MIDWAY, Utah. — Most were swallowed in seconds, the steady stream of snowflakes on Thursday serving a magician-like purpose: a curtain of snow through which the first five starters all appeared, only to disappear once again. All except one.
A speck of red bobbing through the Soldier Hollow’s (SoHo) new sprint course, sporting bib 5 and the Canadian national team suit, Jess Cockney did not go unseen.
The 27-year-old member of Canada’s World Cup B-team lost nothing to the freshly falling snow, posting the fastest course time as the fifth finisher through.
However, with more than 65 racers still looking to push past the start wand onto the 1.5-kilometer freestyle-sprint prologue loop at 2017 U.S. Cross Country Championships, Cockney had a wait before he had a win.
Starting seven bibs behind Cockney and 1 minute and 30 seconds after him, Julien Locke, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Canadian U25 Team, headed out of the gate in bib 12.
The 23 year old was racing for the podium. After his classic sprint last Sunday ended in “disappointment”, Locke was ready for redemption.
“The plan for this week was to land on the podium,” Locke said during a post-race interview.
Locke hammered through the first undulating uphill leading out of the stadium, challenging the previous course leader’s pace. Looping through the first descent heading into the second major climb, he didn’t appear to be losing or gaining ground on Cockney.
However, rounding into the final finishing stretch, Locke was at a deficit. He finished 2.69 seconds behind Cockney’s prologue time, the closest any competitor would get for the remainder of the day.
Cockney’s prologue time of 3:15.20 minutes not only kept him in first place, but secured his spot at the upcoming World Championships in Lahti, Finland, starting late next month. With much at stake for many skiers heading to the start line of Thursday’s race — for Cockney, a chance at qualifying for his second World Championships — the Canadian sprinter indicated that staying confident gave him a leg up on his competitors.
“Being on the start line is exactly the same as sitting down for a test,” Cockney said after. “You don’t really have to stress about it if you did all the preparation and you studied for it. Ski training is very similar to that.”
Cockney was joined on the U.S. nationals prologue podium (no sprint heats followed) by two fellow Canadians, Locke in second place and, (down to Locke by three-hundredths of a second) Knute Johnsgaard in third overall (+2.72).
Since Johnsgaard (also a member of the AWCA and Canadian U25 Team) was not pre-qualified for World Championships coming into this week’s competitions, Thursday’s prologue was his last shot at proving his deserved a team spot.
“I was fighting hard for the last couple spots [on the World Championships team],” Johnsgaard said Thursday. “I still don’t know [whether or not I’ve been selected].”
Regardless of whether Johnsgaard gets to sport the red maple leaf in Finland in late February/early March, he viewed the four days of racing at SoHo as valuable.
“It was a really great weekend to be able to have a bit deeper field than our usual domestic races in Canada,” Johnsgaard said. “Especially for the sprint heats, to be able to be going head to head with the fastest guys in North America and not just the fastest guys north of the border, it’s a really great experience and helps a lot.”
While Americans dominated the NorAm opening weekend at Sovereign Lake, B.C., in December, Canada stuck it to its southern rivals on Thursday. If nothing else, it was confidence boosting with more than 600 racers coming out for the week’s races (although on Thursday, 71 started the senior men’s race).
“The field can be as deep as it is here, and you can still be confident that all the work you did to get to that start line is going to hopefully be better than anyone else’s,” Cockney said.
Though no American podium ceremony was held, the top Americans for the day were Logan Hanneman of Alaska Pacific University (APU) in fourth overall (+3.37), Cole Morgan of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team in sixth (+5.03) and his SVSEF teammate, John Hegman in seventh (+5.71). Both SVSEF Gold Team members also finished on Sunday’s American classic sprint podium.
— Jason Albert and Gerry Furseth contributed
(Above video by Kirk Nichols of The Utah Nordic Alliance)
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.