FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — Jennie Bender was this close to being a non-factor in the women’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Sunday at Soldier Hollow. A decision to have back surgery in May could have derailed her ski-racing career indeterminably, and at 25, that would’ve been a tough pill to swallow.
Newly with the Bridger Ski Foundation in Bozeman, Mont., she instead opted for physical therapy for the herniated disc. Eight months later and seven days before her birthday, Bender was sprinting up and down Hermod’s Hill at Soldier Hollow on Sunday like nothing was or had ever been wrong — even as she continued to undergo regular treatment for her back.
A year ago at U.S. nationals, she won her first national title in the classic sprint. Classic skiing was tougher on her body this season, so she put her hopes in Sunday’s skate sprint a day after placing 20th in the 10-kilometer classic.
A finishing-straight comeback, from fifth with 200 meters to go, and last-ditch lunge gave Bender the victory she had been looking for as she edged Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) in a photo finish for first.
Alaska Pacific University (APU) took third and fourth with Rosie Brennan and Kate Fitzgerald, respectively. Rose Kemp (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) was fifth for a personal best, and Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) rounded out the A-final in sixth.
“I was really hoping to get on the podium, but I guess with the past two years of ups and downs I was never really sure what would happen here,” Bender said, after coping with mono and lyme disease simultaneously two summers ago.
“Sprints are kind of like war,” she added. “You have your own personal battle with the qualifier and then the hopefully next three heats are anything goes, it’s tactics, it’s saving energy and making sure you never truly ask yourself how you feel because you don’t want to know the answer.
The day started off with Gregg, Bender’s former Central Cross Country (CXC) teammate, sending a message in the qualifying round. Gregg beat nearly 130 women with a time of 3:09.97 on a sprint course that deviated from the traditional under-the-bridge-and-around-the-horseshoe loop.
Instead, racers shot out of the start and immediately curved around the timing building, built for the 2002 Olympic Games, before heading up the infamous Hermod’s Hill. They didn’t go all the way to the top, turning left and making their way down the less-intimidating parts of Whale’s Tail before cornering sharply, skiing over a bridge and back into the stadium.
Second in Saturday’s 10 k, Gregg attacked and accelerated at all the right times to win the qualifier by 4.34 seconds over Rose Kemp, a recent University of Utah graduate now with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.
After crashing out of contention during her first of two times down Whale’s Tail on Saturday, Kemp rose to the second-fastest qualifying time on Sunday, 1.92 seconds ahead of Brennan in third. Fitzgerald followed another 2.18 seconds back in fourth (+8.44) and just one-hundredth of a second behind her, Bender qualified fifth. Patterson was another second back in sixth (+9.51).
From there, Gregg, Fitzgerald, Patterson, Kemp, and Brennan all won their quarterfinals, but not without a little excitement in Gregg’s first heat. Before the first turn a couple hundred meters out of the start, Gregg tangled with APU’s Sarah Cresap, fell, and came into Hermod’s at least five-seconds behind the pack.
“I don’t think it was anyone’s fault; it was just tight getting into position,” Gregg said. “So I got down and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m in last place.’ ”
Fortunately, her poles were in tact. “I’m glad I had two poles for the rest of that,” Gregg said.
Moments later, Gregg picked off the five other women in her quarterfinal by the top of Hermod’s, then maintained her breakaway on the descent.
“My skis, in every heat, they were just so fast,” she said. “It almost caught me off guard. I kind of was like, ‘All right, I’m out of this. Maybe this day isn’t going to go so well,’ and then next thing I know I was in first and I was like, ‘Well I guess I’m right back here.’ ”
Gregg won the heat ahead of Erika Flowers (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) and Marion Woods (University of Vermont), who placed second and third, respectively.
Fitzgerald got a lead on the downhill to top two other UVM skiers, Linda Danvind Malm and Stephanie Kirk, who ended up second and third in the quarterfinal.
A UVM grad, Patterson held off Bender in the third quarterfinal, with the two advancing in first and second. Kemp led Saturday’s champion, Becca Rorabaugh (APU), to the finish in the fourth quarterfinal, and Brennan cruised to a victory in the fifth quarterfinal ahead of Nichole Bathe (University of Alaska-Fairbanks).
Gregg decided to lead her semifinal, but realized on the hill that it wasn’t easy to string out the group there. Running out of steam into the final straight, Bender came from behind to overtake Gregg before the finish, and both advanced to the A-final along with Fitzgerald in third. Flowers placed fourth, Danvind-Malm was fifth and Kirk finished sixth to move onto the B-final.
Brennan held off Kemp and Patterson to win the second semifinal, leading them and APU’s Becca Rorabaugh, Craftsbury’s Liz Guiney and Bathe, respectively, from start to finish.
Rorabaugh went on to win the B-final for seventh overall, Danvind-Malm placed eighth, Guiney was ninth, Flowers 10th, Bathe 11th, and Kirk 12th.
“Sprints are kind of like war. … It’s tactics, it’s saving energy and making sure you never truly ask yourself how you feel because you don’t want to know the answer.” — Jennie Bender
Feeling good throughout her heats, Kemp led out the A-final toward and up Hermod’s with Brennan right behind.
“I felt like I had a lot of good energy going into each heat,” Kemp said. “I kind of just ended up going; that’s how it panned out each heat, but I wanted to ski as well as I could, and that hill was really fun.”
Gregg initially tried to go off the front from the start, but quickly realized that everyone else was trying to do the same.
“I couldn’t quite get to the front so I changed my tactics,” she said. “I kind of sat and waited and got to the top of the hill and again on the downhill my skis were just freakin’ fast.”
Leading Kemp, Brennan, Fitzgerald and Bender, in that order, over the bridge into the finish, Gregg said she couldn’t hear anyone around her. She thought she had it, then Bender suddenly outlunged her at the line.
Bender had been the queen of sitting back throughout the final, reasoning that she didn’t have to lead up the hill for fear of getting dropped. Instead she put herself in third or fourth, but coming around the final turn before the bridge, she said she nearly got boxed out.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, this cannot happen,’ ” she said. “Coming right on the crest of the hill I was just waiting, like, ‘I’m looking for my spot, looking for my spot … I’m either gonna bust through somewhere or try to go way on the outside if I have to.’ But a little spot just happened to open up and I gunned it.”
“I learned a good lesson today,” Gregg said. “She was just charging hard, and it was pretty impressive.”
A two-time runner-up in the last two days of nationals, Gregg said she was pleased with the results, especially Saturday’s 10 k classic.
“I think it’s solid and it bodes well,” she said. “Feeling good about my distance skiing, obviously skate skiing, love, and my qualifier today was super evident of that.”
Brennan thought she could’ve played the final better as well. After she followed Kemp down Whale’s Tail with a slight gap up front, Gregg and Bender caught them by the bottom.
“I don’t have much finishing speed so I kind of wish I tried to go a little harder over the top of the hill to get more distance,” Brennan said. “But it was OK; I held my own.
“Any time I can make the podium here it’s great because I have so many friends and family that came to watch,” the Park City native added. “My mom times here so the whole timing crew’s always cheering for me so I always feel like I let them down if I don’t do something good here.”
Expectations were iffy as Brennan hadn’t raced sprint heats this season since she spent most of the beginning of it on the World Cup. On Saturday, she was sixth in the 10 k after winning the skate version of the distance event at nationals last year.
“It made me more nervous to race here because I wasn’t sure what my shape actually was,” she said. “[Saturday] I had just a terrible day. I was struggling with my skis and then I kind of blew up a bit on top of that … then you start second guessing yourself. It was really nice to come out and have a sprint race because anything’s possible.”
The second BSF skier to top the podium after Torin Koos won the men’s final right before, Bender had similar feelings about the sprint.
“I’m kind of hoping for more good news in the classic sprint,” she said. “In general, a win at nationals is a big confidence booster, and after wading through a lot of sh*t, it’s kind of like a daisy that you find that helps the whole rest of the season.”
— Lander Karath contributed reporting