Top junior cross country, Nordic combined athletes venture to Wasatch Back
March 2, 2012
Next week will be national championship week along the Wasatch Back.
For the first time since 2007, the USSA Marriott Junior Cross-Country National Championships return to Soldier Hollow Resort in Midway, welcoming more than 400 of the nation’s top young cross-country skiers to compete for a chance to be called a national champion. The event is slated to run March 3-11.
Along with the cross-country junior championships, the ski jumping and Nordic combined junior national championships will be featured both at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City and Soldier Hollow in Midway. The final day of competition is scheduled for March 6, according to Alan Alborn, head coach of the Park City Nordic Ski Club Nordic combined squad. The ski-jumping portion of the event is slated to run from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, and the cross-country portion at Soldier Hollow at 3 p.m. that day.
A collective Opening Ceremony event for both the cross-country junior nationals and the Nordic combined junior nationals is scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m. at the UOP.
"I’m really excited for the event, just because I like to see the athletes really fighting for the title," said Alborn, a former Olympian who competed in the 2002 Olympic Games here in Utah. "It’s no fun to see someone that far ahead it’s great for the coaches, the kids and the programs, but it’s also great to see all the programs around the country to get their kids to fight for the podium spot."
Alborn said there will be roughly 60-plus competitors vying for various junior national titles in the ski jumping and Nordic combined portion over the next few days. There’s also quite a bit of local blood none more prevalent than J2 star Colton Kissell, who is the defending national champion in his age group in Nordic combined. Kissell recently competed at the inaugural Youth Olympic Winter Games in Austria, and Alborn said the youngster must be able to defend his title against a worthy field.
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"Colton’s a pretty tough kid, physically and mentally," Alborn said. "It’s really up to Colton to what he wants to get out of the competition."
Other local J2 youth athletes scheduled to compete in the ski jumping and Nordic combined events are Jake Lock, Adam Snyder, Manon Maurer, Tucker Hoefler and Robert Lock. The local J1 field will be represented by Dillon Maurer, Hyrum Bailey and Kamber Kissell.
"It means a lot to the program, mostly because it inspires the younger kids, just below making the junior national team," Alborn said. "It really gives a boost to our program here. We have a pretty strong team."
On the cross-country side, Gordon Lange, the director of the Park City Nordic Ski Club’s cross-country program, said he’s ecstatic to be able to build on the strong foundation laid following the 2002 Games. He’s been to four Olympic Winter Games and three World Championships, but said a junior national event is as intense as they come.
"It’s how heated these things get," he said, laughing. "There’s nothing more hotly contested than a junior national championship. They don’t know how hard they can go, and suddenly find these new inner strengths. Suddenly, a kid you didn’t think would be in the middle of it is in the thick of it."
Lange and the PCNSC have qualified four athletes for the USSA Junior Nationals at Soldier Hollow this week: J2 athletes Brenna Egan, Alex Jackson, Sophie McDonald and Leah Lange.
"They’re all young," Lange said. "They’re young in terms of going into the sport, and young in the J2 realm. It’s hard, but they should keep qualifying. It should just lift the level of the playing field and the bar higher and higher."
Each race at Soldier Hollow will be broken into three different categories, Lange said: J2s, J1s and the older juniors. He said there are thousands of young cross-country skiers around the country striving to qualify for these events every year, but much like with the local club, sometimes only a handful of athletes make the cut.
"I think it’s cool and what sets it apart," he said. "We’re really spoiled here in Park City, because if it doesn’t say World Cup or Olympics in front of it, a lot of people assume it’s not the top-tier athletes. We’ll get to see some phenomenal athletes."
There are 11 cross-country divisions around the country and, every year, each division takes the best athletes from its local regions to strive for the vaunted Alaska’s Cup. Utah has four teams represented in the Intermountain Division, along with athletes from Montana, Idaho and a slice of Wyoming.
"We become an All-Star team," Lange said. "It’s really cool because the way the sport is, it’s an individual sport. You’re competing for yourself. But you have this team thing in the back of your head. When you get to the relays on the last day, you really are a team. There’s teams made up of three people racing 3K each. It’s crazy"
Howard Peterson, the manager of the Soldier Hollow Resort, said the mood is high in Midway in anticipation of the arrival of the pack of youth athletes.
"We’re a destination for cross-country skiers," he said. "It’s a great sampler. Both the Olympic courses from 2002 are intact and we’ve added nine easy trails since.
"That will lead to more families, tourism and destination skiing in the future. Our name is the Soldier Hollow Legacy foundation, our first day incorporated was in 1999, and you could imagine what a 15-year-old will think of competing here."
Peterson said he’s excited to host the event once again because, as young athletes grow older, it’s harder for families to follow them around the globe.
"This is junior nationals," he said. "This is the event parents come to."