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Anja Gruber didn’t surprise anyone but herself when she claimed the top spot in today’s 5-kilometer classic NCAA Championships at Soldier Hollow, Utah, hosted by the University of Utah. The humble 22-year old junior at the University of Vermont (UVM) repeated her victory from last year by skiing the course in 13:38.4.
Conditions on the course were fickle, with only bare ground to be seen around the course, which was composed entirely of artificial snow. Temperatures were in the 50’s, with many skiers racing in shorts and short sleeves. That didn’t put a damper on Gruber’s enthusiasm, however.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said, without a trace of her native German accent. “After last year I wouldn’t have expected that I could do this again. I knew I was in good shape and I knew my classic skiing was pretty good, and I like this course and I knew that if my skis are good and I have a good day I can have a good race. But having a good race and winning are two different things, so it’s really really exciting.”
Her performance allowed her to best 20-year old Sylvia Thorson Nordskar (+9.3), originally from Norway and a freshman at the University of Denver (DU), and 21-year old Eva Severrus (+22.6), originally from Slovenia and a freshmen at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Nichole Bathe, an 18-year old freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) finished fourth (+29.3). Bathe is originally from Madison, Wisconsin.
Nordskar said she wasn’t feeling that well, coming off of illness.
“It was an okay race but not perfect because I’ve been sick for two weeks, and in those conditions I did a good race and I’m very happy with a podium,” she said. Her team is also in the lead, something that Nordskar could hardly be happier about.
“I think both the [DU] guys and girls won today, so that is so cool! So fun! I really enjoy skiing here – we are a team and we have so much fun together.”
Severrus only arrived at UNM in the beginning of 2014, and has obviously already made her mark in the ski program there. It has also made its mark on her.
“Awesome result, awesome season behind me. I’m real happy with these results,” she said. The race was an interval start, and she skied the course alone.
“Hammering all the time.” She said.
Gruber’s race strategy was a bit more nuanced, but even after the race she seemed a little unsure of what she did.
“I though that it was going to be a really fine line between pushing it too hard on that first hill and being too cautious. I tried to go out pretty hard but maybe not that hard,” she said, her tone indicating equivocation. “I guess it worked.”
“Honestly, I felt really good,” she added, “which doesn’t happen so often, and so it’s really exciting [when it does]. I caught the girl in front me pretty fast, so I was like ‘whoa whoa whoa, watch out,’ but then you get a whole lot of rest [on the downhill] and I was being pretty careful [so I just decided to keep going].”
Asked about her plans for Saturday, Gruber aimed high.
“I think we didn’t have the best day as a team [today], and I think we’re gonna want some redemption for that. I know we’ve had really good skate races as a team and I think it’s the most exciting thing to race with my two favorite teammates.”
Nordskar, for her part, felt the same as Gruber. But in classically Norwegian fashion, she was direct:
“I want to win!” She blurted, but quickly adopted a more cautious tone. “But first I have to be healthy, and relax now. I’m glad there’s no race tomorrow so we have one day. But just to go and have fun and hopefully we have three girls in the front.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting