WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont.– After a day of skate sprinting on Friday in West Yellowstone, Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) Elite Team member Jennie Bender stood as the fastest woman around the 1.3-kilometer course at the Rendezvous Ski Trails.
“Jennie was just in a class of her own today. I don’t think anyone could have beat her,” said Canadian third-place finisher, Dahria Beatty of the Alberta World Cup Academy and U23 national development team.
The lone woman to consistently finish first, starting with the qualifier and ending with the final, Bender positioned herself as the woman to beat in the first SuperTour race of the 2015/2016 season.
“I’ve really been working this year on getting a faster qualifier, so I was pretty stoked about my results there,” Bender said after the race.
After winning the qualifier in 2:59.26, 2.44 seconds ahead of Canada’s Jenn Jackson (Thunder Bay National Development Centre), who was the next fastest woman, Bender only got quicker.
“The conditions definitely got faster going into the rounds” said Bender, improving her course time to 2:54.42 in the quarter final, and 2:51.32 in the semi.
Sub-zero temperatures in West Yellowstone resulted in a two hour delay for Friday’s sprint race and slower conditions early on.
With warmer temps into the afternoon, Bender continued to bring the heat through the rounds.
“I usually come alive in the heats. I really like the head-to-head,” the 27-year-old Johnson, Vt., native said with a smile. “It’s a good power course, which was perfect for me.”
Along with feeling powerful throughout the day, Bender’s tactical race was particularly on.
“Especially with the turns [on course], you don’t want to necessarily be first, but you can’t be far back or else you get dusted,” she explained.
For Bender, this at times meant staying relaxed while letting others lead.
Beatty explained she led their semifinal until the last climb, where Bender passed her on the first corner before it.
“She was just skiing so fast today. It was a fight to stay with her,” Beatty said.
In the final, Bender again chose to stay relaxed and tucked in behind Halverson for the first half of the course. “You can tuck in behind someone and save some energy on those first two downhills,” said Bender during a second in-person interview.
“Hannah lead [the final] and I was second for a while just trying to keep it cool and stay smooth and relaxed until the last half or third of the course” she added.
With a little over the first half of the final completed, Bender decided to make her move in the last third of the course.
“Going around the S-turns I put myself into position and then gunned it a few turns before the last hill,” said Bender.
Finishing close to 50-meters ahead of her sprint final competitors, Bender believed she closed her sprint race stronger than ever before.
“I felt like I was able to punch it harder and sooner than I’ve been able to in the past,” Bender said.
Bender’s impressive performance came, in her eyes, as a prime start to the race season.
“You go into the season and you never really know what picture you’re going to paint,” she said. “So I’m stoked on how things were drawn today.”
The runner-up in the final, 17-year-old Hannah Halvorsen (Sugar Bowl Academy) was pleased with the opening to her season, despite not knowing how her first race would go.
“I went into the qualifier not really knowing what to expect,” she said. “I put in a big week of training — about 22 hours –and that’s a big week for me.
“I felt a little flat [in the qualifier], but I knew I skied smart and hard,” Halvorsen added. She qualified third, 3.73 seconds behind Bender. “When I saw where I was in the qualifier, I decided to just stay as smooth and relaxed as possible and take the heats one by one.”
During her semifinal, Halvorsen edged out Czech and University of Colorado-Boulder skier Petra Hyncicova for first.
“It was tight,” Halvorsen recalled. “I knew that I just needed to stay in second [to advance] so I was working with her. I saw it as an advantage because she was pushing me.”
Hyncicova also advanced in second and went on to place fifth in the final.
Despite her age, Halvorsen showed her experience during and between the rounds.
“I’m the kind of person who wears two down jackets. I’m [also] wearing two pairs of gloves, two buffs, and two pairs of pants. So I double up,” she said.
With second place under her belt, Halvorsen said she’s excited about this season.
“I’m really looking forward to trying to qualify to race in Europe this winter,” she said. “[Today] I was just having a good time with the big girls.”
After starting first in the qualifier, Beatty, 21, ended the day with a podium.
“I was bib number one this morning, which was a new experience for me,” she said.
With no one in front of her, Beatty accidentally started 15 seconds early during the women’s qualifier. “As I went, the [official] and I both realized that we were 15 seconds early, so when I got to the end of the 10-meter double pole [zone] I stopped and turned around,” she said.
Unsure whether or not she was going to be disqualified, Beatty stood waiting near the start until spectators told her to ski.
“I was backwards on the course standing still, looking at the starter like, ‘Uh oh, am I going to be disqualified? What’s going to happen?’ and then eventually everyone on the side was just yelling at me to keep skiing so I turned around and kept skiing,” she said.
Despite a rough start, Beatty qualified 25th, good enough to advance to the rounds and ultimately, the final.
“Skiing in the final was my goal,” she said. “I was hoping to get all four races in.”
While she accomplished her goal, Beatty explained it wasn’t easy.
“On this course, if you’re not in the top two, it’s tough to get around anyone,” she said. “[In] the final I didn’t get out to quite a good start and I knew as soon as I started that that was dangerous and I’d have to fight pretty hard to have a chance to be on the podium.”
However, with proper maneuvering, Beatty managed to finish third behind Bender and Halvorsen.
“[There’s] lots of contact with all those corners, which I think all us North Americans lack in our racing when we go to Europe,” Beatty explained of the competitive final.
“On the final corner, Hannah and Chelsea had the inside lines. Since they were still in front, I had to go wide to try to pass,” she clarified in an email.
“For most of the final, I was fourth or fifth. Then in the finish chute I was able to pull into third on the far outside,” Beatty said.
“Hannah did such a good job of getting herself into position early and securing that front spot. It was great to see her finish [in] second.”
Also in the final, Chelsea Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) finished fourth, Hyncicova was fifth, and Cambria McDermott (Montana State University) placed sixth.
Overall, many of the top women felt the race was a good start to the season.
In the words of Bender, “The season is just beginning and I’m just warming up.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.