While World Cup Finals were underway in mid-March in Falun, Sweden, a second contingent of top American skiers was lining up roughly 2,000 kilometers south to race in the OPA Cup Finals in Sappada, Italy. Located along the northern edge of Italy near the Austrian border, the small town is nestled among the spectacular, jagged massifs of the Italian Dolomites, roughly an hour’s drive east of Toblach, which typically hosts the final stages of the Tour de Ski. The team spent the week prior to competition training in Toblach, which features similarly spectacular views, along with the benefits of the delicious food and drink one might expect when traveling in Italy.
For those unfamiliar with the OPA Cup, it is an international race series featuring predominantly European athletes racing just below the World Cup level. The US Ski & Snowboard development program typically facilitates a trip to OPA Cup Finals to provide athletes who may not have earned World Cup starts the opportunity to experience high level competition overseas. Qualification is based on national rankings, beginning with those racing on the World Cup, and proceeding through the top domestic racers, depending on declines. Often, there is overlap between the teams for the FIS Junior/U23 World Ski Championship teams and the OPA Cup teams, which may conveniently allow some athletes to prolong their stay in Europe and attend both events.
“Generally the trip is geared toward athletes that are a bit older, who either have had World Cup starts or on track for that,” explained US Ski Team Development Team coach Greta Anderson.
Identifying it on its list of “Pillar Projects”, the National Nordic Foundation (NNF) helps subsidize the cost of the trip for the qualified athletes. The trip can accommodate up to 16 skiers, who are generally kept to an approximately even male to female ratio through the qualification criteria. This year, due to conflicting schedules and a number of declines, thirteen athletes attended, with nine women and four men.
In alphabetical order, the senior men included: Braden Becker (CGRP), Logan Diekmann (BSF Pro), Finn O’Connell (BSF Pro), Karl Schultz (SVSEF). Senior women included: Mariah Bredal (BSF Pro), Margie Freed (CGRP), Alex Lawson (CGRP), Hannah Rudd (BSF Pro), Becca Rorabaugh (APU), Lina Sutro (SMS T2), and Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2).
This year, two U20 athletes headed from World Juniors in Lygna, NOR to Italy along with D-Team coaches Anderson and Bryan Fish: Kate Oldham (Aspen Valley Ski Club) and Annie McColgan (UVM).
“It’s pretty cool that we have more racers that are racing professionally or post collegiately than, I think, ever in the US, and they have more clubs and places to choose from,” said Anderson. “There were several athletes that, especially because racing was shut down on the East Coast last year and I happened to be in Alaska and wasn’t wasn’t traveling very much before I took this job, it was kind of the first time I’ve gotten to work with them, or the first time I’ve gotten to work with them in three or four years. So it was really cool to get to know Alayna Sonnesyn a little better and Lina Sutro a little better, and Margie Freed and Alex Lawson, who I’ve seen race many times, but it was the first time I’ve gotten to really work with them and get to know them. The same with Braden Becker and Karl Schultz… So it was a pleasure on the trip to get to work with some new athletes that have come through different development systems and are excited about and ready to make that next step. And this racing circuit is a really good opportunity for that.”
Anderson took the lead with organizing the trip and supporting athletes, working alongside US Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Sport Development Manager and long-time OPA Finals trip lead coach Bryan Fish. The wax support staff included BSF Pro Team head coach Andy Newell, former APU athlete and current staff member Peter Kling, and Jackson Hole comp team coach Jon Filardo.
Anderson identified the OPA Finals trip as a key development opportunity for a number of reasons: though perhaps lower pressure than World Cup, it’s a professional race circuit with small but competitively dense fields, athletes race aggressively and tactically in a style younger athletes who have not yet raced at this level may not have experienced, and it offers the opportunity for an athlete to dial in some of the small but significant factors details that support success adapting to a new and different environment following long international travel.
“Bryan’s been doing [the OPA Cup Finals] trip for a long time,” Anderson said. “So Peter Kling, who was on a coaching staff, and Becca Rorabaugh, they were like, ‘I’m pretty sure that we were on Bryan’s first ever OPA Cup trip.’ And it used to be that we started at the bottom of the results sheet and started looking upward for names. And right now we’re starting at the top and we don’t have to look very far down.”
In two days of racing, the US had seven top-10 finishes, with another set of athletes finishing well-within the top-20. Highlighting the US team was SMS T2’s Sonnesyn, who took third in the 10 k classic on Saturday the 12th, and won the 10 k skate the following day.
“It’s pretty special,” Anderson said of the performances in Sappada. “It’s awesome to get to see that. For Alayna to start a race and say like, ‘What’s my plan to try to win this?’ It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re here to participate and learn,’ but ‘Hey, we’re here to participate and learn but also we’re going to try to win.’ And I think, with that comes — not only from staff but from racers — this level of professionalism. Okay, we’re going to select skis. We’re going to make sure we’re organized and in a good place. Where can we be? Where can we do feeds? How can we set you up to have the success you need to have?
“It just feels like a really good time to be an American ski racer.”
After winning two of the first five SuperTour races this season, and finishing on the podium in each of the others, Sonnesyn was offered starts at the Tour de Ski, where she hoped she could achieve strong enough international results to qualify for the Olympic Team. But these goals did not come to fruition; Sonnesyn struggled to find the same race sensations while on the World Cup and tap into the fitness she knew was still there, which was reflected in results below her expectations. She shared her disappointment openly on her blog and social media, providing a relatable and important example to her followers that the pro-skier journey is not immune to bumps in the road.
“My experience on the World Cup this year – it was quite demoralizing, to be honest,” said Sonnesyn in a call from the airport as she was on her way to SuperTour Finals in Whistler. “And then, after the Tour de Ski, I got COVID. And it just really put a damper on the whole winter for me. And I started questioning like, ‘Okay, am I fit? And I like, can I race? Well, like, what have I been training for? This is really bad timing with COVID, too.’ So I was just pretty down. But then I was able to have really great SuperTour races, back in January and February, and then to be able to race internationally again in Italy. It wasn’t a World Cup, but it was still very high level of racing. So to have it go so well kind of reaffirmed to me that I belong on the international stage. And I definitely needed that, a little bit, just to give myself more confidence moving forward and motivation as well. So I’m really excited about the races and how they went and what I did to prepare for them and kind of my mental attitude around them, too.”
As she reflected on the trip and her experiences racing internationally over the last few seasons, Sonnesyn echoed Anderson’s sentiments about the progression of the American team at the event.
“Compared to my first OPA Cup trip, which was in 2018, I think there were maybe two or three top 10 performances. And they were exciting, but for the most part, it was kind of like, ‘We’re just here to get the experience. We’re not really sure what we’re doing.’ And I think that the way the US is developing right now, the way that new courses are being built in Cable or Duluth, or wherever it is – they are preparing us better for racing internationally. And I think that was shown in the results that we had in Sappada. And it was just so exciting during that 10 k skate on Sunday to cross the finish line in first, and then turn around and see a ton of my other US teammates come in right behind me. That’s not something that was happening four years ago. So I think we are really developing and that is a huge thanks to so many different people and so many reasons, but it’s exciting to see.”
Sonnesyn also spoke to the importance these international opportunities have provided her specifically, speaking from the perspective of what she dubbed a “bubble athlete” who has oscillated between World Cup and domestic racing over the last four seasons. She got her first World Cup starts in Quebec in March, 2019, and has been offered starts beginning in Period 2 each season since. Though this is a key stepping stone in the process toward consistent World Cup racing, she expressed that bubble athletes can have a challenging time planning seasons in advance and need to be prepared to adapt quickly to more frequent overseas travel.
“I think that every single experience that an athlete has going and racing internationally, and traveling, and competing at that higher level, it all adds up to be super beneficial and a great learning experience. For example, I have gotten really great at overcoming jet lag, which the first couple of international trips I went on, I had no idea how to handle. I tried my best to do what I could, but it’s hard. And also to know what little things you want from home, like after being in Europe for four or five weeks, what do you really want from the US?
“And then also, how do you work in a new environment? A lot of times, if you’re going over to the World Cup, sometimes you’re provided a wax tech or sometimes not, or you have to bring your own, but you have to be willing to work with whoever you get.”
Sonnesyn explained that on the Sappada trip, she had worked with each of the techs before, but on her first trip in 2018, it was her first experience working with those wax staff members. Given the importance of ski choice and wax, working together effectively is imperative to an athlete’s success, but it requires dialogue and practice.
“Being ready to communicate effectively with the staff, what do you need? How do you want your skis prepared? What do you need from a hotel? All those things seem like such small little details, but they really add up with the more experiences you have.”
She also spoke to the differences in the style of racing between the US and her international experiences, and how a trip like Sappada better athletes for what they might encounter should they be offered a World Cup start down the line.
“When it comes to racing: the courses in Europe are very challenging and very technical. Downhills, uphills, flats – whatever it is, there’s a lot of it, and you have to be ready to go for it. And then the competitors are fierce. They know how to be aggressive in a race, and you have to know how to hold your own. So it just helps to have that experience to understand how you approach the race. How aggressive are you going to be? How are you going to pace the race? How are you going to handle others around you?”
With the highest levels of competition for our sport happening across the pond, it is easy to understand why opportunities like the OPA Cup trip provide an essential bridge for developing athletes. But it is not simply the facilitation of this trip that has led to marked improvement for the American team.
“I think we’re open to change right now,” Anderson said as she reflected on her key takeaways from the experience in Italy and her first season coaching the D-Team. “I think the US, in a year with COVID, and lots of challenges logistically and politically in the world, we handle those changes better than almost any other country does. And I think that’s really shown here.”
While the OPA Cup crew was putting together a very solid day in the 10/15 k skate, the team of Rosie Brennan, Zak Ketterson, Scott Patterson, and Jessie Diggins had taken the win in the thrilling 4 x 5 k mixed relay in Falun. As the team in Sappada mingled near the finish to support the final racers as they skied through, Anderson said that a Swiss national team coach walked over and showed them the World Cup result on the phone.
Layered on top of the broader success at the OPA Cup Finals, Anderson expressed that this opened her athletes’ eyes to what might be possible for them in the years to come also. In particular, the Falun results of Zak Ketterson, a newcomer to the World Cup who ended his debut season with a 15th place finish in the 15 k skate and a mixed relay win.
“[The guys racing at OPA Cup] are like, ‘Oh, man, I beat Zak sometimes’, or ‘I’m right with him’, ‘I trained with him in college.’ The level of confidence that brings… ‘Maybe maybe I can do that too.’”
Moreover, Anderson expressed that this relay gold medal speaks to the equity of skiing in the US. “That we have good female athletes, and we have good male athletes, and we have a good balance of the two, and teams that are mutually supportive of each other,” she said. “Not every country has that.”
Boiling down the experience and her feelings as the season wraps up, Anderson concluded, “I have nothing but good things to say about our athletes right now. I’m really impressed with them. They handle the change better than anyone, and I think as a staff and from an organizational perspective, we’re trying to keep up, remove barriers, make sure they’re supported. And we’re open to trying new things, and it seems that we’re excelling in places where we’re willing to experiment and get our feet wet.”
Providing additional insights from the perspective of an OPA Cup Finals first-timer, FasterSkier also heard from U20 athlete Kate Oldham, who trains with the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club (AVSC) and competes for Middlebury College. Oldham took 11th place in both the 10 k classic and skate in the junior women’s category.
“Sappada was incredible,” Oldham wrote. “In congruence with the pre-camp in Toblach, the OPA Cup trip was unforgettable… My favorite ski to-date was on a long ski over the pass from Cortina to Toblach, stopping midway for trail side pastries and cappuccinos! Being with a group of older athletes was a valuable change from the World Junior trip because each team member brought new energy and experience to the group. Between that and the gelato shop next door to our hotel, the trip couldn’t have gotten much better!
“One of the things I think are most valuable about training and racing camps is the exposure to coaches and athletes outside one’s home team. For years I have been seeking out opportunities to attend regional and national camps that would bring new perspectives, training groups, and social dynamics to push me and help me adapt my own training method while making friends from schools and clubs all over the country. This winter I was lucky enough to have both my club coach and a group of skilled and passionate wax technicians/trip leaders selected from all around the US to lead the trips to Junior World Championships and OPA Cup finals. I know that over the six years I’ve been skiing competitively I have developed the competence to independently navigate high-level skiing events, but having techs to guide me through the process at the international level was extremely helpful, particularly when one of them I had worked closely with for those six years of training and racing.
“With new coaches come new perspectives. Another set of eyes, a different experience, or a new phrase can be all it takes for the pieces of new advice to click into place. Or maybe a coach has a different perspective on the bigger picture of skiing that resonates with you unlike the philosophy you previously knew… which of the infinitely wide range of mindsets in ski racing works best for you? Which one reminds you why you love ski racing? Which one helps you stay motivated through the hardest parts of the season when the last thing you want to do is get out the door for training? Which one eases the heartbreak of coming so close to a goal but falling short despite your hardest effort? Without a doubt, cross country skiing is a delicate balance of internal and external factors, but having great teammates and coaches like the ones I got to know and work with in Europe this winter is certainly a key ingredient to the recipe for success in the lifelong pursuit of excellence on the race course and off.”
Full Results for OPA Cup Finals
- Alayna Sonnesyn
- Alex Lawson
- Becca Rorabaugh
- Bryan Fish
- Cross Country Sport Development Manager
- Finn O’Connell
- Greta Anderson
- Hannah Rudd
- Karl Schultz
- Karl Schulz
- Kate Oldham
- Lina Sutro
- Logan Diekmann
- Margie Freed
- Mariah Bredal
- OPA Cup
- OPA Cup Finals
- U.S. Ski Team D-team
- US Development Team
- US Ski & Snowboard
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646