The NCAA Ski Championships began in Lake Placid, New York Thursday, marking the culmination of America’s collegiate race season in one of America’s most storied ski venues.
This marked the fifth time that Lake Placid has hosted NCAA Championships, and the first time since 2015 when the Freestyle event that kicked off the event was won by Dartmouth Sophomore Patrick Caldwell on the Men’s side, and Austrian Freshman Veronkica Mayerhofer from the University of Utah on the Women’s.
Eight years on, Lake Placid had an all new course for the NCAA field in the country to tackle, with the Mt. Van Hoevenberg trails originally put in for the 1980 Olympics updated to reflect the modern world of homologation, mass starts, snow-making and a good ol’ fashioned urge for bigger hills and a bigger challenge.
The racing began with a Freestyle Individual Start, 10 kilometers for the Men and 5 Kilometers for the Women, with NCAA racing still following the practice of racing different distances between the genders in this event.
Collegiate Strength on Display in Pre-Race Favorites
The pre-race participants list at this year’s NCAA Championships pointed to the growing strength of the collegiate circuit, as the best young skiers across North America increasingly choose to pursue their athletic and academic development at once, joining up with the support and ready-made training groups found on college teams. With returning champions in both the men’s and women’s field who have been on the World Cup, at Senior World Championships, and U23 World Championships this season, talent abounded in Lake Placid.
In the men’s field, Ben Ogden, last year’s champion in both the skate and classic, was slated to return to NCAAs for the University of Vermont (UVM). However, considerations balancing performance with the logistics of traveling home from World Championships led the three-time NCAA champion to decide on staying in Europe to close out the season, and Ogden was absent from Lake Placid on Thursday.
Ogden’s absence left one other former NCAA champion in the field, with the University of Colorado’s (CU) Magnus Boee returning to the field after having swept the 2021’s Championship in Jackson, New Hampshire. Denver University’s (DU) Andreas Kirkeng, who won the 10 k Freestyle at Senior Nationals this season, headed up a strong DU squad that also included perennial top-performer Bernhard Flaschberger. Dartmouth College Sophomore John Steel Hagenbuch, who scored top Championship results at the World University Games that were held in Lake Placid in January, also looked like a strong favorite to put Dartmouth back on the top step of the podium in Lake Placid.
In the women’s field, the University of Utah (UU) trio of Sophia Laukli, Novie McCabe, and Sydney Palmer-Leger all returned after having traded NCAA titles among each other the past two years. Palmer-Leger swept NCAAs in 2021, while Laukli and McCabe split the Freestyle and Classic title, respectively, last year. All three Utes have traversed World Cup racing, World U23 Ski Championships, and the collegiate circuit this season. At the U23 World Championships 10 k Freestyle Individual start, the same line-up that started for UU today all finished in the top ten for the United States. Sophia Laukli came into this NCAA Championship as the first skier to have a World Cup podium already on her resume, after winning a bronze on the Alpe Cermis hill climb during this year’s Tour de Ski.
Outside of the UU squad, the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Jasmine Lyons returned from competing for Canada in Planica to make a run at a NCAA title. Medalists from January’s World University Games in Lake Placid also figured into the favorites, including the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) pairing of Marial Pulles and Kendall Kramer, and CU’s Anna-Maria Dietze.
Men’s 10 k Freestyle Individual Start
With defending champion Ben Ogden away, there was an open possibility that anyone could seize the opportunity to power through the cold conditions on the two 5 k laps that made up the 10 k course today. In the field of 40 starters, any bib could jump out.
In the end, that bib was 38, and it wound its way through the field on the back of University of Alaska-Fairbanks Sophomore Joe Davies. A closely packed finish list ahead of Davies, with Dartmouth College’s John Steel Hagenbuch and Denver University’s Bernard Flaschberger separated by just five seconds, was re-written quickly as Davies came across the finish line around a minute after Hagenbuch (bib 25) and netted 25 seconds on the whole field in 22:33.2.
“I knew with the amount of climbing on course that there could be a lot of time to be gained by working well over the tops and along the flats,” wrote Davies on his winning 10 k performance to FasterSkier, “after getting splits around the 7 k mark that I was up by a fair margin I relaxed a bit and was able to ski calmly and composed to the finish.”
Davies hails from Pemberton, Canada, and competes internationally for Great Britain. For Team GB, he has had a season similar to other pre-race favorites, showing up on results sheets from Planica, where he was 30th in the 15 k at World Championships, to his home course in Whistler, where he was 13th in the 10 k at U23 World Championships. There was a lot of history to suggest that he was one of the finest skiers in the field Thursday, but a 25 second gap on the field marked a dominant performance that highlighted a strong progression for the skier this season.
“I’ve been racing abroad for quite some time now, so being able to return to the NCAA Championships and get a win feels incredible,” wrote Davies.
UAF Head Coach, Eliska Albrigtsen, also pointed to Davies international experience this season as a reason for his success today. “[Joe] got a taste for the highest level of competition at the World Cup,” she said. “And we feel that exposure really helped push him to new heights.” She added that his World Championship starts with Team Great Britain, “set him up very nicely for a good race here today. Over the past two years with our team, we’ve seen him realize his true potential as a skier, and we expect great things for him in the future.”
Davies became the third UAF skier to win an NCAA Championships, and the first since Marius Korthauer in 2008. His championship highlighted a performance for the Nanooks that sees them head to Saturday’s Classic race on top of the Team Standings in Nordic (NCAA team scoring is combined with Alpine, and UAF does not have an Alpine team), ahead of Denver University by one point.
Those team standings were the source of the race’s tension today. The Denver University pairing of Bernhard Flaschberger and Andreas Kirkeng started before the UAF pairing of Davies and Mike Ophoff. Flaschberger set the fastest time of day when he crossed the finishline with a 23:03.5, and while it was surpassed by John Steel Hagenbuch (22:58.2) quickly, Kirkeng’s crossing the finish line in third place before Davies had come in seemed to set the bar for the day, with a grouping of three of the most dominant skiers in the field all right around the 23:00 mark. Davies surpassing that opened up a possibility for UAF, and when Ophoff came in fifth place with a gap up to Kirkeng, it sent onlookers to the scoring sheet. The third scoring skier for DU was Elijah Weenig in 13th place, while the 3rd scorer for UAF was 16th place Christopher Kalev. When the math was done, UAF came out on top.
“This is a moment that has been in the making for five years,” wrote Eliska Albrigtsen to FasterSkier. “We’ve put in the hard work and we’ve seen our team rising to the top to be one of the best programs in the nation, and today’s results are the hard proof!” Assistant Coach Ben Buck added that “we knew [we were] in the mix for a podium sport, but the performance from the team today, from top to bottom, was so impressive.”
Women’s 5 k Freestyle Individual Start
With the University of Utah trio of Sydney Palmer-Leger, Novie McCabe, and Sophia Laukli in the last 10 starters of the 40 person field, the Women’s 5 k race was set to be a tense affair through the whole of the race today, with the championship eventually going to McCabe in a dominant performance.
In the early goings before that conclusion, there was a lot to watch. UNH Junior Jasmine Lyons, who was 36th in the 10 k at World Championships two weeks ago for Canada, set a high bar early. Lyons held an early advantage at 2.5 k all the way through, and crossed the finish line in a time of 12:59. A second half surge from the University of Colorado’s Anna-Maria Dietze, wearing bib 29, saw her cross the finish line just two seconds behind Lyons and set the grouping at the top of the field.
Behind them, the question to be answered was whether Palmer-Leger, (bib 33), McCabe (bib 36), or Laukli, (bib 37) would match or pass the standard set by Lyons and Dietze. Palmer-Leger was off the pace at 2.5 k, and crossed the line in what would eventually be a 14th place on the day. McCabe and Laukli, though, were right in the ballpark with Lyons and Dietze. McCabe bested Lyons checkpoint at 2.5 k. Laukli came through the same point in third behind Lyons though, which gave an indication that Lyons and Dietze hadn’t just set an early standard, but that they would be right in it at the top of the race when it was all settled today.
Novie McCabe’s sprint into the Lake Placid stadium eliminated any doubts about who was the fastest skier on the day. She launched across the line, and the clock read that she had bested the whole field by 14 seconds, a time of 12:46. Laukli’s finish back from McCabe left a close race to be sorted in places 2-4, for which Laukli would end up fourth. Lyons and Dietze’s times had held, and they were in second and third, respectively.
In post-race comments Novie McCabe wrote to FasterSkier that she looked to “start pretty hard and then hold it if I could” on the tough Lake Placid 5 k course. “There’s a lot of uphill in the first half of the course here, so my goal was to be in a good place by the top of the course.”
McCabe’s joins a list of fifteen other women who have won an NCAA Championship in both techniques, including her teammate Palmer-Leger. In the five NCAA Championship races she has started, McCabe has never finished off the podium.
UU Head Coach Miles Havlick wrote to FasterSkier that, “Novie has been on fire for this second half of the season. She had trouble staying healthy and didn’t race to her expectations [earlier this year], and I think racing with Utah and the RMISA circuit has been really good for her. Right now, she is skiing as well as I have seen her ski since she has been at Utah.”
“This one meant a lot to me!” McCabe wrote of her Championship. “I was sure doubting my shape earlier in the season, and was pretty nervous today because I really wanted to be able to put a good one together for the team. I’m definitely happy with it and lucky to have so many great teammates to make it such a fun experience!”
The Utes scored top marks on the day in the team rankings, just ahead of a CU team that scored all three in the top ten with Dietze, Hanna Abrahamsson, and Weronika Kaleta. Combined with the UU Alpine Women, the University of Utah enters the second-half of NCAA Championships with a good chance to win their fourth straight NCAA Skiing Team Championship.
Coach Havlick is liking their chances. “Both [Sophia] and Sydney are a little tired from World Championships and recent travel,” he said. “But I am optimistic about their races on Saturday. These girls definitely feed off of one another, and will be looking to capitalize on the hilly 20 k course.”
NCAA Women’s 5 K Freestyle RESULTS
NCAA Men’s 10 k Freestyle RESULTS
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.