Junior Nationals Recap
April 4, 2023
Although this recap is quite belated, I tried to do my best to summarize what was a hectic and cold week in Alaska.
After a full day of flying (Boston to Seattle to Fairbanks), and the realization that Fairbanks is four hours behind eastern time, the team arrived in Alaska late Friday night to sub-zero temperatures (in Fahrenheit!). After some rest, everyone got out to scope the courses on Saturday, and I headed to the wax cabin to start some testing and ski prep.
Huge credit goes to Allie Walton, Erin Lake, Cecile Tucker, and Christina Scirica for keeping the wax techs fed and caffeinated all week. This was SUCH an above-and-beyond gift for us, and saved everyone in the wax cabin from having to deal with me when I'm hungry!
Monday 3/13 - 7.5k Classic
The first race of the week was also the only classic race, a 7.5k individual start for all ages and genders. Event organizers ran the U16s first, and then all remaining starters (U18s and U20s) seeded regardless of age group. With a lot of fast New England skiers, this made for an exciting day in the wax trailer and for the coaches.
The U16 Boys race was first, followed by the U18 and U20 Boys fields. After finishing their races, the U16s came back to report that it was "really very cold," and the older boys bundled up before their start.
For EMXC, Sam skied a strong first race of the week for a 12th place in the U20 category, just four seconds out of All-American. Although this result left Sam wanting more, it also marked the best boys JNs classic result for an EMXC skier since James Kitch took 4th in 2018. And, it showed huge improvement over Sam's 31st-place result in the distance classic at 2022 JNs.
After the boys finished, the girls toed the line for an early afternoon start. Just as with the boys, U16s went first, so Frances was the first EMXC girl to start.
Fran skied a great race, getting her first taste of Alaska cold and looking really strong. When all was said and done, she finished 19th for U16 Girls, less than five seconds out of the top 15.
In the U18 Girls race, which is always fiercely competitive, Emily started off her first JNs with a 35th place. Not a bad way to kick things off!
Mirra skied a great tactical race, building in pace throughout, and moved from 21st at the first split to 8th at the finish line - her first All-American finish in a classic competition! This strategy was clearly a winning one, and many of the strongest racers throughout the day followed a similar trajectory as they gathered momentum through the challenging terrain.
The final starters of the day were the U20 Girls, in which EMXC had three-ish competitors: Clara, Evie, Sofia, and alum Elizabeth Graziani. Elizabeth and Clara finished 14th and 15th, both within striking distance of the top ten. Clara followed a similar approach to Mirra, gathering pace as the race continued.
The most exciting race of the day certainly went to Evie and Sofia, who skied more than 5k of the 7.5k contest together. Before catching Evie, Sofia was skiing on pace with about 5th place, while Evie was on pace with about 12th. After the first few kilometers, however, Sofia caught up to Evie, who had started just in front of her. For the remainder of the race, the two worked together, and even sprinted it out for the finish line at the end.
After almost 27 minutes of individual-start racing, Sofia edged out 2nd place by 1.6 seconds to be named National Champion. Evie beat out 4th place by just 1.9 seconds to take her first-ever JNs podium, in third. Pretty phenomenal teamwork! Sofia's win made her the first National Champion from EMXC since James Kitch in 2018, and the first National Champion in any Girls category since Leah Brams in 2016.
On the club side, EMXC finished as the 5th overall club on the day, an amazing start to the week and a testament to the performances of all seven EMXC skiers.
Tuesday 3/14 - Skate Sprint
For Tuesday's race, everyone switched over to skate. As a result of extremely cold temperatures, the qualifier start times were pushed back, leading to some confusion about the adjusted start times. Fortunately, all seven EMXC skiers made their starts!
The course featured two serious climbs, slow snow, and some technical turns; to add to all of that, a wicked headwind as athletes skied through the stadium halfway through made one of the faster portions of the course feel quite difficult. In the U16 race, Fran took 45th, just six seconds out of heats in a sprint that was over 4 minutes. And, in some strange deja vu during the U18 qualifier, Emily took 47th, also just six seconds out of the heats.
This was pretty phenomenal sprinting in such slow, dry snow - not what we are used to at Weston!
After qualifying 10th in the U18 race, Mirra narrowly missed moving on from her semi-final heat, and finished the day in 12th position. Although frustrating to be so close to an All-American result, this marked an impressive 54-place improvement over her 2022 JNs sprint result of 66th, and put her in striking distance of top-ten results in Friday's skate mass start.
In the U20 race, Evie continued her qualifier streak from the Eastern Cup circuit, and won the qualifier by over 4 seconds. Clara and Sofia both came in close behind, securing spots in the heats.
Despite skiing a near-perfect tactical race in her quarterfinal, a yanked pole on the final hill cost Clara a shot at the semis and her chance to improve on her qualifier placement. After her 4th place finish in February's skate sprint in Dublin, Clara had been on fire in sprint racing especially, so this turn of events was an especially big bummer.
Also in U20 heats, Evie led the majority both her quarterfinal and semifinal, and stayed out of trouble by putting space between her and other skiers. Sofia and two other New England racers joined Evie in her semifinal, which made for nerve-wracking lucky-loser anxiety for the coaches. Ultimately, New England moved a total of four skiers into the final, including both Evie and Sofia.
Through the drama-filled A-Final, Evie and Sofia repeated the events of Monday's race, duking it out back and forth for position. After a sprint finish, Sofia took second place, narrowly edging out Evie, who finished in third.
In the boys race, Sam threw down an explosive qualifier to move into the heats in 4th place. This was some phenomenal skiing - for context, in the picture below, Sam is V2ing up a hill that pretty much everyone else in the field was forced to V1.
In his quarterfinal, Sam skied smoothly and in control, only to get tripped up on the final climb of the course and finish third in his heat. Unfortunately, his heat was not quite fast enough for him to walk away with a lucky loser slot, so Sam ended up in 13th overall at the end of the day.
Sprints can have really high highs and really low lows, and the results of Tuesday were no exception. With so many results just shy of "what could have been," it would have been easy to get discouraged ahead of Thursday's mass start. Instead, however, all seven EMXC skiers took their frustrations as fuel for Thursday's race.
Thursday 3/16 - Skate Mass Start
Following the equalization of race distances within age groups, the 2023 mass start race at JNs remained a 5k for U16s, a 10k for U18s, and was standardized at 15k (up from 10k for girls) for U20s. This meant that Thursday's races ranged from the very short to the very long. Because of the cold predicted temperatures, however, race organizers were forced to start all of the races within a four hour window, meaning that each race started before the preceding race had finished.
This certainly kept things interesting, and made for an action-packed morning for the coaching staff. Fortunately, it also meant that waxing was relatively straightforward, and the coaches were able to get out and watch a lot of the racing action!
In the U16 Girls race, Fran skied a strong race to start off the day. With just 5k of racing, a mass start skate event, and a tightly bunched field, the U16 races proved to be hectic, and at times, a bit messy. Fran kept her race together and skied with poise, finishing with a strong 33rd place result.
In the U18 Girls 10k, Mirra and Emily both had strong starts, and, despite the slow snow, managed to put together really impressive races. Emily finished her race with a great sprint to the line, and beat out the pack she had skied most of the second half of the race with. Mirra, too, seemed to put on the jets with about 5k to go, and skied the 6th-best time for the second half of the race, placing her in 9th at the finish.
Sam, our lone male racer, skied a hard fought and gritty 15k race - his first ever 15k on snow. He built momentum throughout the race and finished 10th, good enough for All-American, when all was said and done. He was the only New England racer in the top-10 for U20 boys.
The final race of the day, the U20 girls race, was NE's last opportunity to secure the Alaska Cup award. NE had been trailing Intermountain all day, and it was up to the U20 girls to secure the cup for the New England team. Fortunately, the U20 girls did not disappoint. On the EMXC side, Clara, Evie, and Sofia all skied impressive races in their first on-snow 15k outings. The race started off climbing out of the stadium with a large pack skiing together, making initial passing difficult. As the course descended back to the stadium area, the pack strung out a bit, but jostling for position was not easy. Greta Hansen, the eventual race winner, took the lead just before the 5k mark and didn't look back, resulting in a rapid pace increase and stringing out of the rest of the field. After Hansen took the lead, Evie and Sofia both hung in the chase pack for much of the race, fighting it out for a spot in the top 10. Ultimately, Evie fought her way into 4th place, with Sofia just behind in 7th. Close behind, Clara skied much of the race in the difficult position of being stuck between packs, yet fought to a strong 22nd place at the finish.
New England Takes Home The Cup, and....
When all was said and done, New England had just enough points to secure the Alaska Cup - only 37 points ahead of Intermountain. Close call! This was nice redemption for Team NE, who, the last time JNs was in Fairbanks (in 2013), lost the Cup to Team Alaska.
EMXC WINS the Girls Club Championship!!
Probably the coolest thing to come out of the week for me (Cate) was the moment when, about 25 minutes into the U20 girls skate race, I realized that EMXC could win the Girls Club Championship for the first time in 11 years. (The last time EMXC (then CSU) won this award was in 2012, when I was 16, and Julia Kern (U16) and Corey Stock (U18) each swept their respective age group categories.)
For some context, in the past few years, EMXC Girls have finished 6th (2022), 4th (2020), 7th (2019), 29th (2018), and 15th (2017) at JNs -- certainly strong results, but not results that put 1st place on the "coach goal sheet" for 2023.
Yet, when the smoke cleared, EMXC had finished almost 100 points clear of the 2nd place girls team, winning the Club Championship.
To add the the excitement, as a full team EMXC has finished just outside the top 10 clubs for the past few seasons - 12th (2022), 12th (2019), 16th (2018), 21st (2017). Yet this year, EMXC finished the week as the 9th club in the country. This is a huge step for us as a team, and isn't just a place in some record book somewhere. It shows that we can be from Massachusetts AND ski fast, and that we can compete with the best skiers in the country. It's easy to write this off as just a few kids on the team competing in Alaska for a week. But it's important to remember that none of this would be possible without the team as a whole working together, training together, and pushing forward.