On Monday, the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team announced its nominations for its 2016/2017 national team, loaded with veteran world champions and podium threats. The list included one newcomer to the women’s team: 18-year-old Hannah Halvorsen, of the Sugar Bowl Academy and Truckee, Calif., who was listed as one of five athletes on the U.S. Ski Team’s “D”, or development, Team.
Contacted by phone, Halvorsen explained she accepted the nomination and will defer college.
“My plans for next year are to stay with my main coach Martin Benes at Sugar Bowl Nordic Ski Team and train at home for a year, Halvorsen said. “I did sign with University of Vermont, but they gave me a year to stay before joining the team.”
Early on in a junior skier’s career, noteworthy results may put you on the national team’s “radar.” Halvorsen has been one of those recurring radar blips. Back in 2014, she qualified 15th at U.S. nationals in the freestyle sprint. A year later at 2015 nationals, at just 16 years old, she placed fifth in the classic sprint. This year, her progression continued: she notched second in the freestyle sprint at the season-opening SuperTour in West Yellowstone, Mont., and sixth in the world in the classic sprint at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
As for whether she’d expected a call from the USST this spring, she said she wasn’t exactly waiting by the phone.
“I definitely didn’t think this would happen,” Halvorsen said of her nomination. “But with Julie [Kern] and Katharine [Ogden] making the team the year before, I knew that it was a possibility. And when the call didn’t come until my spring break, I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me because there is some competitive women on the team right now. I started to think ‘no, not this year.’ Then I got the call, so yeah, I was a little surprised.”
“I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me. … Then I got the call.” — Hannah Halvorsen, 18, on her U.S. Ski Team nomination
Benes, the head nordic coach at Sugar Bowl Academy and Halvorsen’s primary coach for the last three seasons, knew the nomination was a possibility, but like his pupil was keeping expectations grounded.
“I guess I wasn’t 100 percent sure,” Benes said. “I thought it might happen; she had shown a pretty positive and consistent trend in terms of her results, so there was a chance. I guess on some level it’s not surprising, but it certainly but it caught me maybe a little bit off guard.”
Benes explained that Halvorsen has remained focused on her benchmarks as her goals began to materialize — with the immediate prize Halvorsen’s D-Team promotion.
“When you see the work she has put in and the focus that she has, it’s nice that the results have come,” Benes said. “But I guess I felt more it’s a recognition of that process than anything else.”
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover explained in an email that Halvorsen was one of two newcomers to this year’s D-team to be chosen by discretion. The other was Ian Torchia of Northern Michigan University. According to Grover, both demonstrated an ability to “deliver big results in Europe against tough fields.”
“Hannah has been the standout USA athlete at the U18 Scandinavian Championships for the past two seasons, including a podium there two seasons ago,” Grover wrote of her third-place finish in February 2015 in the 5 k freestyle in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, amid a field of nearly 130 women.
Last October, Halvorsen was part of National Elite Group invited to Lake Placid and train along with the U.S. Team. It was there, Halvorsen said, where she realized she could compete with some of the nation’s fastest skiers.
“We did a lot of sessions with the U.S. Ski Team,” Halvorsen recalled. “There were a couple of interval sessions and sprint simulations where I was able to hang on for maybe not all of it, but maybe a good bit, and that was definitely a huge confidence boost — that it’s not that far away.”
For the next year, Benes and Halvorsen will be based at Sugar Bowl Academy on Donner Summit, and will focus on increasing training hours, prepping for the early season SuperTours, nationals and qualifying for and competing at Junior World Championships, which will be held in Park City, Utah.
But ultimately, her spot on the U.S. Ski Team (USST) is part of a greater long-term goal.
“To me, this nomination means that it’s just moving another step up in my development,” she said. “And it’s just taking the next step towards my goals to being on the World Cup.”
The junior ranks often ebb and flow with the rate at which a young athlete matures physically. Although Halvorsen showed promise of a big engine early on, those are only one of a few pieces necessary for continued development — there’s the mental aspect as well. Benes realized once he began coaching Halvorsen that the mental piece of Halvorsen’s makeup was able to successfully navigate both the good and not-so-good days.
“I think the mental piece from the early days is what impressed me the most, always stood out the most,” Benes recalled of his first impressions of Halvorsen. “I think you see sometimes U16’s, both guys and girls, who are developed physically and they are quick and they are fast and they stand out among their peers, but that is where it kind of ends. I think that her mental drive and mental strength was pretty impressive and has been impressive from a pretty young age.”
“I think the mental piece from the early days is what impressed me the most.” — Martin Benes, Sugar Bowl Academy Head Nordic Coach, on his first impressions of Halvorsen
Asked how she will attempt to balance the highs of USST membership with new expectations, Halvorsen said it was just part of her athletic progression.
“I’m young and not perfect yet navigating it mentally and it’s very exciting right now, just getting the nomination,” she said. “But I think later down this year I’ll have to start thinking about it more realistically and what it means and what is almost expected of me. And I think something that [USST Development Coach] Bryan Fish said to me and to hone in on, was you have to take it year by year. And by getting this nomination it means they believe in you, but you just have to focus on one season at a time. Taking a season off, if I don’t make it [on the full-fledged USST] next year doesn’t mean that I can’t continue to progress and get back on.”
Writing in an email after her interview, Halvorsen took a moment to reflect on her homegrown circle of supporters.
“It has been incredible to realize the support of my coaches, family, and friends with the news of the nomination,” she wrote. “It is meaningful to share the excitement with them and to be reminded how invested they have been in my goals. I hugely appreciate their support moving forward.”
Both Halvorsen and Benes are moving forward. They both used the word ‘opportunity’ numerous times over the phone. Opportunity has come knocking and Halvorsen says she ready to seize it.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.