“You need some Gordie Howe elbows out there today” said the commentator on the live feed at one point during Friday’s Team Sprint in Whistler.
You know, just in case you needed a reminder that this is Canadian Nationals.
Alongside his legacy as one of hockey’s greatest players of all time, leaving his mark on the sport as an indomitable force with both his goal scoring and dynamism on the ice, Howe was known as an — ahem — impassioned athlete. One achieves a “Gordie Howe hat trick” by scoring a goal, making an assist, and engaging in a fight within one game. In short, he was a bit of a wild card, and he wasn’t going to let someone else stand in his way en route to the net.
In watching the Team Sprint livestream, you can see why a similar need to protect one’s space was relevant. The wet and variable spring weather in Whistler created a tricky mix of fast, wet, and mushy snow conditions that combined with fast mass start sprinting to produce racing that tested a skiers balance and “feel” as much as their lungs and muscles. Or more succinctly, racing that was fun, and a little bit chaotic. Staying upright and not losing your own footing or being taken out by another skier might be more important than technique or tactics.
Adding another layer to the challenge, the Team Sprint was raced “Dresden-style”, where two partners took turns on a 750 m lap until the pair of them had completed eight total laps. The Nordic skiing equivalent of a short-track skating relay, and with the same flow to the action.
Early attacks could fizzle out through all or any of factors like a bad transition, fatigue, or a tangle up with another skier. All those factors had the equal and opposite effect as well; no team was truly out of it until they crossed the finish line. A late surge between two teammates could pull together a race, and often did when the fields of 15 teams were unleashed on the course today.
The 750 m course was an abbreviated version of the sprint course seen on Wednesday. Each lap left the stadium and shot up a steep but short climb which lengthened into a false flat where the mushy snow on course saw some skiers muscle out a V2 while others kept to a light-footed hop-skate. Then skiers shot down a sweeping downhill where the course widened to allow for two different lines, before doing a long left turn into the finishing straight.
Every skier completed an individual lap of this course in the morning, which when combined with their team partner, yielded a seeding time. With no semi-final, the top 15 fastest combined teams qualified for the Open A finals.
In the women’s qualifier, Julia Kern (SMS T2) completed the course in the fastest time, 1:21.70. That combined with 8th place Alayna Sonneysn (+3.45 seconds) to give their SMS T2 team the top seed for the women’s A final (combined time 2:46.85). Second seed (combined, +3.73) was earned by Nakkerertok 32’s Hannah Shields (7th, +3.12) and Zoё Williams (13th, +4.01), with third seed (combined, +4.12) going to the University Utah I team of Karianne Dengerud (2nd, +2.34) and Sydney Palmer-Leger (23rd, +5.23).
When the top-15 teams started in the A final, Alayna Sonneysn shot off the front for SMS T2, which stretched the field out immediately and may have helped avoid the pile ups that had been a feature of the Challengers and College Cup heats earlier in the day. Sonneysn was covered by Yukon Team 7 (Whitehorse), with Sonjaa Schmidt catching Sonnesyn as they rounded the corner into the first exchange. Schmidt also pulled back the entire group, and so the racing was extremely tight as they handed off to their teammates. SMS T2 and the Yukon Team continued to push the pace at the front, with the University of Utah I (UU I, Palmer-Leger and Dengerud) and University of Utah II (UU II, Novie McCabe and Julia Richter) teams bridging the gap to form a four-team group leading the race.
From there, as the teams swapped partners through laps three, four, five, and six, a strategy of attrition started to emerge from the SMS T2 team of Kern and Sonnesyn. At each exchange, they jumped off the handoff, hopped up the hill, and continuously pushed the pace. Their gap slowly opened at the front, until, like looking up after being taken by a riptide, the mass of racing behind them was unexpectedly distant. By Sonnesyn’s final trip around the course at lap seven, their win was all but secured.
Sonnesyn said that the goal from SMS T2 was to remain consistent throughout the race, saying in an interview with Nordiq Canada that “I just wanted to be patient. I was a little surprised at the pace we went out [in] because I knew four laps on this course was going to catch up to us quick, but I kept telling myself ‘be patient, go the same pace.”
In the push for the overall podium behind, a new player had entered the scene. On lap five, Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson pushed across the gap to the UU I, UU II, and Team Yukon group. On lap six, her partner Alexandra Lawson held there. As the scrambling partners went out for their final lap on lap seven, UU I and UU II had formed a gap, but when the skiers handed off for the final exchange, a four-team pack came back together with UU I, UU II, Team Yukon, and Craftsbury I.
Then, it split once again.
Team Yukon’s Dahria Beatty came off the downhill on course wide to try and take an inside line into the final turn. UU I’s Karianne Dengerud took the downhill corner more inside, and tried to beat Beatty to the inside on the final turn. In the end, Beatty won, and then closed in the final stretch to take Team Yukon (Schmidt & Beatty) to second place (+11.99) behind the first place SMS T2 (12:22.16). UU I (Palmer-Leger & Dengerud) took third (+12.78).
The resounding win for the pairing of Kern and Sonneysn punctuated a tremendous week for Stratton Mountain School, and in particular for Kern. Apart from a second place behind teammate Jessie Diggins (SMS T2) in the 10 k skate on Monday, she has won every race at these SuperTour finals, despite tricky and variable conditions.
Team Yukon’s (Whitehorse) second place overall gives the pairing of Dahria Beatty and Sonjaa Schmidt top Canadian honors, adding to Beatty’s accumulation of National Championships this week.
The men’s top individual qualifier was Logan Diekmann (BSF), with a time of 1:12.83, who combined with his BSF Pro I teammate Finn O’Connell (51st, +5.93) to take 5th seed (+4.44). They ran behind the top seeded (2:27.15) University of Utah I (UU I) pairing of Noel Keefe (4th, +0.67) and Luke Jager (5th, +0.82). Second seed (+2.42) went to the SMS T2 team of Finegan Bailey (6th, +1.01) and Bill Harmeyer (14th, +2.91), and third seed went to the Team Brew-ski Canmore (+3.43) pair of Russell Kennedy (3rd, +0.57) and Reed Godfrey (27th, +4.35).
With qualifying times extremely tight across the board, the A final promised to stay close throughout the whole 8 laps.
Noel Keefe mirrored Alayna Sonnesyn’s move from the women’s final, looking to get ahead of any tangles by pushing the pace from the start for UU I. Once the field was out of the stadium, Keefe tucked in behind Orford’s Leo Granbois, and Orford and UU I went into the first exchange with a slight gap.
Keefe handed off to Luke Jager, who looked relaxed as he allowed the field to come back together again. Animating the move that closed the gap was Northern Michigan University (NMU) skier Kristoffer Karsrud, who alongside his partner Kjetil Bånerud ducked and weaved at the front of the pack throughout the duration of the race.
On the 5th lap, another UU team, UU II, moved to the front of the pack, as Brian Bushey put in a surge. When Bushey and Keefe handed off to Bjørn Riksåsen and Jager, the race looked like it may turn into a UU team practice for the last couple of laps. That was, until Scott Patterson flew in from Alaska Pacific University (APU) in his last time around the course on lap seven. Following Patterson’s move was Bånerud from NMU, and as the four team pack of UU I, UU II, APU, and NMU went into the final exchange, it became clear; the Team Sprint would well and truly live up to the sprint moniker.
Jager for UU I came out of the exchange with a slight advantage over the field. APU’s Logan Hanneman countered that by exploding up the climb leaving the stadium. Jager used the downhill to catch Hanneman, with Rikssasen (UU II) and Karsrud (NMU) in tow. Jager, the youngest of the bunch but with plenty of sprint experience, got the inside edge into the final turn. He exploded off of that corner into the final stretch, lifting a ski and two poles as he came across the line to take the win for UU I (11:15.32).
Hanneman finished in second (+1.39) for APU, and the NMU team finished third with Karsrud crossing the line (+1.45) right behind.
Outside of the mix for most of the race, the Foothills I team of Xavier McKeever and Tom Stephen deftly moved through the pack to come in fifth overall and claim the Canadian title on the day.
The University of Utah pairing of Jager and Keefe were especially happy to win this edition of the Team Relays, saying to Nordiq Canada that “It’s a mix-up [in these relays]. Since the race got canceled at SuperTour finals two years ago, we had this race in our scopes. The qualifier went well, we had good skis, and the race turned out great.”
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.