Ambrose Tuscano is an English teacher and Nordic Coach at Sugar Bowl Academy in the Lake Tahoe region of California. In a past life he was an avid whitewater kayaker, and still edits the American Whitewater Journal, a bimonthly magazine dedicated to whitewater paddlesports and river stewardship. He, his wife, son (4), and daughter (1) live in Soda Springs, California, where they’re ready for it to snow already!
Charging up the final climb in the 5-kilometer freestyle in the Scandinavian Cup races in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Hannah Halvorsen, a 16-year-old from Sugar Bowl Academy, was surprised to find a Norwegian coach she’d never met running alongside her cheering at the top of his voice, “USA! You are in 2nd! Go, go, go!”
It was an interval start and Halvorsen was receiving splits from strangers from all over Scandinavia around the entire course, as she skied from sixth into second place. “It was really cool to get that kind of support from people who weren’t my coach,” Halvorsen said. “But I know that they were just surprised to see an American doing so well.”
And therein lies the contradiction Halvorsen began to grapple with: Americans can’t remain underdogs forever on the nordic skiing scene. Eventually, they have to start skiing faster than Europeans at all age groups and levels if they want to find lasting success in the sport.
This realization began a year earlier after Halvorsen used a strong performance in the freestyle sprint at the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah to qualify for the U18 Nations’ Cup squad. A few weeks later she traveled to Finland as part of a team of 12 to compete against the best U18 skiers in Northern Europe. Halvorsen acquitted herself admirably saying that “for an American” and the experience was memorable and motivational. By the end of that season Halvorsen explained that she set the goal of qualifying for World Juniors in 2015, though in the back of her head she knew she wanted to ski for the U18 squad again. This time she believed things would be different.
At the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Houghton, Mich., Halvorsen turned more than a few heads by making the final in the classic sprint and finishing in fifth overall. Her results at the Championships were more than good enough to qualify her for the World Juniors trip, but she wasted little time in deciding to turn down the U20 races in Kazakhstan in favor of the U18 Nations’ Cup in Sweden.
Why not go to the more prestigious and competitive World Juniors? There were many reasons, including her own Sugar Bowl Academy Coach, Martin Benes being part of the U.S. U18 coaching delegation. But in reality, it might have been that Halvorsen felt she had unfinished business. “I left Finland realizing that American skiers really could compete with the Europeans, we just had to believe in ourselves,” Halvorsen said.
One year later, she followed through in a big way.
In the 2015 U18 Nations’ Cup classic sprint Halvorsen qualified in eighth, won her quarterfinal heat, and placed second in her semifinal. It was a warm day and the snow had transformed in during the brief sunlight hours, leaving the American coaches scrambling to find a good kick wax. In the final Halvorsen said she knew she didn’t have enough kick when she was consistently dropped on any climb, but she hung in and fought her way back to the lead pack in every flat or downhill section. She came into the stadium in fifth place, gaining on the fourth place Swedish racer, but didn’t quite have enough real estate to pass her before the finish.
Halvorsen said she was happy with her skiing in the sprint race but that it also left her with an epiphany. “I realized that I was skiing strong enough to have won that race,” she said. “I knew that in the future I could win a race at this level.”
The confidence from the sprint carried over to the following day’s 5 k freestyle. After receiving so much encouragement and support from everyone on the course, Halvorsen knew she had to ski her hardest.
And she did.
Halvorsen crossed the finish in second place, and was later bumped to third by someone with a later start time.
Halvorsen’s results weren’t the only successful performances from the Americans in Sweden. In the 10 k freestyle Zak Ketterson and Max Donaldson finished sixth and eighth. In the following day’s relay the top U.S. men’s and women’s teams took fourth and fifth place, respectively.
“I kept telling [my teammates], ‘we’re as good as the Europeans, we can compete with them,” Halvorsen said of the results.
While the rest of the American U18 team returned home at the end of the week, Halvorsen and Benes took flight to Oslo, where they met up with four other Sugar Bowl Academy athletes. There they were hosted by IL Heming Ski Club and skied as guests at Norwegian Junior Nationals the following weekend.
Aside from the cultural experience of staying with Norwegian families and taking public transit daily to meet her teammates at the extensive ski trails in Oslo (“It was so cool! Almost everyone on the subway had nordic skis!”), Halvorsen was really excited to race against another group of the best junior cross country skiers in Europe.
Unlike American Junior Nationals the U18 Nations’ Cup, Junior Nationals in Norway divides each gender up into single birth year groups. In the girls U17 age group of the freestyle sprint, for instance, there were 77 competitors.
Halvorsen knew she wanted to do well in the qualifying round to give herself confidence for the heats. “I didn’t totally know what the competition level would be, so I had to push as hard as I could in the prelims,” she said. Evidently it was hard enough; none of the Norwegian 16-year-olds could match Halvorsen’s 2:31.90 qualifying time.
According to Halvorsen, it was a confidence boosting performance before the heats. She had her sights set on skiing the course three more times that day—as hard as she possibly could.
After battling to win her quarterfinal, Halvorsen experienced what she described a “wakeup call” in the semis. “No one was planning to lose,” she said. At Norwegian Junior Nationals, she explained, every skier in every heat had the confidence and sense of purpose to move on. “Even at [U.S.] Senior Nationals, there wasn’t the same desire to win among all the competitors,” she said. For instance, “In most sprints, the person wearing bib 28 doesn’t expect to win her heat.”
Halvorsen was able to match the Norwegians in pace and confidence, placing second in her semifinal, and finding herself in the final along with five of the fastest 16-year-olds in Norway.
In the end, it came down to a photo finish, with four skiers crossing the line within a half-second of one another. With a huge lunge, Halvorsen beat Mathilde Myhrvold, of team Vind IL/Gjøvik/Toten Langrenn to take first place in the race (though ultimately Myhrvold took gold as the first Norwegian across the line).
The result certainly caught the attention of the Norwegians, who do not often see foreign skiers sitting atop the standings of their Junior Nationals races.
The following day Halvorsen entered her fifth high-level race in 10 days, a 5 k classic Norwegian Cup race. She didn’t know the course and by the time she got to the venue it had closed to inspection. With very little to go on but the confidence gained from her recent Scandinavian races, Halvorsen decided to go out fast. “I went out at a harder pace than I have in the past,” she said. “I gave it what I had.”
She ultimately finished sixth in a field consisting of 83 strong Norwegians.
If Halvorsen came to Scandinavia searching for the confidence to compete with the best in the world, she could have done far worse than finishing in the top six in four individual races against some of the best juniors in Europe. For her, finding success against her international peer group will be motivation to continue to improve as a skier.
The day after the race, Halvorsen took a long succession of flights back to California where she would have three weeks to prepare for another series of high-level races: U.S. Junior Nationals, right in her back yard at Auburn Ski Club.