RIPTON, Vt. – Standing with a microphone in hand shortly after winning Saturday’s 20-kilometer freestyle mass start at the 2013 NCAA Skiing Championships, Miles Havlick smiled as he fielded playful questions from the announcer.
Friends, fans and impressed spectators surrounded him at the Rikert Nordic Center, and as soon as he was done thanking the crowd and his University of Utah teammates, Havlick was bombarded with hugs.
With watery eyes, the two-time NCAA Champion was either emotional or simply tanked after four laps around Rikert’s deceivingly hard 5 k course – probably a little of both.
The senior had just defended his 2012 national title in the 20-kilometer mass start, this time in a skate race. Skiing up into the stadium with six others less than half a kilometer before the finish, Havlick rose from a possible podium contender to a repeat champion, passing Dartmouth College’s Sam Tarling and catching Rune Ødegård of the University of Colorado, who won Thursday’s 10 k classic individual start.
In edging Ødegård by six-tenths of a second in 50:13.4, Havlick led a trio of Utes in the top five. With Norwegian teammate Einar Ulsund in third (+1.0) and Swede Niklas Persson in fifth (+3.1), Utah captured second in the final team standings (43 points behind NCAA champion the University of Colorado) and bumped the University of Vermont (UVM) to third.
“It’s hard to do it again,” Havlick said of his second-straight NCAA mass-start title. “Just an awesome team this fall, all new guys. I was the only one returning and you never know what to expect, but it was an unbelievable senior year.”
At breakfast Saturday morning, he said they talked about goals – three in the top five – which they knew would be hard, but wanted to strive for nonetheless. Havlick set the tone early, leading Viktor Brännmark of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA) and Tarling through the first downhill. Tarling took the lead up the toughest climb on the loop, while Brännmark, Dartmouth teammate Silas Talbot, Ulsund and Havlick stuck near the front of the large pack.
Ødegård pushed the pace on the second lap while Ulsund, Brännmark, Tarling and Middlebury’s Ben Lustgarten chased, along with some 20 others. The group remained some 25 strong through the third lap, in which David Norris (Montana State University) made a move to the front. Halfway through the last time around, it dwindled to seven (with Ulsund, Soderman, Tarling, Ødegård, Talbot, Persson, and Lustgarten).
Havlick had lost contact, but regained it on the final climbs. Following Tarling up the last ascent into the field before the finish, Havlick watched as Ødegård charged to the front. He responded, outsprinting the Norwegian in the final straightaway.
“It was deafening skiing up that hill,” Havlick said of the crowd near the finish. “Ears just ringing really takes the pain away.
“It’s unbelievable today,” he added. “You never know what’s gonna happen in a mass start. It’s just perfect.”
Sharing the podium with his teammates after with their second-place showing, Utah’s skiing director Kevin Sweeney handed Havlick the large trophy to hoist over his head for photos.
“This championship is one of the most, I would say, competitive that I’ve experienced and I’ve been collegiate coaching for a long time,” Sweeney said. “So for this to finish up the way it did, it’s a true highlight of my career and such a great group of guys. Everybody skied where they needed to. I’m ecstatic.”
Even though CU and UVM were the favorites battling it out for first, Sweeney knew his skiers could get into the mix. He just wasn’t sure where they’d stack up against strong teams, including Dartmouth, he said.
“You know they’re gonna be in it, just exactly where,” Sweeney said. “I was very happy to see the race unfold and see our three guys basically in the top 10. I felt good about that.”
Last year’s 10 k freestyle individual start champion, Soderman placed fourth (+2.6). Mats Resaland of the University of New Mexico was fifth (+2.8), Tarling seventh (+5.2) and Lustgarten notched his second top 10 of the week in eighth (he was fourth on Thursday). Talbot placed ninth and Kyle Bratrud of Northern Michigan University was 10th.
“It was a hard race because we were like 20 people pretty much the whole race,” Persson said. “You didn’t really know if you were skiing fast enough, if you were gonna end up top five or top 20, you never know.”
According to Ulsund, the Utes were out for redemption after Thursday’s race, in which Havlick led the team in sixth, Ulsund was 13th and Persson was 15th.
“We just decided that this should be our day,” Ulsund said.
Anticipating an attack from UVM’s Scott Patterson, undefeated in eastern carnival freestyle races this season, Ulsund said it never came (Patterson ended up 26th). Meanwhile, the pace stayed mostly consistent in soft conditions on a 40-degree afternoon.
“Usually we try to switch the lead, but today our tactic was mostly to stay in the pack and do something on the last lap,” Ulsund explained. “I’m a pretty slow sprinter so I was really worried, like, what’s going to happen now? Thankfully, the others were tired and the first three got the gap and that’s what set my podium spot today.”
Just about as thrilled with his personal and team performance, CU sophomore Ødegård said the Buffs went into the 20 k thinking they were down to UVM. In reality, they were up by 16 points after Joanne Reid and Eliska Hajkova took first and second, respectively, in the preceding women’s 15 k.
“We went into today chasing and that’s where we want to be,” he said. “When I saw during the race there were no Vermont skiers up in the lead, I knew we had the team victory. It was just awesome to ski around and do whatever I could to finish.”
As for doing achieving the highest collegiate honors with his American team, Ødegård said, “We have an amazing group. Everyone’s enjoying being together. This week staying at the peaceful hotel, really team bonding all week, everyone had a good time I think and that’s most important.”
For more photos from the 2013 NCAA Skiing Championships, visit Flying Point Road Photography. All proceeds go to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).