LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – The second day of nordic racing at the 2015 NCAA Championships was exciting to say the least, with both the 15 and 20 kilometer classic mass starts coming down to a sprint finish. In the women’s race a fight between two skiers resulted in a new NCAA champion, while the men’s race saw a controversial 100-meter sprint between four competitors.
Ahead of the final sprint’s mayhem, Northern Michigan’s Fredrik Schwencke crossed the finish line with a time 56:12.3 to earn his first national title. He was followed by the University of Colorado’s Mads Ek Strøm and Rune Malo Ødegård who finished 0.6 seconds and 6.9 seconds behind the winner respectively.
In fourth was New Mexico’s Aku Nikander (+11.4), while Utah’s Niklas Persson (+21.2) ended his day in fifth.
The 20 k began with a blistering pace as the Colorado skiers led the group of 40 men through the hilly 5 k Olympic course that features almost 600 feet of elevation gain per lap. As the pack progressed through the four-loop race its size dwindled and by the first kilometer of the final lap there were four remaining skiers in the lead pack – Schwencke, Strøm, Ødegård, and Nikander. The New Mexico skier led for much of the final lap until the final downhill where all four skiers jockeyed for the lead.
They rounded the corner into the final 100 meters with Scwencke in first and Strøm in second. Behind them, Ødegård and Nikander skied in the farthest left-hand lane, with the Colorado skier in the tracks and the New Mexico skier just outside the tracks to Ødegård’s left.
All four skiers were in the hunt for gold until Ødegård and Nikander suddenly crashed. While the Colorado skier said it was unclear why he fell, video footage later revealed that Ødegård had planted his pole on Nikander’s ski and lost balance. He fell to the left taking Nikander with him.
By the time the two got up they were far from the win, as Schwencke and Strøm crossed the line in first and second. Ødegård was the first to recover from the crash and nabbed the final podium position. Race officials said that there was no disqualification due to the nature of the crash and the lack of obstruction by either skier.
Ahead of the messy fight for third, Schwencke celebrated his win amongst the many Northern Michigan teammates and coaches who came swarming into the finish pen. At one point the first-time NCAA Champion was hoisted upon the shoulders of a coach to the cheers of the crowd.
After the jubilation of the finish, Schwencke said that he didn’t expect to be on top of the classic podium due to his wellbeing the previous day. The Norwegian from Oslo said he didn’t feel well and had trouble sleeping. Despite his misgivings, Schwencke explained that he kept faith in his skiing throughout each of the four laps in the 20 k.
“I know that I am better in classic so I was just kind of hoping for the best. I just tried to ski smart and save as much energy as possible,” he said. “Then after a while, one by one they dropped off and we were four guys in the very end there and I just gave it my all.”
Due to the falling snow throughout much of the race, the Northern Michigan skier said that his plan was to stick behind the leaders and make a move in the final meters. “I sort of wanted to be third or fourth position because it was snowing so it was a bit slower to be leading so I sort of wanted to be a bit back there and be ready to attack,” he said. “Then they went for it and I felt good so I just tried the best I could to be first in the last turn. The plan worked out very well.”
Schwencke led the Northern Michigan Wildcats to earn the most team points in the 20 k, as teammate Kyle Bratrud was the first American in seventh and Erik Søderman placed 11th. The Norwegian attributed much of his success to his teammates and said that their collective performances were especially pleasing after a freestyle race that was below their expectations.
“We have a really strong team and we really wanted to do well. Wednesday wasn’t up to our potential so we really wanted to go for it today and do well and prove that we should be up there,” he said.
Bratrud, who recently returned from the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden echoed Schwencke’s sentiments and said that he was happy to be the first American across the line. At the 2014 NCAA Championships, Bratrud was also the first American in the 10 k classic and finished sixth.
“Freddy [Schwencke] and I, we are rooming together and both of us woke up and felt really bad this morning. He has been sick, and after the skate race I was pretty much done with the season,” he said. ” I am happy with the day, I didn’t think I was going to finish in the top 30 today so to finish seventh is pretty sweet.”
“Now the three NMU guys here have all won a national championship at some point so it is a pretty sweet team to be on,” he added. Søderman won the 10 k freestyle at the 2012 NCAA Championships, while Bratrud won a national title in the 15 k freestyle at the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Houghton, Mich. earlier this year.
In second, Strøm received a written warning after the Colorado skier took more than one skate before entering the tracks in the final 100 meters. Officials said that they chose not disqualify Strøm because they believed he gained no clear advantage from the technique violation. Before he received the written warning, Strøm explained that the extra skate was due to the layout of the tracks into the finish.
Strøm, who set the race’s pace for much of the fist half of the 20 k, said after the race that he was pleased with second place, especially after finishing fourth in Wednesday’s 10 k freestyle – a race he hoped to win. Strøm also added that he was dealing with a sore throat and had been on antibiotics for several days.
“The race overall was really good and I think it was a high-level race, especially the four in front there. There were a lot of good skiers that couldn’t keep up today,” he said. “Of course I wanted to win but second is not bad, especially with everyone crashing in the end. I could have been fourth.”
After his third place finish, Ødegård said that he enjoyed the majority of the race and was glad that the pace was challenging from the start. Like Schwencke, the Colorado skier avoided the lead to save energy given the falling snow, and by the time he reached the final turn Ødegård believed he was in good position to take the win.
“I think I had a really good turn into the sprint, and I gained a spot or two in the finish,” he said about his standing before the crash. “I don’t know what happened. Stuff happens in a sprint and when there’s four people coming in and two meters apart, a lot can happen.”
The Norwegian has won the last two NCAA Championships classic races, and is the only NCAA male in history to win back-to-back classic titles. His third place finish is his second of the 2015 Championships. While Ødegard was disappointed to miss a third Championship, he said that Schwencke and Strøm deserved to finish ahead of him.
“I think the best skiers manage not getting into trouble like that, so today I got into trouble so maybe I wasn’t the best skier,” he said.
As a senior, the 20 k was Ødegård’s last race as a collegiate skier. While he may be done racing for the Buffs, the Norwegian explained he plans to race professionally next year. “I had a great career at CU and I really enjoyed all four years of it,” he said. “Right now I really wanted that win today so I’m a little disappointed with that but I guess to get two third places at NCAAs is good. It shows that I’m consistent and up there. I’m going to ski professionally next year and see if I can do better.”
Cedervaern Out-Sprints Mayerhofer For 15 k Victory
The women’s 15 k classic mass start also featured a sprint finish, but instead it featured two skiers – New Mexico’s Emilie Cedervaern and Utah’s Veronika Mayerhofer. The two began the race at the front of the lead pack, which eventually whittled down to three skiers as Denver’s Sylvia Nordskar entered the fray.
Nordskar lost contact with the Cedervaern and Mayerhofer in the third and final lap as the New Mexico and Utah skiers battled for the lead. Each tried to make a move on the course’s many hills to no avail, util Cedervaern crashed on the last major downhill of the course. The fall gave Mayerhofer a roughly 20 meter advantage as she entered the stadium, but Cedervaern eventually caught the Utah skier and strode into the final meters to take the win.
The Lobo finished with a time of 47:40.3 and bested Mayerhofer by 1.5 seconds. Nordskar took the final podium spot, 1:11.0 behind the victor. The top three women also finished on the podium in Wednesday’s 10 k freestyle, with Mayerhofer taking the win over Nordskar and Cedervaern.
Rounding out the top five were Colorado’s Maja Slobakken (+1:15.2) and Utah’s Sloan Storey (+1:15.7).
Cedervaern said that she believed the win was out of reach immediately after her crash. As she made gains on Mayerhofer, however, she began to realize victory was possible.
“I fell on the last corner, so I was like ‘oh shoot’ because I felt so good and was like ‘why did I mess this up,’” she said. “But then I was very strong in the double poling so I felt like I was catching her all the time. On the last turn when I was on her back I thought that I should go for it.”
The win marks Cedervaern’s first NCAA title and second podium at her first Championships. The New Mexico junior said she believed it was possible to win Friday’s race due her successful season on the RMISA circuit. She entered the 2015 NCAA Championships as the top ranked skier from the region.
“It was so close on Wednesday and we have been close the last weeks of the season too, so I thought it was possible, but you never know,” she said. “It is so hard with classic, you have to have good skis and a good day and everything, but I definitely thought that it was possible to do it.”
In second, Mayhoffer said that she was pleased with her placement despite being out-sprinted in the final meters. The Ute explained that she experienced breathing problems throughout race, which affected her ability to find the energy needed to stave off Cedervaern’s advance.
“Today I had some breathing problems. I had that last year but this time was the first time I had hard time for breathing, so I didn’t have any energy left for [the finish],” she said. “I just tried my best but [Cedervaern] was definitely stronger today. She was leading more and she was stronger so it’s good that she won.”
The Austrian said that she didn’t expect to have such a successful NCAA Championships in her first year of collegiate racing due to the challenges of balancing school and skiing. She explained that the support of the Utah team was essential to her and her teammates’ success. With Storey’s fifth place finish and Ane Blomseth’s 10th , the Utah women earned the most points in Friday’s 15 k.
“Everybody supports each other, and the coaches too do an awesome job. They do everything they can, not just great skis but they try to make everything as easy for us as possible,” she said. “The team spirit is one of the important things because we spend time skiing but also free time most of the time together so that’s the most important advantage for the Utes I think and I really enjoy that.”
Over a minute behind the fight for first, Nordskar earned her second podium of the week with her third place finish in the 15 k. The Norwegian dealt will illness for much of the 2015 season and given the circumstances, Nordskar was pleased to be in the fight for a top position. Although she struggled with kick and energy the last lap of the course, Nordsakr said the prospect of team points motivated her to maintain third position as Slobakken and Storey attempted to catch her.
“Today was a very tough day, it was really just getting through because my body is not a 100 percent ready and healthy after this long illness period,” she said. “But I am very satisfied that I got the podium and I got to hold the other girls behind me. It was really important to get these points for the total.”
Nordskar, a sophomore, earned both second and third in the 2014 Championships – a feat she repeated in 2015. “I got second and third place last year so I kind of wanted to get the first place, but when you are not 100 percent that is not possible. You have to be ready and in good shape to win NCAAs,” she said.
“I have two more years so four more chances,” she added with a smile.
After the third day of competition, Colorado leads the 2015 NCAA Championships standings with 288 points. Utah is in second and only seven points behind while New Mexico trails by 61 points.
2015 NCAA standings after the third day of competition:
- UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO 388
- UNIVERSITY OF UTAH 381
- UNIV OF NEW MEXICO 327
- UNIVERSITY OF DENVER 290
- UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT 272
- DARTMOUTH COLLEGE 224
- NORTHERN MICHIGAN UNIV 193
- MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY 176
- MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE 165
- UNIV OF ALASKA ANCHORAGE 156
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.