FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 US Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah – They couldn’t have finished much more than 20 minutes earlier, yet there they were – Lt. Dan Cnossen and Oksana Masters – ready to duke it out at Soldier Hollow. The two lined up at one end of a set of tracks in the stadium, poles high and waiting for the go-ahead from their coach.
The more seasoned of the two, Cnossen, a U.S. Navy SEAL, double poled alongside Masters, a Ukranian-born rower who recently won bronze for the U.S. at the London Paralympics. The 23-year-old from Louisville, Ky., started skiing seven days ago.
Yet after her first race – in which she placed fourth in the women’s 9 k sit ski at U.S. Adaptive Championships on Saturday – Masters wanted more. She wanted to learn some technique.
The men’s 15 k champion who picked up the sport two years ago, Cnossen took it upon himself to help her, and so the two did pickups to determine inefficiencies in her double pole. With a similar injury after losing use of their legs, Cnossen – originally from Topeka, Kan. – could relate.
“We’ve got some really talented new athletes that have barely been on snow so if I can give them advice and help build the team then that’s the least I can do,” said Cnossen, one of six U.S. Paralympics Nordic team members.
Fresh off a trip to Vuokatti, Finland, where he notched fifth and ninth at the opening International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cups, Cnossen defended his distance title on Saturday (he won the abbreviated 12.5 k course at nationals last year in Rumford, Maine).
“I’ve been working hard, but so has everybody else,” Cnossen said after rounding the five-lap course fastest in 45:43.4.
Teammate Andy Soule (Army) was 2:20.9 back in second. The two were the lone national team members sent to Finland.
Cnossen said it was advantageous to race competitive international skiers early in the season, before nationals. It was even better to get out of the darkness in Finland and into the Utah sun. Saturday’s race was pushed back from its original 8:30 a.m. start to 2 p.m. Saturday to allow temperatures to warm up. By Saturday afternoon, it was comfortably in the 20s.
Cnossen said he was simply grateful to put on a bib and race, and went out hard from the start.
“I think I went a little too hard the first lap because the second lap I thought, ‘Oh man, I have four more to go,’ ” he said. “But I held on and then the fifth lap, I always have energy because I have a good kick normally. I prefer to go out a little on the aggressive side and be in the race and not lose time. I think it’s easier to be in the race and stay in the race then be out of the race and get back into it.”
Pushing from start to finish and skiing outside the tracks at times in the warming snow, Cnossen sealed another victory, which he was happy about. But he still didn’t consider himself a veteran. It was hard to with Olympians Soule and Sean Halsted (Air Force), who finished third (+3:01.6), on the team.
“Mainly, I’m just doing what I’m told and really it’s the coaches who are getting me where I am and where I will be a year from now,” he said. “Who knows? It’s exciting because I can just see progress. I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, but I’m sure it’ll be better than I am now.”
In the women’s race, one of those rookies Cnossen was referring to, Beth Requist won her first national title, completing the 9 k course in 39:53.7. After dabbling in the sport last season, she began training with Cnossen and Jeremy Wagner more seriously this year in her hometown of Winter Park, Colo. There, she participated in her first race a few weeks ago, a 6.8 k.
Even though that was shorter, Requist said it felt similar with bigger hills some 4,000 feet higher in elevation than Soldier Hollow (which rises to nearly 6,000 feet above sea level). But Saturday’s race was still pretty technical with a corner at the bottom of the course.
“I fell a couple times, which was kind of a bummer, but I got back up,” Requist said with a laugh. “I was trying to catch the girls [Tatyana McFadden and Kristy Vaughn] and then I fell [on the first lap] and tried to catch them again. Then I caught up and passed them and then I fell and they passed me and then I caught back up again.”
A former flight attendant who suffered a severe back injury while cliff jumping in 2009, Requist humbly accepted her national-championship medallion and smiled broadly after the podium ceremony.
“I love [skiing],” she said. “All the hard work I’ve done is starting to pay off. I still have a lot of work to do, just keep at it.”
McFadden, a 10-time Paralympic medalist in track events and Chicago Marathon winner, finished second in her first ski race, 1:28.9 behind Requist. Like Masters, she picked up the sport a couple of weeks ago at an introductory clinic in Breckenridge, Colo. From there, she decided to come to nationals.
“It’s hard, but fun,” the 23-year-old McFadden said. Born in Russia, she spent the first six years of her life in St. Petersburg before being adopted and moving to the U.S. Now a full-time student at the University of Illinois, she’s not sure how the on-snow training will be, but she’s hoping to use skiing for cross training and hopefully make the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“The first race is always good to get out of the way,” McFadden said. “You kind of get the feel how your body’s gonna do on the course and where you’re gonna fall and how to get back up and make all the mistakes in your first race. … We’ll see where it goes and how I do, but everyone’s been really supportive. All the coaches have been supportive and the teammates so it makes it a lot of fun.”
Masters, who finished behind Kristy Vaughn of the U.S. development team in third, felt similarly.
“I like the intensity and the toughness [nordic skiing] has and the competitiveness,” Masters said. “My expectations coming in here were to take not an hour or an hour max, so I did it in under and hour, which is good. I didn’t really have much expectations because this is my first race, just to go out there and finish.”
U.S. Paralympics Nordic High Performance Director John Farra beamed when he spoke about the successful day and national event on the whole. The 2013 edition featured more adaptive racers than ever before and for the first time, several international skiers, including a few from Canada, China and Mongolia.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to have 22 sit skiers all come together,” Farra said Saturday.
He was particularly excited about the recent interest of competitive female athletes.
“It’s been a long time in the making for us to have a really big group of athletes,” he said. “I think most of these women on the podium today really should be in Cable [for the IPC World Cup Jan 12-20]. “They’re already at a World Cup capacity. They just need to learn how to do technique and take corners and do all the technical parts of the sport. That’s the hardest part. Time will pass. Five, six days of skiing? I mean, come on.”
A highlight of Saturday’s race for all but the man directly involved was Alfredo De Los Santos’s impressive finish after breaking both his skis two laps in. He had crashed on the big downhill, gone into a ditch and compressed both skis, snapping them in front of the binding. Fara said he was OK and resolved to finish the race.
“When he said to me he wanted to finish, I thought he meant the lap,” Farra said. “So I went to grab some skis that maybe might fit his sled.”
Aware of De Los Santos’s old binding system (U.S. Paralympics recently converted their athletes’ sit skis to one standard system), Farra grabbed four pairs of skis that could potentially work from the wax room. None of them worked with his bindings.
“Everybody’s standardized now except Freddy, who hasn’t been with us all year so he hadn’t had the chance to have it switched,” Farra explained. “I saw four pair in there that had two bindings, but they were either too short or too long, all of them. It’s one thing they have two bindings but then they have different [lengths].
“It’s the worst part of our sport when I came in is just that nobody, there was no standardization,” he explained. “So we not only design them so that they’re interchangeable and everybody’s on them, but the coaches boot can actually fit on the ski, and up to this point, the system would not allow that.”