“It’s special but it’s also something that we really expected.”
That was the sentiment of the University of Denver’s nordic head coach Dave Stewart after his team not only claimed the overall NCAA title, but also the overall nordic title in Midway, Utah, on the final day of the national collegiate skiing championships.
The win marks the 22nd overall championship for Denver, the most any school has ever won. It is also the university’s eighth championship since 2000 and Stewart’s fourth title.
“It means a lot. The goal of our program is to win the NCCA championship. We have that expectation and that history,” he said in a post-race interview.
After handily winning both men’s and women’s nordic races on Thursday, the team did’t fare as well in the mass starts with two skiers making the top 10.
“We had an amazing day on Thursday and not so good of a day today, but we came out on top for nordic, and I’ve never done that for nordic in my eight years of coaching.”
The Denver nordic team has built off strong training and an excellent team atmosphere all year to claim the championship. After winning the regular-season RMISA title, the Pioneers were hungry for the NCAA crown.
The title will certainly mark a great end to the college careers of six graduating seniors. Makayla Cappel, Trygve Markset, Katie Gill, Elena Breed, Jessica Jortberg, and Connor Wallace will leave Denver this spring on the tails of another historic NCCA win.
Men’s 20 k: Colorado Break Away
University of Colorado’s Mads Strøm entered Saturday’s 20 k freestyle mass start with determination. Thursday’s 10 k classic, in which he had finished fourth, had not gone well for him and he was ready to gain redemption.
From the shot of the gun he kept within the pack, biding his time until he could make his move at the opportune moment.
Roughly halfway into the race, the freshman from Norway looked back to gauge the competition. To his surprise the majority of the field was on his and his fellow teammate Rune Østegård’s tails.
“I tried to make a move on the third lap just to see if anyone was able to keep up and we were able to open up a gap. So I knew that I had to ski really fast on the last lap to make up a big enough gap because coming up from behind was such an advantage,” he said of his tactics in the second half of the race. “I used all the motivation from Thursday.”
And create a gap he did. Joined by Østegård, Strøm gave it his all as he climbed the hills of the Hollow, a gradual yet unforgiving kilometer of uphill leading out of the stadium. As the pair continued their attack around the course, the pack trailed farther and farther behind them.
Suddenly, he was alone. Østegård, Strøm’s “best friend and biggest competitor,” had fallen back halfway through the 5 k loop, thus leaving the top spot at the most esteemed college race of the season ripe for the taking.
Skiing into the final stretch, there was no one to see but Strøm. Barely looking tired, he elatedly crossed the finish line, knowing he had won his first NCAAs.
“This was one of two goals. That was nationals in Norway in January, which I did really good,” the freshman said. “And then there was, of course, NCAAs. I really wanted to win both races, that was my goal.”
Behind Strøm in second was Max Olex, a senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who never made the podium in a collegiate race before Saturday. The German, who broke his shoulder blade in November, had a slow start to the season. Coming into NCAAs he decided to have an open mind.
“It’s always a goal at NCAAs to make the better half of the field, especially for me, looking at the season seeing how it went,” Olex said. “I came here this morning and I knew that these are my conditions and I had the matching skis. I knew what I was training the last two years. I trusted in what I did here and that was what I got today.”
“Definitely the best race of my life,” he added.
Coming in third was New Mexico’s Mats Resaland, a sophomore from Norway. After initially racing at the front of the pack, he soon realized there was no need to waste energy.
“It was kind of crowded out there. In the first lap I was in the front but then I dropped back because there was nothing to stress about,” he said. “It’s four laps, and I picked up seven spots on the last hill.”
Women’s 15 k: And Then There Were Three
The women’s 15 k freestyle mass start wasn’t as cut-and-dry as the men’s race. From the beginning of the distance race, Denver’s shining star, Sylvia Nordskar led the pack with the hopes of dropping most of the competition.
“I was going in the lead to try and split up the group. We did, so that was good, but I got very tired after that,” she explained.
Rosie Frankowski of Northern Michigan University started in the front and did her best to stay at a relaxed pace as the Norwegian led.
“We went up the first hill and everyone was together the first lap and it was a pretty relaxed pace. It was smart because it’s at altitude,” she said.
“Then on the downhill I did not do it well and I snowplowed a bunch and so I lost a lot of places and then in the stadium I knew that I had an uphill and that I needed to try and work it back. In the second lap it started separating a little bit. I was in the front pack.”
While Nordskar led and Frankowski navigated the downhills, Eva Severrus, a Slovenian from the University of New Mexico, was waiting to make her move.
“I just tried to stay with the girls in the front,” she said. “Then I took over the lead one kilometer before the [stadium] in the second lap.”
From there it was a three-way race between Severrus, Frankowski and Nordskar as all the other competitors struggled to stay in striking distance. Exhausted from leading in the increasingly choppy conditions, Nordskar started to lose ground and the other two started to pull away.
“Then we were three at the last loop and I just had to fight so hard to keep up with them. It got so soft and that’s not my favorite conditions,” she said.
Up ahead, Severrus and Frankowski were battling for the top position. On the hills, Frankoski would use her climbing strength to challenge the Slovenian, while on the downhills Severrus would pull away.
Finally Severrus glided away, leaving Frankowski behind on one of the long downhills of the course. Despite the gap, Severrus was still nervous.
“I was so scared that she would catch me because I’m dying,” she said of her final meters.
It seemed that Severrus’ fears were justified as the two skiers made their way up Hermod’s Hill, the last climb before the finish. After skiing aggressively, Frankowski inched closer and closer. Near the top of the hill Frankowki made contact with the University of New Mexico skier.
However, the final downhill would prove to be Frankowski’s weakness as Severrus pulled away once again. This time there was no hill for Frankowski to make up time.
“I tried to catch her at the top of Hermod’s and then just tried to hang on and tried to make it into the finish without falling,” said Frankowski of her competitor.
Frankowski crossed the finish line in second, the only American to make the podium in a nordic race throughout this year’s NCAAs.
Coming in after Frankowski, was Nordskar who ended her day in third, her second podium of NCAAs.
“I’m so excited. That was the goal this season,” she said of her finish and her team’s overall win.
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.