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Championships challenge U.S. best

Paul Robbins Special to the Record
Danny Rodrigues of Far West Nordic
1Sports

SOLDIER HOLLOW – The action – and the tension – picks up a bit this week as the 2002 Olympic cross-country trails at Soldier Hollow host hundreds of racers today and Sunday on the lone weekend of the U.S. Cross Country Championships.

Racing began Tuesday with mass-start races in soft conditions for the men’s 30-kilometer and the women’s 15K freestyle (skating) races. Thursday, it was the freestyle sprints over a 1.3K course.

This weekend, it’s classic races today (the men ski 15 Ks, the women go 10 Ks) and skate races Sunday (men’s 10K, women’s 5K). Everything concludes Tuesday with the pursuits – a classic technique race (15K for men, 10K for women) leading into a skate race (same distances).

The tension comes from the competition, yes, but it moves up a notch or two for athletes who are hoping to snag a place on the 2006 Olympic Team, which will compete Feb. 10-26 in Torino, Italy. Results from nationals are the final piece to the Olympic Team puzzle – up to 16 athletes named, based on results from five World Cup races last month in Canada, the SuperTour (races in Fairbanks, Alaska, and West Yellowstone, Mont.) and nationals. The team will be named Jan. 17.

A look at the first two days of racing:

Tuesday – Five or six inches of soft snow overnight created dog-slow conditions on a soft track for the racers. "It may have been the hardest race I’ve been in," said Andrew Johnson, who marked his 28th birthday with a gold medal. Overall, Ivan Babic – the Russian who lives in Canada – had the fastest time, scampering over the course in one hour 25 minutes and 8.9 seconds.

However, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association rules for cross-country state only U.S. skiers can get medals at nationals, so Johnson, who was second overall took the gold; last year, he won his first two championships at Soldier Hollow.

Johnson, a Vermonter who moved to Park City in 1999 to start the U.S. Ski Team’s residence program – i.e., living in Park City and training daily with national team coaches, finished in 1:26.54.5. The silver medal went to Carl Swenson (1:28.32.5) with Kris Freeman the bronze medallist (1:29.10.3).

The women’s champ, collecting the eighth title of her career – and her fifth at Soldier Hollow, was Rebecca Dussault, who out-distanced everyone in 46:17.7. Morgan Arritola, a junior from Sun Valley, was the surprise silver medallist in 46:20.1 with Abi Larson, a solid contender for an Olympic spot, third in 46:31.3.

The victory was especially tasty for Dussault, who won her first title here in 2000 in the 5K. She took three more gold medals at Soldier Hollow during last season’s championships, but then was derailed by sinusitis during the World Championships and had to skip the last few weeks of the World Cup in Europe; she also battled the ailment last month, but she returned to Utah saying she thinks she’s licked it…at least for now.

"This was the first time all year that we’ve skied in these conditions. It’s been so cold everywhere we have been, so getting everything dialed in was a big part of today’s success," said Dussault, who skis for the Subaru Factory Team.

Also making things a little sweeter for her was young son Tabor, who travels with Dussault and husband Sharbel – and finally got to hear Momma say again that she’d won a race. "After every race he asks me, ‘Momma, did you win?’ Today I could finally tell him, ‘Momma won!’ and he started to cry he was so happy. Having him involved makes such a difference."

Thursday – The Olympian and the Olympian wannabe took the skating sprints. Kikkan Randall, a 2002 Olympian who skipped the races in Canada so she could train at home in Alaska, led every heat and won her third U.S. sprint title. Chris Cook, a former U.S. Development Team skier who has rebounded nicely from the frustrations of the 2005 season – and who was 14th in a World Cup skate sprint in Canada, led everything all day for his first U.S. championship.

In the sprints, the entire field participates in a preliminary time trial, everyone skiing the course before the top 30 are selected for final heats. Quarterfinals and semis whittle the field to a final foursome, which takes one more loop. Cook led the time trial and simply ran away from everyone as they chugged up the hill from the biathlon range at the start of each heat. Randall was second in the prelim but never was seriously challenged after that.

She watched a movie about the late track star Steve Prefontaine on Wednesday night, Randall said, "and my motto today was ‘No guts, no glory.’"

"My strength is in speed and I wanted to see what I could do."

Born in Salt Lake City but raised in Alaska, she said she considers Soldier Hollow "pretty much my second home. I love it here." She raced here at the 2000 championships and was bronze medallist in the sprint (although seventh in the race behind Beckie Scott, the Canadian who would win the Olympic pursuit medal in 2002). In 2001, she earned her first World Cup points, finishing 24th in the World Cup sprint; in ’02, Randall was 44th in the Olympic sprint; last year, she was fourth.

She and her Alaska club program (APU Nordic) had an altitude camp at Soldier Hollow shortly before Christmas, giving her even more comfort and confidence, which played out almost unchallenged Thursday.

"Yeah, this was nice…but the big race is in six weeks," she said. The Olympic sprint will be run Feb. 14.

Missing the Canadian World Cups before Christmas was tough, Randall said. "I wanted to be there to support the U.S. women’s team and I could have had some good results," she explained, "but I really wanted to race well here and focus on catching up to the leaders in the rest of the world. I felt that training was what I needed to do to do that.

"It was a good decision. It paid off here."

Cook, long watched for his short-burst speed, has blossomed this season, joining Andy Newell and Torin Koos to give the Yanks three solid sprinters. Koos, a former University of Utah racer, and Newell are racing in Europe, leaving Cook to dominate as he did.

"I wanted to make a statement; I felt strong all day and I pushed it all the way," he said. With Newell 10th, Koos 11th and Cook 14th in that sprint at Vernon, B.C., Cook said, "It showed we’ve got three guys who can do at that level…and we won’t be racing six or eight Norwegians and a half-dozen Swedes at the Olympics."

Three American sprint contenders. Who wudda thunk it?

Races Saturday and Sunday start at 9:30 a.m., at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.


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