Since Dec. 1, twenty-one-year-old Julia Kern (SMS-T2) has barnstormed the elite level domestic racing calendar. She qualified first and won the SuperTour freestyle sprint in West Yellowstone. The following weekend in the NorAm/SuperTour skate sprint in Sovereign Lake it was another win-win in the qualifier and final. In the next day’s 10-kilometer classic, Kern was third overall and the second American.
Last weekend back in Vermont at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Kern swept the qualifier and final in the Eastern Cup’s skate sprint and took third on Sunday’s 5 k skate.
Her December body of work is peerless as she leads the women’s SuperTour.
Along with her skiing, Kern is a student at Dartmouth where the college offers a quarter schedule. Skiers like Kern can take advantage of spring, summer, and fall classes while pursuing both academics and high quality training. She is able to take the winter quarter off to focus on skiing.
Having grown up outside of Boston where she evolved as an athlete, after high school Kern took a gap year to train full time at the Stratton Mountain School.
“When I decided to take a gap year, I wanted to lay out a road map of where I wanted to be each year and where I think I should be,” Kern said during a phone call on Dec. 18. “When I was taking my PG year, I was hoping to be at this point and hoping to start moving towards the World Cup. And moving to the World Cup because I thought that was the trajectory I wanted at this age. I thought that was where I was headed.”
Kern has been a staple for the U.S. at World Juniors since 2015. In 2017, at the Soldier Hollow World Juniors, Kern placed ninth in the classic sprint and a historic third in the 4 x 5 k relay. A planned trajectory towards consistent starts on the World Cup was sensible.
In her first career World Cup start, a March, 2017 Quebec City skate sprint, she scored points by placing 24th overall. She raced six World Cups last season and was unable to replicate that fiery Quebec City performance.
“Over the past two years I have struggled a lot with my injuries and illnesses so the trajectory has not been as fast paced and as straightforward as I had hoped,” Kern said of her lotfy yet grounded and realistic ambitions. “But coming into this training year I have had the healthiest training year yet by a long shot. I didn’t have any major disruptions or interruptions to my training. Only things like individual workouts that I modified for minor things. And I had never had that before.”
Hoping for a performance and nailing a performance are two sentiments that have collided and fused for Kern this season. Her smooth training season along with her mental preparation have synced this past month.
“Going into this season I knew I was much fitter than I had been in the past, especially in the early season because that is where I usually struggle the most with fitness,” Kern said. “I think going into the season I was pleasantly surprised. I knew I was fit but I didn’t expect to be feeling that fit in the sprint races. But a few years ago this was where I hoped I would be. I think my perspective has changed a little bit over the last few years.”
The teenager who took the gap year in 2015/2016, and who now is a young adult one-third through her junior year in college, conveys a new found patience.
In developing their core athletes, the U.S. Ski Team’s (USST) Bryan Fish (who was Kern’s USST coach until this past May), extolled patience to his skiers, having them engage in age appropriate levels of competition. That pathway means Junior and Senior Nationals, Junior then U23 Worlds, and then maybe World Champs. Having struggled through minor setbacks like an injury or a sub-par race performance, Kern’s experience the past few years have positioned her to savor moments on the SuperTour. And dream about, but not expect a clean jump to the World Cup.
“Being on the Wold Cup most of last year was really eye opening,” Kern explained. “Seeing that the gap from the SuperTour to the World Cup is still pretty big. I think you can be winning in the SuperTour and still not be qualifying on the World Cup. I think knowing that, there is something to be said about being challenged — but to the point where you are still doing rounds and still doing heats — and not just doing a three minute qualifier and going home and calling it a day.”
Gaining race day experience was a major consideration for Kern’s Period 1 stay on the SuperTour. A series where she’d certainly qualify in sprints barring an unexpected mishap, and remain a favorite to advance through the heats.
“I could build my confidence [on the SuperTour] and work on my fitness,” Kern said. “And build that into the season before heading over to the World Cup and getting World Cup opportunities. Because I think it is really easy to say I just want to get on the World Cup, but the World Cup is really hard.”
Kern was listed as an objective selection for the Tour de Ski but she turned down those opportunities to focus on Senior Nationals. She will, however, be racing in the Dresden, Germany sprint World Cups after the Tour and Nationals.
On the horizon for Kern are tangible goals like U-23 Worlds and a possible nod for the Seefeld, Austria World Championships*. For the Period 1 SuperTour leader, Kern will take appropriate opportunities. And make the best of them.
*The U.S. Ski Team (USST) has tightened what is known as the five sprinter rule. The USST according to its qualifying criteria for World Championships will take no more than five sprinters (per gender) to the championships. Currently, the USST has five women ranked 37th or better in the World Cup sprint standings.
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.