To trace the thread of the past, present, and future of American cross-country skiing, all you have to do is look at a golf course in Minneapolis that touches 3 of those 10,000 lakes in Minnesota; Theodore Wirth Park.
Over the past week, America’s most-skied loop played host to the US Ski and Snowboard Junior Championships (formerly Junior Nationals, or “JNs”), bringing the top under-20 year old skiers from across the nation together for the first time since 2020s JNs in Truckee, CA were forced to cancel mid-competition in the panicked early days of the COVID pandemic.
Two years later, the performances by the nation’s top junior skiers seemed to be nothing less than a brighter future put into motion. A week of skiing which saw athletes from Maine to Alaska, and anywhere in-between with enough snow, push each other, and the future of US skiing, forward.
Wirth Park Finally Gets to Host the Show
Last week marked just the second time that JNs was held at Wirth Park since its inception fifty-seven years ago.
The first was just eleven years ago in 2011, when an air of real possibility had just started to take hold in US skiing. Names like Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell were forging a path with their results on the World Cup. The Loppet Foundation, a decade into growing the sport in America’s most Nordic-centric city, was drawing up plans to turn Wirth Park, and Minneapolis, into an American Oslo. Competitors and spectators came to the 2011 Junior Olympics (as JNs was then known) with the idea that what they would see was a first glimpse into the future of skiing, in the US and beyond.
Some of what they saw was in part gimmick. The sprint race, for example, was held at night on purpose despite Wirth’s lighting being pretty much a few old trail lamps augmented with a couple of generators and some hip string lighting.
Some of what they saw though, was the real deal. Including the Female OJ (U20) skier from just down the road in Afton who won every race she could that week; Jessie Diggins.
In the intervening decade between then and now, Diggins went on to change the sport forever in the US, and actively reflected it back on the prime venue in her home state. She led the campaign lobbying the FIS to put a World Cup at Wirth on the calendar, and that vision for the future was set to be realized in March 2020.
The new homologated sprint course at Wirth had the FIS starting gates in the snow, bleachers set-up, and starting double-pole tracks set when it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12th, 2020. The Loppet Foundation closed its new glass-fronted chalet a week later.
Wirth Park and Minneapolis were pushed back into looking forward to the future once again.
Two years later, the starting gates were repainted with the US Ski and Snowboard logo, the sprint course was ready, the start tracks set once again, Diggins was sending her best wishes, and Wirth Park would finally get to see its future vision for skiing come into the present.
Just how far Wirth, JNs, and skiing in the US had come, was on full display. Whereas JNs just a few years ago was only possible to follow from afar if you were willing to carefully read results sheets, the 2022 edition came with a full four camera set-up and commentary team provided by Engage Livestream Broadcasting. You could now watch nearly every corner of the Theodore Wirth Park course from anywhere, and according to Loppet Foundation, nearly 83,000 viewers did.
The Wirth course has evolved quickly in the past few years to adapt to the age of climate change, homologation, and well…live broadcasts. The traditional 5 k course at Wirth, which sent skiers out from the maples and oaks onto the windblown golf course, was eschewed to race either a 2.5 k or 3.3 k lap (depending on the distance) that concentrated the park’s unique, urban, time-tested terrain. Over the crest of the downhill that u-turned into the A-climb, skiers would view the Minneapolis skyline. On the new sprint course, they stormed up the tow rope line of a tubing hill. The middle-section made use of the out-runs for the now-demolished ski jumps, where skiing in America got its start with the Norwegians who founded Minneapolis in the 1800s.
Of course, none of this pomp and circumstance was on the minds of the skiers who looked at Wirth park’s course with one question on their mind: how do I ski it faster than anyone in the country?
A Week of Racing: the Junior Nationals Program
Over the week-long course of JNs, about four-hundred junior skiers sought an answer to that in a four-race program. They started with an individual start freestyle 10/5 k, then an individual classic sprint, then a 15/10/5 k classic mass start, and finally a 4 x 3.3 k mixed team relay. Each race was held as a separate event, meaning four distinct opportunities for athletes to win the title of junior national title. Each event also contributed to the cumulatively scored Alaska Cup – the top regional team in the country , the Junior National Club Team Classification – the top junior club, and the Roger Weston Trophy – the top high school team. Skiers competed against others in their age classes: U16s, U18s, and U20s.
In keeping with tradition, skiers competed for their regional teams, which proves to be an ever-evolving and wonky geographical distinction at JNs. Clubs leave and move divisions, and especially when high schoolers turn to college skiers in the U20s, skiers who may be from one division might ski for another (i.e. a skier from Alaska going to school in New England might qualify for the New England U20 team). Generally the map below shows the regional break-up of teams*:
The sheer amount of racing that occurs over the week of JNs is overwhelming in a way that’s inspirational – speaking to the depth and excitement that US skiing can expect in years to come. However, there were names and performances to highlight, and so here we look briefly at each race.
Monday: Individual Start 10k/5k Freestyle
After a weekend of course preview in which the skiers of America were greeted with the local Midwestern custom of a too early March rain, the JNs program began on a sunny Monday where the temperature stayed in the mid-high 20s (Fahrenheit). The snow left from the snowstorm a week before (another Midwestern custom, the Birkie-week foot of snow) combined with the man-made base to produce fast conditions.
The week kicked off at 9:00:15 with Minneapolis’ own Greta Hansen (Midwest, Minneapolis Ski Club) starting in bib 1 in the female U18 5 k race. The female U20, U18, and U16 fields were combined in the 5 k, before being separated by class in the results.
Combining the fields yielded the first intriguing result of the week, when U18 racer Ava Thurston (New England, Mansfield Nordic Club) finished the race in 1st nearly a minute (14:18.9) ahead of 2nd place (and first place U20) Nina Seemann (+55.6 seconds). Thurston had a similar advantage over 2nd place U18 (and 3rd overall) Maggie Warner (+56.1) (Midwest, NordicWerks). In a field of the best skiers from across the country, Thurston also proved to be one-half of the extraordinary feat of being joined by a teammate on the podium. Hattie Barker, also from Mansfield (New England), was the 3rd U18 (+57.3 sec).
Thurston, who was named to the U18 Nordic Nations Cup US team (the event, set to be held outside of Trondheim, Norway was canceled at the end of January due to COVID-19), had begun a banner week.
In the U20 girls, meanwhile, Seemann topped the field ahead of 2nd place Aurora Cramer (Intermountain, Sun Valley) (+3.9 sec). The Dartmouth freshman came to US Junior Championships after having competed for the US at World Junior Championships just a few weeks ago. The U20 podium was rounded out by New England’s (Gunstock Nordic) Catherine Stow (+25.9 sec).
In the U16 girls race, host club Loppet Nordic Racing (LNR) got its first national champion on its home turf. Sydney Drevlow (Midwest) finished the 5 k in a time of 15:36.8 for 1st place, and was joined on the podium by her teammate Inga Wing (Midwest, LNR) in 3rd (+13.7 sec). In between them was Pacific Northwest’s Neve Gerard (Mt. Bachelor) in 2nd (+11.6 sec).
The U20/U18 Boys 10 k field would see similar results to their female counterparts, with top athletes having come fresh-off of qualification for the Nordic Nations trip or Junior World Championships.
Like the girls field, there was one boy who stood out immediately with his result in the skate race. Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Michael Earnhart (Alaska) continued a breakout year that’s seen him post strong results at Junior World’s, Senior Nationals, and on the SuperTour alike, winning a junior national championship in a time of 22:02.5. He was followed in the overall by the U18 National Champion Adrik Kraftson (Midwest, LNR) (+13.1 sec), and U18 2nd place Jack Lange (New England, SMS) (+16.2). Wes Campbell (Intermountain, Park City) rounded out the U18 podium (3rd) in 4th overall (+23.5). All three U18s were set to be teammates on the Nordic Nations trip that was canceled in January, but would make-up for the chance to get familiar with each other there by seeing plenty of each other on the race course the rest of the week.
The U20 podium was rounded out by Alaska’s Alexander Maurer (Alaska Winter Stars) (+35.0) in 2nd and University of Vermont (UVM) freshman Aidan Burt (UVM) (+37.8) in third.
The U16 boys would see a tight 5 k race. Green Mountain Valley School’s (GMVS) Tabor Greenberg (New England) delivered a big win for New England in a time of 13:37.4. He edged out Alaska’s Murphy Kimball (AWS), who was 2nd (+4.1). New England did place another on the podium though, with Stratton Mountain School’s (SMS) Micah Bruner in 3rd (+11.5).
The first day allowed skiers that had come off of the World circuit to re-establish themselves at the forefront of US skiing, and saw young promising skiers have their first “big” results on a national stage. A familiar picture for the Alaska Cup also began to take shape, with New England, Midwest, Alaska, and Intermountain all prominent at the top of the results.
Wednesday: Classic Sprint
The Minnesota sun was still high above Wirth Park, but by Wednesday skiers and coaches realized they had come to visit the land of the wind chill factor. Highs were in the single-digits with the wind blowing across the hills of Wirth.
While the new sprint course kept mostly in the park’s trees to mitigate the wind, the cold, transformed snow on a Classic day surely sent a couple of wax techs to parts of their boxes they don’t visit very often (base klister, anyone?). Then again, with the best skiers in the country come the best wax techs too.
Still, the Wirth sprint course that had been designed for the World Cup required those techs to be on their A-game. After turning out of the marsh bottom the start-area sits in, skiers were greeted by the wide, four-lane, long climb that begins all Wirth courses, before a series of rolling hills sent them straight up the steep, rope tow lift line A-climb. Then, the course twisted and turned before popping over a bridge that led to the finishing straight.
In terms of tactics, the climb-heavy course would allow only the strongest of skiers a little maneuvering. If you could stay below full-bore on the first climb, then you could throw in a commanding push over the top of the A-climb. The final half-kilometer had enough mitigating turns and bumps that would wipe out an attempt to draft into the finishing line, and so there wasn’t much reason to hold back before then.
One skier who did have the capacity to use the tactic of waiting for the A-climb proved to be Michael Earnhart. In the Boys U20s final, Earnhart tucked into a pack that contained the whole field: Jack Young (New England, Colby College), Peter Hinds (Alaska, APU), Aidan Burt (New England, APU), Jack Christner (New England, Middlebury College), And Anders Weiss (Rocky Mountain, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard). On the A-climb, he moved out of the track and attacked, coming over the top in first. The U20 field yielded a strong response, and when they came over the top of the bridge, the gaps at the top of the climb had remained the same. Earnhart was followed by Colby freshman Jack Young who came in like a Mule (shameless bad pun) in 2nd (+0.2). Rounding out the podium was Hinds (Alaska, APU) in 3rd (+1.6 sec)
In the Girls U20s final Nina Seemann (New England) was able to establish a gap from the gun and hold it. She claimed her 2nd win in as many races -5.9 sec ahead of the College of St. Scholastica’s Mia Case, who raced for her home division Great Lakes (Case is from Minoqua, WI). In 3rd place, by a ski, was Northern Michigan University Freshman Lauren McCollor (+0.1).
The boys U18 final saw Finegan Bailey (New England, SMS) establish a two-man break alongside Trey Jones (Rocky Mountain, Steamboat Springs), before Bailey pulled ahead in the final stretch. Bailey won, with Jones 2nd (+0.4), and Adrik Kraftson (Midwest, LNR) taking his second podium of the week in 3rd (+5.6).
In her second breakaway win of the week, Ava Thurston (New England, Mansfield) commanded the field to win by -5.8 sec over Jackson Hole’s Kate Brigham (Intermountain). Molly Moening (Midwest, Minneapolis Ski Club), another Nordic Nations team qualifier, rounded out the podium in 3rd place (+7.9 sec).
When the U16 boys raced their final, the runner-up from Monday Murphy Kimball (Alaska, AWS) was willing to animate the race as it hit the first hill. When they got to the A-climb, the only one in the field who could match his climbing was Midwest’s Miles Miner (Minneapolis Ski Club). The pairing raced to the finish, with Kimball opening a gap to take first and Miner in 2nd (+1.9 sec). In the ensuing sprint for third place, one of the layered nuances that makes JNs a great national gathering for the ski community played out. Winning the sprint for 3rd was New England’s Ellis Slover (+8.6 sec), who hails from Quarry Road Nordic Ski Club in Waterville, Maine. The small detail of the home club can seem small, but for a club that’s only a decade old tucked into a town in Central Maine, having a junior on a national podium takes every bit of the ski community working towards one goal, and represents a joyous breakthrough. “QRSC for the win” commented Slover’s teammate Beckett Cote on his result (who is also the author’s cousin). Indeed.
The U16 girls race saw Sun Valley’s Cora Faye Scott (Intermountain) establish a lead late in the race over a pack of three. In the sprint for the final two podium spots Maeve Ingelfinger (Intermountain, GNT) (+2.5) got 2nd and Lucy Perkins (Rocky Mountain, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail) finished third (+2.6).
The day of sprint racing saw racers who had already had top results earlier in the week show their dynamism as skiers, and those who may go on to specialize in the discipline have affirming results. The regional mix still leaned heavy towards New England, Alaska, and the Midwest, and half-way through the week, it seemed those three would be racing for the title in the Alaska Cup.
Friday:15 k/10 k/5 k Classic Mass Start
By Friday, the air had gotten colder (highs in the single-digits) and the wind had gotten blowier (the windchill well below zero). Even worse, skiers would leave the wooded-protection of the sprint course to face the wind head-on for a u-turn hill out in the open on the golf courses fairway. It was a mass start though, so at least they’d have each other.
The closest race on the day came from the U16 Boys field, which raced 2 laps of a 2.5 k loop for their 5 k. A pack of 4 skiers came together on the second lap, which included Landon Wyatt (Intermountain, BSF), Tabor Greenberg (New England, GMVS), Benjamin Barbier (Rocky Mountain, Steamboat Springs), and Elias Soule (Alaska, AWS). Wyatt was able to make a move in the last kilometer to give him a small advantage over the field, and came away with the national championship (14:38.2). In another sprint for 2 podium places with 3 skiers, Tabor Greenberg (New England) was able to take 2nd (+1.3), and Benjamin Barbier (Rocky Mountain) 3rd (+2.0).
The U16 Girls field yielded just as impressive performances. Sydney Drevlow came back for a second convincing distance race win on the week, claiming another national championship twenty seconds ahead of the field (16:25:0). Following her was Rose Horning (Rocky Mountain, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail) in 2nd (+29.1), and the runner-up in the sprint Maeve Ingelfinger (Intermountain, GNT) in third (+33.6).
Despite the change in distance, the top of the U18 Boys field still came down to a battle between the top sprinters Finegan Bailey (New England, SMS) and Trey Jones (Rocky Mountain, Steamboat Springs). At the end of 3 laps of a 3.3 k (10 k total) Bailey and Jones were locked in a sprint again. Bailey again got the edge, winning a second national championship on the week (23:57.3). Jones finished second (+0.12). Then, Wes Campbell (Intermountain, Park City) came in to pick up a second podium on the week in 3rd (+9.1).
In the U18 girls 10 k, Ava Thurston could make the gaps she had over the field something you could see with your own eyes on account of the mass start. She came in -26.6 seconds (27:41.5) ahead of 2nd place Nina Schamberger (Rocky Mountain, Summit Nordic Ski Club). Schamberger’s podium capped an impressive season for the 16 year old who made her Junior World Championship debut a few weeks ago. Molly Moening (Midwest, Minneapolis Ski Club) was 3rd for the second consecutive race (+39.1).
With her 3rd win in the JNs program, Thurston inched towards the rare distinction of winning every race at a JNs. In fact, it had only been done once before at Theodore Wirth Park. With one race to go, her path had only been walked by one skier before her – Jessie Diggins. Not bad company.
She was walking that path, though, with two skiers alongside her. In the U20 Girls, Nina Seemann (New England, Dartmouth) came away with her third win on the week (28:50.8). Meanwhile, in the U20 Boys, Michael Earnhart (Alaska, APU) also won a third in his 15 k (40:54.8). Earnhart had a close one, with Alexander Maurer (Alaska, AWS) in 2nd (+1.8) and Aidan Burt (New England, UVM) (+1.8) in 3rd, while Peter Hinds (Alaska, APU) just missed out in 4th (+1.9). Catherine Stow finished 2nd behind Seemann (+18.5), and Aurora Cramer (Intermountain, Sun Valley) finished in 3rd (+28.0).
After three days of individual racing, JNs would turn towards resolving the issue of which region had the competitive edge in the US in 2022. The Alaska Cup, still a close contest between New England, Midwest, Alaska, Intermountain, and Rocky Mountain would be resolved the next day when individual results gave way to regional pride in the team relay.
Saturday: Mixed 4 x 3.3 k Team Relays
The team relays were the one part of the program at JNs that changed between 2020 and 2022. The distance of each leg – the same; the number of skiers on a team – the same; but the gender makeup of those skiers – different. In keeping with the World Cup, the teams would feature two boys and two girls. The two boys would scramble the 3.3 k course in legs 1 and 2, while the girls would anchor in legs 3 and 4. One race apiece for the U16s, U18s, and U20s.
There was plenty of variety among how coaches approached putting together their teams, and they presented different results accordingly. There did, however, prove to be one constant across the three age classes. New England would finish in first.
It began with the U16s. New England-1 skier Tabor Greenberg (GMVS) scrambled to come in alongside the Alaska-1 skier Murphy Kimball (AWS) and hand-off in first and second, respectively, together (6:57.8). The duo’s leg was the fastest the race would see. Through the second lap, New England-1 skier Quinn McDermott (Berkshire Nordic) had kept them in front (14:09.9). Elias Soule (AWS) kept Alaska-1 in 2nd, and a strong leg from Rocky Mountain-1 skier Henry Magill (Steamboat Springs) brought them into 3rd. When the girls began to race, Beth McIntosh (Frost Mountain) built on the New England-1 lead, Rose Horning (Vail) went into the final exchange having put Rocky Mountain-1 in 2nd. Inga Wing (LNR) and Adeline Loewen (Plain Valley), meanwhile had put Midwest-1 and Pacific Northwest-1 into 3rd and 4th when Loewen skied up to Wing and came into the final exchange with her. Anchor Sydney Drevlow (LNR) was able to continue the charge for Midwest-1, and with the fastest women’s split (8:25) she moved into 2nd place. In the end, she couldn’t quite catch Annelies Hanna (Ford Sayre), who finished the win for New England-1 (31:37.7). Drevlow brought home 2nd for the Midwest-1 team (+11.2), and Pacific Northwest-1 had ridden their late surge to a 3rd behind the skiing of Neve Gerard (+12.9).
The U18s saw similar close racing throughout the race. Adrik Kraftson (LNR) scrambled with the fastest leg (6:37.5) to put Midwest-1 in first. But Intermountain-1 with Wes Campbell (Park City), New England-1 with Finegan Bailey (SMS) , and Midwest-2 with Cooper Camp (LNR) were all within five seconds. When Jack Lange (SMS) handed off to the 3rd leg though, he had skied New England-1 into first place (13:35), followed by Midwest-1 with David Isom (Minneapolis Ski Club), and Midwest-2 with Jonathon Clarke (LNR) (+4.6). Hattie Barker (Mansfield) built on New England-1’s lead to hand off to the anchor Ava Thurston (Mansfield) in first place (21:42.3). Behind, the skiing of Maggie Warner (NordicWerks) had maintained Midwest-1’s 2nd place (+13.1), and Abigail Haas (FXC) had moved Alaska-1 into 3rd (+24.1) alongside Midwest-2 with Jordan Parent (NordicWerks) in 4th (+24.2). Thurston anchored with the fastest girls leg (7:51.1) to win it for New England-1, and give New England the 2nd win of the day. Midwest-1 skied to second with Molly Moening (Minneapolis Ski Club) anchoring, and Meredith Schwartz (AWS) was able to hold off a challenge from Greta Hansen (Minneapolis Ski Club) to see Alaska-1 finish in 3rd ahead of Midwest-2 in 4th. With that 4th though, the Midwest pulled off the impressive feat of having two teams in the top 5, speaking to the region’s depth.
When the U20s started then, New England was looking for the sweep. Their bid would start with Colby’s Jack Young, who finished his leg with New England-1 in 3rd (+12.1) behind Intermountain-1 with Elijah Weenig (Jackson Hole) in 2nd (+5.6) and Alaska-1 with Michael Earnhart in 1st (6:38.2). At the 2nd exchange, Alexander Maurer (AWS) had held 1st place for Alaska-1 (13:26.6), while Aidan Burt (UVM) had moved New England-1 into 2nd (+5.8), and Intermountain-1 had held 3rd with Max Kluck (BSF) (+9.5). Then, Catherine Stow (Gunstock) put in the fastest women’s leg of the race (7:58.3) to put New England-1 into 1st (21:41.0) with a gap coming out of the final exchange. Marit Flora (APU) kept Alaska-1 in 2nd (+23.2), and Lucienne Ludwig (Sun Valley) had Intermountain-1 in 3rd (+1:00.0). Nina Seemann (Dartmouth) kept New England-1’s gap, and finished her fourth and final win of JNs with a sweep for New England on the day (30:00.7). Katey Houser (Alaska Nordic Racing) finished a 2nd place relay for Alaska-1 (+29.6), and Aurora Cramer (Sun Valley) kept Intermountain-1 in 3rd (+1:13.7).
Team Results: Alaska Cup Settled
By the time the Team Relays finished, there wasn’t a coach or spectator in Wirth Park that needed to pull up the Alaska Cup standings to do the math on who had won. New England, after a week of strong individual and team skiing, came away with the distinction of the top region for junior skiing in the country. It was a title that they’ve become used to winning. Going back to 2014, the only thing that could stop team New England from winning the Alaska Cup was the global pandemic of the past two years (*Alaska was in first at 2020 JNs when it was cancelled mid-week, it should be noted). And it doesn’t appear anything will change as we emerge from that era.
Behind New England, the Midwest finished 2nd by less than 300 points, which was a sure sign that the development places like Theodore Wirth Park have been invested in to spur is on track. Intermountain had a strong showing coming in 3rd place, while Alaska and Rocky Mountain were also competitive in 4th and 5th, respectively.
In the Junior Nationals Club Classification, Loppet Nordic Racing maintained its streak as the top junior racing club in America. Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska won the Roger Weston Trophy for the top high school in the country.
Lessons from a Week at Wirth
In winning all four races at a JNs held in Wirth Park, Ava Thurston (U18) and Nina Seemann (U20) just one other skier with that distinction; Jessie Diggins. No matter where their promising careers in skiing go (and all signs on that are far), they’ve accomplished a feat that shows a unique capacity for focus, grit, and determination appropriate to the skier they followed in the feat.
And then again, that’s really what bringing back Junior Nationals to Minneapolis – to Theodore Wirth Park – was all about. Letting the work and dedication that’s gone into American skiing be shown by the juniors who do it best.
As Loppet Foundation Executive Director Claire Wilson said in remarks to FasterSkier “The week was the highlight of the winter – and the Loppet is proud to support the development of the sport and finally give the community a great Junior Nationals!”
Each racer that crossed the start line at Wirth did so powered by all that has been put into the ski community over the course of their young lives. The brand-new chalet that played background to a new course at Wirth was a constant reminder that people coming together to grow something they love has the power to produce big things. If you paid attention to the skiing in the foreground though, that power wasn’t broken down into pieces. In each look of determination while skiing down the trail, each smile on a face when that trail had been skied, was the reflection of a coach, parent, or teammate that shared the joy of ski racing with a young person, and who in turn let it run wild.
It’s that simple. All that we leave Minneapolis with is again an air of possibility, for where the nation-wide community of Nordic skiing will set its sights on next – a future that by the looks of last week is as inspiring as anything that’s come before it.
David J. Owen is a Minneapolis-based photographer who’s work showcases the best of skiing in the Midwest. Check all of his 2022 Junior Nationals galleries here. Visit his website to see his full suite of work in skiing and beyond.
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.