SOLDIER HOLLOW – When Andrew Johnson – after shaving his muy macho long moustache, no longer the Jeremiah Johnson lookalike from a year ago when he won two titles at the U.S. Cross Country Championships – lit-out Tuesday at the start of the men’s 30-kilometer pursuit, he was hoping to help history repeat itself.
Johnson won the opening and closing races of the 2005 championships on the 2002 Olympic trails. This time around, he overcame mushy underfooting six inches of soft, new snow from an overnight storm, and marked his 28th birthday Jan. 3 by winning the 30K freestyle technique mass start. Happy birthday, AJ.
The pursuit – 15 Ks of classic technique skiing (both skis in prepared tracks) that lead directly into 15 Ks of skate skiing (no prepared tracks, the skier pushing off to the side like a speedskater) – was the finale of another highly successful championships. Five days of outstanding racing with more than 450 registered skiers, and the Soldier Hollow crew got high marks for not only setting a great table but serving a ski racing feast.
"It’s no secret Soldier Hollow does a world-class job of running things like the championships," said Alan Ashley, athletics director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Howard [Peterson, Soldier Hollow organizing committee chairman] and ‘Petey’ [chief of competition Scott Peterson] have a great, committed staff and they’re tireless in making sure things run right.
"These races were a great lead-in not only for the Olympics but for the start of the college racing season, World Juniors selection and just plain racing."
The races were the last Olympic qualifying competitions before the Olympic team is announced Tuesday. Up to 16 skiers will be named for the Olympics in Turin, Italy, next month.
A recap of the weekend’s racing:
Saturday (men’s 15K classic, women’s 10K) – Split personality weather: sunshine in the AM for the gents, who skied over three 5K loops, but brooding skies and sharp, gusting winds for the women after lunch. Olympians Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall took the gold medals.
Freeman collected his third U.S. title, in 39 minutes, 38.1 seconds, although Ivan Babikov, a Russian living in Canada, had the fastest men’s race (38:45.2) because rules stipulate only Americans are eligible for championship medals.
The silver medal went to Chris Cook, the men’s sprint champ, 48 hours earlier, in 39:51.1 while James Southam took bronze.
Freeman, a diabetic who self-injects insulin a half-dozen or more times daily, depending on his surroundings, explained his goal is to have his best races at the Olympics, so he’s not at his peak form.
"I’m in shape, just a little sluggish," he said. "I felt like I skied the first half of the race really well and I was ready to pick it up, but my body just wasn’t there to do it today."
A short time later, despite the dramatic shift in the weather – as if someone opened a window somewhere as a storm front rolled into the region, Randall storms through her two laps to win her fourth title, her first non-sprint crown. Her winning time was 35:16.6 with junior Morgan Arritola taking the silver medal (35:40.0) and Liz Stephen, an ex-alpine skier and also a junior, in third (35:51.6). "The wind was tough, especially because the snow was kind of slow," Randall said, "so it was a double-whammy on those flat sections coming through the stadium. It was a little daunting knowing you had a whole lap to go and not feeling that fast. "And then approaching the finish stretch, you’re pouring it on as hard as you can and everything’s pushing back against you. It was challenging but I think, for me, the more challenging the better."
Sunday (men’s 10K freestyle, women’s 5K) – If Randall wanted challenge, she got it. Liz Stephen, a thumbsize (5-1, 110) 18-year-old from Vermont, had motored to the front of the pack. She held a 10-second lead as Randall came into the final hill.
But Randall devoured the hill, the downhill and – despite some more blowing – the final stretch to tie for the gold medal. Both zipped over the course in 14:48.7. Third place went to Kate Pearson (15:17.4).
Stephen, who turned to cross-country four years ago as a sophomore at alpine-oriented Burke Mountain Academy, said she doesn’t have a favorite technique.
"It’s weird," she explained, "because you just go out and ski, and you finish and you see the results and you don’t really expect it. I just go out and ski and what happens happens…
"I’d been a runner and I wanted to switch [from alpine]. I wanted it to complement my running but my running ended up complementing my skiing. It was the best decision of my life," she said.
Randall was relieved to have caught her younger opponent "I came into the week hoping for two wins, so three is pretty incredible," she said.
In the men’s 10K, Southam repeated his victory of a year earlier. His parents, fiancee and other family were on the embankment at Soldier Hollow, cheering and smiling widely as he won in 25:38.2 with Lars Flora, a 2002 Olympian and another Anchorage, Alaska, skier, in second place (26:24.6) and Chad Giese taking the bronze medal.
He wanted to defend his title, Southam said, but he also didn’t want to leave his best races at Soldier Hollow. He wants to be ready for his first Olympics.
"I wanted to ski solid and I hoped to defend my title. I was sort of coming in with the attitude to get in a good chunk of training before these races and try to ski fast while I’m here. I didn’t train through them [i.e., use them as training vehicles, not necessarily strict competition] but I didn’t peak for ’em, either." For complete results: http://www.summittiming.com/race_results/2006/us_nationals/us_nationals_2006.html
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