SUN VALLEY, Idaho — The opening day of the second SuperTour on the season brought a welcome change from last weekend: warmer weather. After enduring start delays and colder temperatures in West Yellowstone, Mont., racers enjoyed relative warmth and sunshine while sprinting in an open field at the Trail Creek venue in Sun Valley.
The 1.3-kilometer course set up for the classic sprint was ready to go thanks to the work of many coaches and volunteers throughout the week. Though the course started and finished in a flat stadium, it featured two climbs, a small one out of the start, and a larger one that reached the high point before dropping into the stadium. Both climbs represented an opportunity for the athletes to show off their striding ability.
This was something that the women’s race winner, Becca Rorabaugh of Alaska Pacific University (APU), was able to take full advantage of.
“I just love big striding and I knew that was going to be a sweet spot for me,” she said in a post-race interview. “I was really looking forward to that second hill.”
After placing sixth in the qualifier, Rorabaugh skied to a win in her quarterfinal before being narrowly bested by Kaitlynn Miller of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in their semifinal. However, Rorabaugh, 26, was able to carry more energy into the final, where she won in 3:38.46, almost exactly one second ahead of Miller and 1.3 seconds ahead of Caitlin Patterson, also of the CGRP.
“I was slowly getting my motor going throughout the day and it turned out that I was able to last perfectly through the final,” Rorabaugh said. “It was just taking me a while to get going. I felt like I was really on it in time for the last heat, so it just worked out.”
Miller, meanwhile, skied strong throughout the day, but was unable to stay with Rorabaugh in the final. The 24-year-old CGRP skier won the qualifier in 3:35.73 before dominating her quarterfinal, winning it by over six seconds.
Her strategy of setting a fast pace from the start worked well in her semifinal, too, as she was able to edge Rorabaugh to the line. While Miller didn’t have quite enough energy in the final to stay ahead of the day’s winner, she had just enough to claim the second spot on the podium.
“[It felt] really good. The conditions are great, our skis were working really well, and it’s just a beautiful day,” Miller said after the final.
Miller’s teammate, Patterson was also pleased with how the day went, both for her and her teammates. It started with Craftsbury biathlete Clare Egan notching a career-best 16th in the IBU World Cup sprint in Östersund, Sweden, and Patterson said their team built upon that. She finished second in the qualifier and kept that speed throughout the rounds, winning her quarterfinal and semifinal before placing third in the final.
“We just went for it, especially Kait. I don’t know if you saw her quarterfinal and semifinal, she just took off with it!” Patterson explained. “I felt like I had to fight a little more, but I think all around, a good day for both of us.”
Interestingly, none of the top three women in Saturday’s sprint placed in the top 10 in the skate sprint a week ago in West Yellowstone. Having another week to acclimate certainly helped the women from lower elevations, but the simple fact that this week’s sprint was classic made a big difference, too. Rorabaugh said she enjoys the striding while Miller feels classic skiing at altitude is just a bit easier than skating at some 5,750 feet above sea level.
The trio hopes to build upon their success in the sprint during Sunday’s 10 k classic. For Rorabaugh, a 10 k might just be the perfect race for where she is at right now.
“I’m looking forward to it because I feel like I have pretty good distance fitness. If it took me a whole day to get going today, odds are a 10 k could go alright,” she said.
As for the second- and third-place finishers, they said they were both feeling confident heading into Sunday.
“Watch out for us,” Patterson said of her team in Sun Valley. “All four, in green, watch out. We will be there.”
In fourth, Veronika Mayerhofer of the University of Utah, who won her quarterfinal and placed third in the semi, finished 3.76 seconds after Rorabaugh and 2.46 seconds off the podium. Just 0.25 seconds back, Chelsea Holmes (APU) placed fifth in the final, 4 seconds after Rorabaugh. Last week in West Yellowstone, Holmes placed fourth in the skate sprint, and last weekend’s sprint runner-up 17-year-old Hannah Halvorsen (Sugar Bowl Academy) reached the final again and placed sixth (+19.19).
In the junior women’s heats, meanwhile, a pair of Montana State University (MSU) skiers took first and second. Freshman Olivia Ekblad from Winthrop, Wash., won with sophomore Gretchen Burkholder from Steamboat Springs, Colo., following close behind in second. Rounding out the podium in the junior heats was Sun Valley’s own Annika Landis.
These spots were good enough for ninth, 10th and 11th junior women overall, as eight others qualified for the open heats. Halvorsen led those top juniors, finishing sixth in the overall standings. Still, the duo from MSU feels the sprint was a great way to start off their season.
“We have a really good group of girls at MSU to train with so its fun,” Ekblad explained. “Awesome coaches too. We’re definitely going to throw down this year, it’s going to be fun.”