.
In Soldier Hollow from Jan. 2-6, Cnossen opened with a victory in the 7.5 k biathlon race, then went on to win the 15 k distance race, place fourth in the sprint, and ultimately finish with a 10 k title.
“Had some good races; the courses were awesome,” Cnossen said. “They’re really similar to what we’ll be experiencing in Sochi, definitely the altitude is.”
While the temperature was a little cooler than what’s expected in Sochi, with the men and women racing on a just-above-freezing morning on Tuesday, Cnossen said the slower snow worked to his favor.
A Paralympic bronze medalist in rowing, Masters, 24, raced to her third championship of the week as well, winning the women’s 5 k in 18:13.2, about 2 1/2 minutes faster than Monica Bascio in second.
In Canmore, Masters opened with a bronze in the World Cup 5 k and placed fourth in the sprint. She finished the series ranking fourth in the Cross-Country World Cup and eighth in biathlon.
“Hopefully it continues,” Masters said on Tuesday. “Last year I kind of had an injury going into it starting out and also lack of on-snow experience. I was on snow for a total of two days before going out here last year to nationals … I think I was just trying to hammer it too hard instead of try to slow down and learn the technique to it.”
With her rib injury healed and breathing easier at some 5,500 feet above sea level, Masters was looking forward to returning to Germany after training in the Oberhof ski tunnel in October.
“I love the competitiveness; I really like the fact that it’s something that I can grow myself as an athlete and I can broaden that spectrum of my athleticism,” the U.S. Development Team skier said. “The team camaraderie is really cool. Everyone, the girls, the guys, have their unique personalities and it wouldn’t be the same team without one person.”
As for the transition from rowing, Masters said the pulling motion is similar, but the winter weather had been a tough adjustment.
“I think it helped to come from a sport background where it was an endurance sport also along with strength,” she said. “My biggest challenge from rowing would be the variety of an 800-meter sprint to a 12 1/2 k or 10 k, so I have to build that up.”
As for her Winter Paralympics aspirations, Masters said set on not giving up.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I strive to be the best I can in whatever I do,” she said. “I’m not going to start something and just stop it.”
The men’s 10 k runner-up, Soule called this year’s nationals “a good race experience.”
“Nationals always is a good little prep period before going over to compete World Cup,” he said.
Sean Halsted (Navy) placed third after miscounting his laps and coming into the finish one loop too soon. He had to turn around and head backward down the finishing straight to get to the lap lane, ultimately finishing 50 seconds behind Soule.
“I didn’t realize we were on the course that we were on I thought we were going three laps of 3 k,” Halsted said with a laugh.
Either way, the national-team member said nationals were a good tuneup before they resume international racing.
“It’s all about prep trying to get that race experience in,” Halsted said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey you might be first or second,’ well, you don’t hold on to that. … You use that to motivate you for when you’re going on the international [scene].”
In the women’s race, Tatyana McFadden placed third, about 45 seconds after Bascio, and Beth Requist was fourth.
Jan. 2: Biathlon 6/7.5 k
Jan. 3: Sit-ski 10/15 k
Jan. 4: Sit-ski sprint; Standing 5/10 k classic
Jan. 5: Standing sprint freestyle
Jan. 6: Sit-ski 5/10 k
Jan. 8: Standing 5/10 freestyle mass start
Photo Gallery (through first three days)
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.