By Rachel Bachman Perkins and Ben Theyerl
After a brief break, the SuperTour picked up in Lake Placid this weekend, with a fluoro-free Period III kicking off with a 1.5-kilometer classic sprint. The frigid forecast called for overnight lows of -5 Fahrenheit, with a wind chill as low as -23F. Highs during the day were only predicted to climb into the low single digits. Qualifiers were scheduled for 10/10:45 am, with quarterfinals for the open men beginning at noon – hopefully, enough time for a few degrees of warmth to reach the trails.
The weekend competitions would be hosted on Mt. Van Hoevenberg’s new World Cup trails, which are paved for rollerski use in the summer, and played host to NENSA’s “Keys to the Castle” sprint event in September. For those familiar with the venue, the new courses are tucked into the north-facing hillside, just south of the 1980 Olympic stadium and biathlon range. The new serpentine loop intersects with the final Ks of the classic “Ladies 5” outer loop, but overall remains closer to the stadium to allow access to the recently improved snowmaking system.
With a large reservoir and advanced technology, this new World Cup loop can be made winter competition ready within four days, though Van Hoevenberg’s nearly 50k of open trail might suggest that coverage is not currently an issue.
There was praise for the course from many athletes, including those that have seen both Lake Placid, and everywhere in the world beyond Lake Placid.
“It raced much more like a world cup course!” said Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS), in an email to FasterSkier. Katharine Ogden (SMS) too, said of the course, “it was WAY more fun than the old one…[which] was pretty flat.”
The course designers at Lake Placid seem to have carefully been taking notes on what makes sprint racing exciting over the course of its evolution as a discipline in the sport. An historic venue for American skiing, these developments may be a long-time coming for Mt. Van Hoevenberg, but it’s clear that they were executed with mastery so VanHo can continue to expand upon its legacy in the decades to come.
This course featured a long, final uphill climb to test a skier’s mettle, then a short, technical downhill into the finish to test their tactical brains. And in between; transitions, transitions, and more transitions.
Becca Rorabaugh (APU) said of this : “The final climb always turned into a drag race, and I liked the pitch because it favored a bit of a stride over an all-out run. Skiers still had to be alert through the downhill and finish, though; positions often changed in the stadium.”
The weekend, hosted by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) in Lake Placid, also served as the second NENSA Eastern Cup weekend. Thus, senior athletes from American elite clubs lined up alongside regional junior racers, eastern collegiate racers, and Canadian athletes who traveled from Quebec, Ontario, and beyond. 382 athletes, 176 women and 206 men, on the start lists for the qualifier, and separate heats were run for the U18/U20 and U16 categories.
Without livestream, FasterSkier has relied on live timing and athlete interviews to shed light on how the sprint races unfolded.
Men’s 1.5-kilometer Classic Sprint
After returning from a stint in Europe where he raced the Tour de Ski, Team Birkie’s Zak Ketterson set the mark in the men’s qualifier, stopping the clock at 3:04.79. Sun Valley’s Peter Holmes skied the next fastest time in qualification (+0.72), while Étienne Hébert was just behind in third (+1.41). Hébert hails from Quebec and currently trains at the Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre-Harvey (CNEPH), based at Mont Ste Anne.
Each of these men moved smoothly through the rounds, with Ketterson getting edged out by Bill Harmeyer (SMS T2) in the first semi, and Homes and Hébert going 1-2 in the second. Racing in the second semi saw a tighter spread and faster times, bringing Julien Locke (Black Jack Ski Club) and Logan Diekmann (BSF Pro) who had finished a close third and fourth, respectively, along to the final as lucky losers.
The final featured a tight finish among the top four men, with Ketterson off the front to finish in 3:04.71, earning his second consecutive classic sprint victory. Ketterson had dominated the classic sprint in Cable, WI, and stood at the top of the SuperTour leaderboard, thereby earning start spots for the Tour de Ski. The timing of the Tour caused him to miss the subsequent classic sprint in Soldier Hollow, UT.
During the Tour, his first World Cup starts, Ketterson was less than a second shy of qualifying for the classic sprint heats in Oberstdorf, Germany, and had been roughly five second out of the Top-30 the day prior in a 15k skate. He was the only American on the men’s team to finish the Tour. After the Tour, Ketterson made a quick turnaround to attend the weekend of distance racing in Sun Valley, Idaho, where his results (15th in the 15k classic and 34th in the 10k free) were far below what might be expected from him.
In a post-race email to FasterSkier, Ketterson shared how he felt about the Tour and what the recovery process has been like for him.
“The Tour de Ski was a fantastic learning experience with lots of ups and downs. I am pretty happy with my performance on the Tour given it was my first time on the World Cup, but I definitely think I will be faster next time around now that I have had the experience. Post Tour I was incredibly empty, both physically and mentally. To have to change gears pretty much immediately after the last stage of the Tour and head straight to Sun Valley for some super competitive SuperTour races at high altitude was definitely a recipe for disaster on my body. I felt like I was just going through the motions and my body wanted nothing to do with those races.
“These last few weeks at home in Minneapolis provided me with some long-overdue recovery. My hunch after some really lackluster racing in Sun Valley was that there was no need to overthink anything and that the issue was probably just that I was tired. I took time at home to mentally and physically reset and started to feel a lot more like myself as the Placid races approached. Today, it all came together and I felt a lot more race-ready.”
Ketterson also commented on the improvements that have been made at the Mt Van Hoevenberg venue, explaining how it supports the growth and elevation of domestic skiing.
“I am blown away with the venue at Mt. Van Hoevenberg! The venue truly feels like it’s ready for World Cups, or even another Olympics. It’s really inspiring to see big investments into nordic skiing venues in the United States, and I can’t stress enough how big it is for us athletes. I can’t wait to come back to Lake Placid sometime later to really experience this place because I think it’s so awesome here.”
Behind Ketterson, just 0.26 seconds separated second through fourth in the men’s final. Holmes won the boot slide to snag second (+0.72), while Harmeyer took the final podium spot in third (+0.92). Hébert was just 0.06 seconds shy of the podium, ending the day in fourth (+0.98).
Harmeyer provided insights into his approach to the day, along with insights into the moves that contributed to the excitement at the finish line.
“I felt really good in the heats today,” he wrote via email. “The course was certainly difficult and tactical. Placement in the group was really important and that was especially apparent in the final. We had a group of four dudes going over the top of the final climb into the long descent before the finish. It was an absolute scramble trying to get into the tracks on that final downhill. At one point, I had my left ski in the right part of the track and Étienne had his right ski in the left side of the track. Not easy to squeeze two guys going 30+ mph into a single track but somehow, I came out ahead which was just enough to lunge at the finish for third.”
During Period I, Harmeyer took third in the classic sprint final in Cable, and was just off the podium in fourth the weekend prior after the freestyle sprint in Duluth, MN. After qualifying in fifth, a crash in the quarterfinal left him 24th in the freestyle sprint in Soldier Hollow during the U.S. Cross Country Championships. A few days later, he was 51st in the 15k classic. In the Soldier Hollow SuperTour classic sprint, Harmeyer qualified in fourth, and just missed the final to end his day in eighth.
Reflecting on the season as a whole, Harmeyer wrote, “I had a really good start to the season with some strong races in the Midwest. But overall, things have been frustrating. I’ve been struggling with some cold weather triggered exercise induced asthma that got really bad after the first supertours in the Midwest. I continued to struggle with it through a disappointing Senior nationals and decided to take a bit of time off to reset, recover and do some testing. I’m hopeful the worst is behind me and that I’ve got some good protocols lined up to prevent anything from happening in the future. My primary goal for the remainder of the season is to win the Stowe Derby, specifically the derby meister.”
Wrapping up with a comment on the venue, Harmeyer added, “The new courses at Lake Placid are sweet! The sprint course is incredibly tactical but also rewards tough, explosive skiing. I had an absolute blast out there in the heats. The distance courses are hard but I’m excited to be doing a mass start on those for this Sunday. Overall, Van Ho has done a great job with course management and their snowmaking to put together some killer courses.”
After a gap, Diekmann crossed the line in fifth (+5.81), while Locke rounded out the men’s final in sixth (+9.11).
Women’s 1.5-kilometer Classic Sprint
The women’s field began right where it left off in SuperTour classic sprints, with the winner of the last race at Soldier Hollow, Katharine Ogden, (SMS) finishing the qualifier in first place (3:40.49). She was followed by Lauren Jortberg (BSF Pro Team) in second (+2.2), and Ava Thurston (Mansfield Nordic Club) in third (+6.1). The qualifier indicated, again, the overall strength of the field that has characterized this year’s SuperTour, with the heat qualifiers all within 30-seconds of each other (26.0 seconds to be exact).
That field remained tight in the quarterfinals as well. All five quarterfinals saw winning times within a mere five seconds of one other, with Katharine Ogden turning in the fastest time of the round at 3:42.77, and Alayna Sonnesyn winning her heat in 3:46.12.
Ogden commented to FasterSkier that she “didn’t really have any strategy in particular. I find that it is better for me to make strategy in the moment during sprint heats because you never know what’s going to happen out there… I just tried to conserve as much energy as possible in the quarter and semi.” It would pay off later on.
Meanwhile, also progressing to the semifinals was the APU one-two punch of Rosie Frankowski and Becca Rorabaugh out of quarterfinal 2. Despite being primarily known as a distance racer, Frankowski, came into today leading the SuperTour sprint classification and “set a blistering pace,” according to teammate Rorabaugh. With it, she pulled the duo into the semifinals together.
After all the quarterfinals were through, the semifinals were set with a who’s-who at the top of the SuperTour sprint standings, rounded out by Canadian Katie Weaver (Hollyburn XC Ski Club) and Minnesotan Margie Freed (Craftsbury).
The first semifinal featured a battle between two SMS T2 teammates, Katharine Ogden and Alayna Sonnesyn, and two APU teammates, Rosie Frankowski and Becca Rorabaugh. Frankowski again set the pace for the heat, with teammate Rorabaugh commenting that “[Rosie] is so strong on the uphills that she pulls the whole heat to a faster time.” Frankowski, however, couldn’t quite outlast Ogden and Sonnesyn, who used the downhill after the final climb to launch into the first two positions. Ogden won the heat in a time of 3:39.23, with Sonnesyn and Frankowski in second and third, respectively, by less than a second. Rorabaugh finished fourth, but along with Frankowski won the lucky loser spots into the finals – setting up another round of the SMS-APU duel.
In the other semifinal, a close battle throughout yielded a win for Lauren Jortberg (3:45.15) and a second place for Erika Flowers (+0.90). The result sent another teammate pairing into the finals, with both skiers coming from Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF).
At Lake Placid – a place that has over the past century proved to be able to gather the entire world around skiing – it was perhaps appropriate that the women’s final would bring together three teams from across the American continent. Two from Vermont (SMS), two from Montana, two from Alaska (APU), and away they went!
Katharine Ogden commented that the field didn’t waste any time: “It was pretty hard from the gun, as per usual.”
Rorabaugh, meanwhile, made a change in strategy, deciding to follow her teammate Frankowski more closely in the early part of the race. “I was trying to stay closer to the front of the pack since I had let a large gap form in the semifinal that I couldn’t make up,” she explained.
That adjustment was one that helped create a pack that was tight throughout the race, and that was a bit harder to find a position in.
Sonnesyn commented that this led to her having to adjust. “I had great energy but got tangled up a few times on the second hill, so I really had to ski from behind in the second half of the race,” she wrote. “Luckily, I had great skis and remained calm and was able to push through the final stretch.”
In that final stretch, on the final hill, a “drag race,” as Rorabaugh described it, ensued. It was instigated by Ogden, who saw the final climb as the place to make her move, and made it. She came over the top in first place.
“[I] got lucky,” she told FasterSkier. “Pat [O’Brien, SMS T2 head coach] had provided me with some really fast skis that allowed my move to stick going back down the hill.”
Perhaps it wasn’t all luck though. Ogden came across the finish line in first place (3:40.13) after winning the qualifier, her quarterfinal, and her semifinal. It was an all-around dominant performance for one of the U.S. brightest stars in the classic sprint.
Meanwhile, Becca Rorabaugh had powered through the transition into the final downhill and came up with the reward of second place (+3.40), She was followed by Alayna Sonnesyn, who remained cool, calm, and collected as she skied her way through the pack to third place (+4.29).
The final was rounded out by fourth place Rosie Frankowski (+4.74), fifth place Lauren Jortberg (+5.63) and sixth place Erika Flowers (+17.77).
The result was reached at the end of an exciting day that encapsulated the beauty of ski racing – with excitement and energy perfectly juxtaposed against the extreme absence of that energy in the air. Preparing for cold temperatures that are forecasted again for the 10k freestyle mass start tomorrow, the top finishers today all expressed that the temps are part of the appeal in the northeast this weekend.
From Rorabaugh, “I don’t mind cold temperatures – I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska!”
From Sonnesyn, “I like to think the Midwesterner in me prepared well!”
And from Ogden, the perfect Vermont tip: “As Sverre [Caldwell] told us last night, tricky race conditions can work to your advantage if you prepare better than anyone else. Wise man :)”