Racing the nation’s best | SierraSun.com

Racing the nation’s best

Mark Nadell
Special to the Sun
Mark Nadell/Provided to the SunTruckee's Sophie Aaron, sporting the letters "FW" for Far West on her cheek, races in the relay during Junior Nationals last week.
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As the Alaska Air jet descended toward the city of Anchorage in the Great North of Alaska, 35 athletes and eight coaches from the Far West division craned their heads toward the windows to catch a glimpse of Kincaid Park, the venue for the 2008 Cross Country Ski Junior Olympics (aka, Junior Nationals).

Situated on a peninsula on the southern end of Alaska’s one major “metropolis,” Kincaid is akin to New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a beautiful swath of hillsides and trails surrounded by urban and suburban sprawl ” only with astounding views of majestic, snow-covered mountains in every direction.

What the participants in this year’s National Championships saw, however, were veritably barren hillsides cut through by ribbons of white trails, a consequence of some incredibly warm weather and little snowfall in the recent weeks in southern Alaska. Sure, there was snow, but how much? And with highs in the 40s forecast for Anchorage, for how long?

The folks at Kincaid were scrambling to try to figure out how to make the events work. Courses were changed, maps redrawn, the stadium was pumped to remove extra water ” it was looking grim during the pre-competition ski on Sunday. But somehow, the crew at the venue was able to pull it all off in an incredibly well-run competition, and by the end of the week, just about perfect skiing was experienced by all.

With 21 boys and 14 girls, the Far West team was set to race against the nation’s best.

The first event, the Classic Sprint Competition, was held on Monday, and the 1-kilometer races went off without a hiccup (with the exception of some timing issues, and a change of course to keep out of the swamp-like stadium area). Overall, the Sprints, true to form for Far West in sea-level venues, did not yield any exceptional results, with only two J2 (14-15 years old) athletes ” Joanne Reid of Palo Alto and Annika Taylor of Truckee ” making the top 24 and advancing into the head-to-head heats.

Another Truckee skier, Sophie Aaron, narrowly missed, coming in 25th in the J2 Girls. While Taylor was eliminated in the quarterfinals, Reid went on into the semifinal round where she did not advance to the “A” finals, but gave the Far West crowd a thrill as she powered her way in come-from-behind mode to finish second in the “B” final, giving her eighth place on the day, Far West’s first medal (top 10) of the competitions.

After a day off to prepare for the next event ” and yet another change of course and race to accommodate the lack of space for a mass start ” the athletes prepared for the Freestyle (Skate) Middle-Distance event on Wednesday. Realizing that Monday’s high temperature was within 3 degrees of the all-time high for that day, and the paucity of snow on the trails, athletes and coaches worried about the ability to even have races by the end of the week.

Continually overcast and gloomy skies didn’t help the overall mood as well. But with a quick overnight snowfall of just a couple of inches, Wednesday morning dawned with renewed optimism, and that slight amount of snow combined with cooler temperature to allow for some very good skiing over the rolling, challenging Freestyle course at Kincaid.

Once again, the Far West team was led by Joanne Reid, who improved on her skate event to come ever so close to the podium (top 3) level in the J2 Girls division, finishing in fourth overall. It was clear that the athletes from sunny California were ready to put out their best, and the results were a significant improvement from Monday’s showing.

Annika Taylor was once again the next best finisher for Far West, taking 24th on the day, while Truckee’s Bernie Nelson (31st), Russell Kennedy (39th), and Tyler Wright (34th), along with Tahoe City’s Miles Heapes (36th), were the division’s next best finishers. Another J2 racer, Michelle Cahill of Tahoe City, exceeded her own expectations by finishing 42nd.

As the week progressed and the temperatures became cooler, even the precious Alaskan sun decided to make an appearance on Thursday and cheer up the moods of everyone involved. And after a morning pre-ski of Friday’s Classic course (including their first glimpse of Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain at 20,320 feet), most of the athletes embarked on what could be the highlight of the entire trip ” a drive down the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet to view the Portage Glacier of the Chugach Mountains. Even though there had been a few glimpses of beautiful mountain ranges previously, nothing had quite prepared them for the views experienced that day. Safe to say, all were blown away.

And as Thursday’s tour was one of the highlights, Friday’s Mass Start Classic Race was certainly the competitive highlight of the week for the Far West Team. And once again, it was Reid leading the charge, as she led the pack for much of the 5-kilometer J2 Girls event, only to fall behind into third place climbing the final hill. But thanks a gritty performance to hold on to the leaders, and then rocketing past them in the ultimate double-pole race to the finish, Reid managed to rock the Far West world by becoming the National Champion for the event, only the fourth Far West skier to rise to the top of the podium in the history of the competition.

Far West’s medal winning wasn’t done that day, however, as Bernie Nelson turned around her results by finishing ninth for the J1 Girls division (16-17). Annika Taylor was once again primed for a high finish, flirting with a possible top-10 finish for much of the race before breaking a pole and falling back to 27th overall for J2 girls, followed closely by Sophie Aaron in 28th.

Russell Kennedy was another racer who looked like he could move up into medal contention, but ended up a very respectable 22nd in the J1 Boys. Carson Lindsay of Truckee (35th J2 Boy) and Dayna Stimson of Crowley Lake (32nd J1 Girl) were two more finishers in the top 40 for Far West, along with Tyler Wright of Truckee (36th OJ Boy).

With those finishes buoying the hopes of the Far West contingent, the next day’s Freestyle Relay ended up a bit of a let-down, as no medals were garnered in those races. With the skies back to gray and overcast, colder temperatures in the low 20s met the crew in the morning, leading to some exceptional skiing in hard-track, perfect klister conditions. But with big hopes resting on the J2 girls, eighth place was the best that could be taken on the day by the team of Sophie Aaron, Annika Taylor and Joanne Reid, with the next best finish including the J1 Girls team of Dayna Stimson, Angela Raso of Truckee and Bernie Nelson at 14th place. Overall, the National Team Championship was taken by the hometown team of Alaska, winning for the first time since 2002.

Excited by the prospect of a true home-court advantage next year, when the Junior National Championships will return to Truckee and Auburn Ski Club on Donner Summit, the Far West Nordic team left Alaska fired up and ready to train hard over the long summer and autumn months coming up.

J2 Girls: Joanne Reid, Annika Taylor, Sophie Aaron, Robyn Bath-Rosenfeld, Michelle Cahill and Rachell Nadell.

J2 Boys: Miles Heapes, Justin Ondry, Austin Meng, Carson Lindsay, Alex Hamilton, Will Stimson, Andrew Cobourn, David Wise and Evan Dion.

J1 Girls: Dayna Stimson, Bernie Nelson, Kelsey Dion, Angela Raso, Veronica Holmes, Morgan Paulson, Laura Rodrigues and Erika Cornell.

J1 Boys: Russell Kennedy, Bryce Tiernan, Stefan Benier, Matthew Picken, Tom McElravey, Adam Wright, Andrew Pado, Heith Jones, Drew Deurlington and Joey Griffo

OJ Boys: Tyler Wright and Spencer Wood.

For more coverage from the 2008 Cross Country Ski Junior Olympics, visit http://www.farwestnordic.org.