Season lost: North Tahoe alumnus goes from NCAA glory to flight home
For local cross-country skier James Clinton “JC” Schoonmaker, the best moment of last season was followed shortly by one of the worst.
Schoonmaker, a sophomore at the University of Alaska Anchorage, had just helped propel the school’s cross-country team to a surprising runner-up finish at the first event of the NCAA Skiing Championships in Bozeman, Montana. But as the team prepared for one of its strongest races, the 20-kilometer classic, members were told to pack their bags. The season was over.
“It was a huge bummer,” said the North Tahoe alumnus on the March 12 announcement that the NCAA was canceling the remainder of winter sports due to the outbreak of COVID-19. “We literally packed up our bags and flew back to Alaska. It was a crazy couple of days.”
Schoonmaker, 19, said he had a feeling the championships may be in danger once he’d gotten word from the Auburn Ski Club that the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross-Country Junior National Championship had been canceled
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“When I heard that, I kind of figured that this might get canceled,” said Schoonmaker. “At least we got to do the one race and we didn’t just go out there for absolutely nothing.”
Schoonmaker finished the final race of the season with a time of 24 minutes, 40.6 seconds, to claim 10th place and All-American status. He said the team’s performance in finishing second place was the highlight of the ski year.
“That was one of our goals going into it,” he said on the podium finish. “It’s something UAA hasn’t really done in the past.”
Individually, Schoonmaker had a breakout season with his first career World Cup starts, claiming 21st and 30th place finishes in Dresden, Germany. He also finished 13th in the freestyle sprints at the Junior World Ski Championships.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Schoonmaker, a natural science major, has adjusted to completing coursework online while training with his roommates, who are also on the men’s cross-country team. He said he’s been able to take advantage of the long Alaskan winter to continue to backcountry ski to stay in shape for upcoming training camps and the next winter season.
This week U.S. Ski & Snowboard announced its nominations for the 2020-21 U.S. Cross-Country Team. For the first time in his skiing career, Schoonmaker was among the 23 skiers chosen, landing a place on the developmental team.
While being on the developmental team doesn’t guarantee the type of funding afforded to pro team members, it’s a huge opportunity to learn from world-class coaches while training with some of the nation’s best skiers.
“I was really fortunate to qualify for the U.S. Ski Team for next year,” said Schoonmaker. “Just having a few more coaches, being on that team, and having that little extra support, that will definitely help out going into next season.”
The team’s first camp has already been canceled, but Schoonmaker is still anticipating being able to attend other camps with the U.S. team later in the summer. He said he most looks forward to the chance to work three-time Olympian Simi Hamilton, who, at 32, according to an interview in the Aspen Times, has committed to at least one more year of competition.
“He’s one of the guys that I’ve looked up to for a long time. I met him for the first time this winter when I went to Germany … he was super helpful and gave me a lot of advice,” said Schoonmaker. “If we get to do a camp with him, that would be awesome.”
While losing out on the remainder of the NCAA championships, along with missing a pair of World Cup events in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, have been a blow to an otherwise solid season of competition, Schoonmaker understands the losses, being stuck at home, doing coursework online, and interacting with coaches through Zoom meetings pale in comparison to the ordeals faced by many people around the globe.
“It’s been a really crazy situation, but it’s been helpful knowing that it’s something everyone is going through right now, and there’s a lot of other people that are in a tougher situation than I am,” he said. “I’ve been pretty fortunate.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-550-2643.
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