SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Living, training, and competing together over the course of a year can often lead to similar race outcomes, as demonstrated by the 1.2 k freestyle sprint at the 2015 SuperTour Finals where Stratton Mountain School T2 teammates Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton skied in the same final lane and finished roughly a tenth of a second apart to take the top two positions.
Newell’s time of 2:24.96 earned him the victory while Hamilton crossed the line just 0.12 seconds back. In third was two-time 2015 national sprint champion Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess of the Bend Endurance Academy, who finished 0.88 seconds back from Newell.
Rounding out the final were Emil Johansson of the University of Colorado (+1.28) in fourth followed closely by Noe Bellet (+1.31) of the University of Utah in fifth. Colorado teammate Mads Ek Strøm (+2.56) placed sixth.
Newell and Hamilton didn’t start their day at the top of the result sheet after placing seventh and 10th in the morning’s qualifier. Starting at 10am, the preliminary round welcomed conditions that left racers feeling as if they were on an ice rink instead of a ski trail. Many competitors struggled to find their balance on the fast course that featured rolling terrain and little climbing.
“The qualifier was dicey for sure,” Newell said in a post-race interview. “It was funny, we were all trying to find skis that would work out there. I’m not sure it mattered what kind of grind or wax you had on, it was just a matter of trying to find a ski that wouldn’t slide. I went on this ski that I had never raced on before and it still felt really slippery on the ice so I was just happy to not crash in qualification.”
Hamilton added that the relative flatness of the course also added a challenging dynamic to the day’s races.
“It’s a flat course and sometimes those flat courses are the hardest,” he said after his race. “You can’t just pin it and recover on the downhill, it’s more of a steady consistent effort throughout. Skiing smooth and being relaxed was key.”
Several skiers seemed to conquer the slippery conditions, including Alex Howe of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, Alaska Pacific University’s Tyler Kornfield, and Johansson, who went 1-2-3 in the preliminary round. However, by the time the heats rolled around over two hours later, the warming temperatures had softened the course to make balance and smooth glide a manageable feat.
As the heats progressed it became apparent that the descent before the uphill finish was key in securing a qualifying position. Skiers who used their momentum to enter the inside of the nearly 180-degree corner were often able to rocket past the competition to gain an advantage in the finishing meters.
It was a strategy that took time to catch on. In the first quarterfinal, Hamilton exited the corner in third behind Strøm and Howe, but caught a lucky break when Howe was forced to free-skate after shattering both his poles after an aggressive pole-plant. In the second quarter, Newell realized the benefits of the strategy and skied the remainder of the heats accordingly, even though his competitors caught on quickly.
“I realized early on if you could work the downhill instead of just tucking, you could get around people really easily, so that became my tactic all day, trying to work the downhill and work the corner,” he said. “I think people saw that. I did that in the quarterfinal and I think I kind of let the cat out of the bag really early. Once people saw that move, they were like, ‘Oh, I guess we can do that, too.’”
Come the final, Hamilton led from the start followed by Newell, the three collegiate skiers, and Blackhorse-von Jess in the rear. By the time the six skiers reached the downhill, Newell powered to meet Hamilton on the corner and gained momentum after finding a gap on the inside. The two exited the turn neck and neck.
As they reached the 50-meter lanes before the finish, Newell made a move to the far left lane in front of Hamilton. The two remained in the lane as Newell maintained his small advantage all the way to the line. Newell explained that the move was tactical – waiting until the last minute to choose a finishing lane prevents strategic lane choices from other competitors.
“If you play your card too early and show that you’re going to a certain lane, it allows your competitor to set up and go around you,” Newell said. “So I purposely waited to choose the inside lane. I was kind of hugging the whiskers because I didn’t want to completely box him out. Because he’s my teammate, I didn’t want to completely be like, ‘Screw you, I’m taking the lane.’”
Hamilton explained that due to the lane size, he had to adjust his technique to avoid hitting the course markers.
“I had to time my V2 to not ski into the v-boards, but racing is racing and you have to make it up on the fly. It’s just how it played out,” Hamilton said of the finish. “I was psyched to see my teammate on the podium with me. Andy has been an amazing sprinter and to be in any heat with him, he’s a great skier. I’m looking forward to training with him this summer and beyond that.”
Newell echoed the sentiment adding, “It’s always nice to get a win and to have your teammate in second, we’re happy about that.”
Hamilton said that prior to Sunday’s race he was dealing with illness but was able to ski any poor feelings away as the day progressed.
“I didn’t feel great this morning. I’ve definitely been fighting something all week,” he said. “In the past when I haven’t been feeling great, if I can just keep skiing throughout the day I’ve tended to erase it out of my system and feel better and better.”
The 27-year-old Aspen native explained that heading into Sunday’s race there was pressure to perform well due to the level of competition at this year’s SuperTour Finals.
“I think that you feel pressure because there are so many great domestic skiers right now,” he said. “Which is so cool to see. It’s awesome to come home and see so many people fight for the top spots.”
While Newell and Hamilton battled ahead, one of those strong domestic skiers, Blackhorse-von Jess, came back from sitting in last position at the start to third position at the finish.
“Coming out of the start in last place was something else,” he said, referring to the final. “About halfway across the top flat I was like, ‘I can’t sit here anymore,’ and there’s really only one opportunity, because of the way the trail twists and turns, to take the lead. So I hammered through there.”
After making his move, Blackhorse-von Jess entered the downhill with momentum that brought him to the heels of the SMST2 teammates. Unable to take the line he wanted to the finish, the Bend skier held on to third in the final meters.
“Andy, really, he took the line I wanted to take, which is exactly what I would’ve done if I had been where he was,” he said. “And then, I thought he and Simi were gonna open the door there for me at the end but I just didn’t quite have it there.”
Blackhorse-von Jess earned several World Cup starting spots and a place on the 2015 World Championships team after a successful early season. He explained that it was an adjustment to return domestic racing after a several weeks on the international circuit.
“It’s incredibly fun to be racing in the heats again,” Blackhorse-von Jess said. “I had the best time ski racing that I’ve had in the last couple years racing, at World Champs in the heats. So to come back and have guys that are better than me to race with, it changes the complexity of the race and makes it a lot more fun.”
– Alex Kochon 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.