Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Final Four

Although my bracket for March Madness may be a disaster, the Final Four races of the season were a success and wrapped up last week in Anchorage, Alaska. Here's the rundown...
Welcome to Alaska! (Eric Packer photo)

The Venue: 

The nordic skier's Final Four series (aka Spring Series, Spring Nationals, SuperTour Finals and Distance Nationals) took place in Anchorage where we were treated to 14 consecutive days of sunshine, cool temps, no filter needed views and perfect skiing.
Glacier skiing (Eric Packer photo)

Lots of relaxing in the sunshine with my favorite teams (Eric Packer photo)

Eric Packer's family graciously hosted our entire team in their home for the week. We owe them a huge thank you! This picture is the view of the sunset from their back porch (Eric Packer photo)

The Colors:

I know some people choose their brackets off of team colors, which actually may have been a better strategy for me this year. In the nordic world how you look is basically on the same level with how you ski so SMS T2 made sure to bring our A game to the Final Four with new PodiumWear Suits!!! Maybe it was the ultra-high tech carbon fiber material or the the fact that my name was on my bicep, but I definitely felt faster racing in our new performance enhancing suits. Thanks PodiumWear for making us look good!

Bicep shot with me and Annie

Looking pro

The Competition: 

Junior, collegiate, and elite level racers from clubs and universities across the U.S. as well as all of the athletes on the U.S. Ski Team. Spring Nationals brings together the top athletes around the U.S. and offers the final points opportunity for the SuperTour circuit and a chance to earn the title of U.S. National Champion. The race series is also the only time during the year when we race against the U.S. Ski Team athletes. Competing head to head with the best in the U.S. provides an awesome opportunity to learn some things and up the level of competition. I was also just really excited to hang out with some of my teammates who I hadn't seen in months!

Love these guys!

Team power rangers

Annie and Me

The Rivalries:

I know everyone in the ski world likes to pretend we are all great friends and spend our down time skipping arm and arm and braiding each other's hair. But the reality is that an intense rivalry has been brewing between teams for the title of Club Team Relay Champion, (probably the most sought after title in nordic skiing). The stage was set for a serious duel between APU and SMS T2 after the men's sprint race where Andy and Reese fought it out for 1 and 2 (Andy crossed the line in first but Reese was the eventual race winner after a jury decision relegated Andy to 6th for interference). Additionally the competition on the girl's side would be tight with some strong finishes by both APU and SMS T2 in the skate distance race. Sun Valley and APU's second team were also expected to pose some serious competition along with the UVM team and a mix team of Liz, Noah, and Brian and Caitlin Gregg (all past Olympians!). Needless to say tensions were high.

The Warm-Up:

Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks and APU hosted an awesome kids event during the "Final Four" week where we had the chance to ski with hundreds of young skiers from the Anchorage area. I think everyone was impressed with the turnout and had a ton of fun playing games with the kids, racing the downhills, and practicing some new skills. The day was also good reminder of why we do this sport. Yes we want to be the best in the world, but a huge part of it is also encouraging others to dream big and go after those dreams, to get outside, and to lead active and healthy lifestyle.

Helping a few kids get up the big hill (ADN photo)

Jessie playing Sharks and Minnows (ADN photo)

Simi and Ben playing touch football on skis?? (ADN photo)

Sophie signing some autographs (ADN photo)

Andy leading one of the little guys down the big hill

Game Day:

Day 1: Skate 10km Individual Start

After lots of travel and racing over the last few weeks I was psyched to have a strong finish on the first day of competition, which also happened to be Sophie's birthday! I finished in 9th, 1 second behind the birthday girl, to tie my best finish ever at Spring Nationals. After the race we all dressed up in funny outfits for Sophie's birthday. As soon as she crossed the line we all jumped on her and started singing Happy Birthday! All SMS T2 girls finished in the top 12 which was icing on the cake;)
Swarming the birthday girl
Day 1 done! (FasterSkier photo)

Day 2: Classic Sprint

Classic sprinting is still my weakest event but the course this year finished on a long uphill which I loved! I made it into the quarterfinal heats, finishing 3rd behind Jessie and U.S. Ski team/APU skier Holly Brook,s but was not quite fast enough for lucky loser. Still, the race was a huge improvement on my sprinting from last year where I entered the finish stretch in dead last. Sophie and Jessie both made it into the A Final along with Ben and Andy! 

Ben in his quarterfinal  (Eric Packer photo)

Simi and Eric finishing their quarterfinal in 1, 2  (Eric Packer photo)

Women's sprint podium  (Eric Packer photo)

Men's sprint podium (Eric Packer photo)

Day 3: Mixed Team Relay

2 girls, 2 guys, 2 classic legs and 2 skate legs...1 national team championship on the line.
Relay mustaches, glitter, and face paint are a must for intimidation and fast skiing

This race was definitely the highlight of my week and maybe the season. Although APU put down a dominating performance to win the relay by a large margin, SMS T2 broke up a 1-2 APU sweep with our first team (Andy, Sophie, Simi, Jessie) finishing in 2nd. I was on our second team with Annie, Ben and Eric. We went into the race ranked 8th but each person skied a killer leg and by the time Eric tagged me on the last lap we were in 5th! I could see 4th place ahead of us and manage to catch them on the last lap to bring our team across the line in 4th! The best part though was the incredible cheering and the suffocating bear hug from the rest of my teammates as soon as I crossed the line. I am so proud to be a part of this awesome group of people and looking froward to getting some redemption next year! 
Best cheer squad ever (FasterSkier photo)

Flowers sandwich! Yum my favorite kind :)
Team cheer post relay (Rob Whitney photo)

Day 4: Classic 30km/50km Mass Start

The last day of the race season concluded with the distance national championship race, with one of the toughest events I can imagine. Before the race I asked Gus for advice and he said simply "finish as fast as you can," which is exactly what I tried to do. After a fast first lap I just tried to hold on, skiing behind Sophie and Annie for most of the race and trying to match them stride for stride. I finished in 9th with my best classic race to date and was both equally exhausted and elated. All 4 SMS T2 girls finished in the top 9 which was a perfect way to end the season.
Sophie, me and Annie working together (Eric Packer photo)

The After Party: 

After a long season everyone was ready to enjoy some time off, check out the alpine skiing in Alaska and head home. I flew back to Bozeman on Monday and am so happy to be home for a few weeks! Now for some spring skiing and Montana adventuring!
Andy and Sophie on a crust cruise out to the glacier on portage lake

In addition to coaching Gus is also mastering the french crepe

On our way to the first crossword I have ever successfully completed

Downhill for a day

Annie enjoying the sunshine

Cheering for the boys during the 50km! Miss these guys already

Saturday, March 22, 2014

OPA Cup Finals and my love affair with Italy

After a week in Slovenia, I was ready for a change of pace and Italy welcomed the U.S. Continental Cup crew with open arms. Our first morning treated us to abundant sunshine, mountains worthy of postcards, and rich bowls of pasta and parmesan. We also stayed in a beautiful hotel with bright teal shutters and a picturesque balcony. I was in love.
View from our balcony

So happy to be in Italy! From left: Mary, Rose, Becca, and Chelsea

Enjoying the view

Our girls jogging club turned into a walking club

The races at OPA Cup Finals took place over the course of 3 days and followed a mini-tour format. The schedule began with a skate prologue on Friday, followed by a classic individual start 10km on Saturday and finished with a skate pursuit on Sunday (with start times based on cumulative time back from the first two races). OPA Cup Finals offer the most competitive field we race while in Europe with athletes from 9 countries, some of whom race the World Cup at various points throughout the season. This was my second year racing OPA Cup Finals and I think second time around is always easier. I definitely didn't feel as intimidated as last year and was mostly just on the excited side of the pre-race nervous spectrum.
Italy+sunshine+skiing+friends=pure bliss :) (Annie photo)

The prologue was one of the best races I have had all season and also the first time I have actually fallen on the ground at the finish from exhaustion. A prologue is kind of like a glorified sprint. The pace is not too different from a sprint but instead of stopping at 1.5 km you keep hammering for another 1-2 km. I finished 15th on the day which was my best result ever at an OPA Cup Race!
Doing some ski waxing at the venue (Bryan Fish photo)

The classic race the next day was definitely more challenging for me but I managed to stay in the top 25 which was still an improvement off of last year when I didn't even break the top 30. The pursuit day might have been the highlight of the weekend though. I started in 21st about 2.5 minutes out of the lead. Within the first few kilometers, U.S. skier Chelsea Holmes of Sun Valley caught me from a few places back and I jumped in behind her to try and pick off some of the skiers in front of us. We ended up having an awesome day skiing up to 13th and 14th overall and with the 2nd and 5th fastest times on the day and my best OPA result to date! I definitely owe a huge part of that result to Chelsea for really throwing the hammer down and charging around the course from start to finish. All of the American women skied really well on the pursuit day, putting 4 in the top 15 (time on day). Hopefully we can continue to build on that momentum next year and take home some wins!
Torin Koos showing the stars and stripes in some tough classic conditions

The boys climbing out of the stadium up the prologue hill. They raced second every day so they got to practice a lot of slush skiing

The upside of racing first was that the girls got to cheer on the boys! here Chelsea and Mary cheer on Miles of Sun Valley

Also did I mention that I got to spend lots of time with this pretty lady??

As soon as the races finished up we packed the vans and drove to Munich to catch flights back to the U.S. On Monday morning Annie and I began the long trek from Europe to Alaska which at the time felt like the other side of the world. Alaska is a looooong way from Europe and after 22+ hours of travel we found ourselves in the land of moose and salmon. Eric's family is graciously hosting us in their home for Spring Nationals and they have a spectacular view. So far we have had sunny skies and perfect packed powder conditions every day. Although the jet lag continues to wake me up at 5 every morning I am slowly adjusting to the 9 hour time difference and getting excited for the last few races of the season which begin today!
Grazie Mille!!!

I also want to once again thank the National Nordic Foundation for making the OPA Cup trip to Europe possible. The trip may be one of the most important development opportunities available to U.S. skiers trying to make the jump from domestic to international racing. I have been lucky to attend two years in a row now and can already see and feel the benefits from competing against a more diverse and competitive field. The OPA Cup trips show whats possible in ski racing, offer a higher level of competition, and help teach developing skiers how to get there. Each race is an opportunity to learn, fail, improve, and succeed. Thank you NNF for making the opportunity possible.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Slovenia: Hot Dog Salad and the Hokey Pokey

So Slovenia was weird. My first impressions of Slovenia were a bit foggy...literally. We actually couldn't see more than 15 feet in front of us for the first few days in Rogla, which only added to the mystery of the place. However the dense fog made the skiing extra exciting since you actually had no idea what lay around the next bend much less what lay 10 feet in front of you.

Skiing into the the abyss

We finished our first ski with a thin layer of frozen fog coating our jackets and hats
During our week in Slovenia we stayed right next to the ski trails in a hotel that I can only describe as a much smaller, cheaper, and colder version of a Las Vegas resort. The hotel resort seems to be in the middle of nowhere but includes both alpine and nordic trails, a disco and bar, giant dining and convention rooms, pool, gym with full track and basketball courts, sauna and spa, and lots of activities happening both day and night. During the day they offered everything from face painting to an indoor craft market and every evening at 7 o'clock we were treated to a kids disco complete with Slovenian renditions of the Hokey Pokey and Cotton-Eyed Joe. We were joined at the Rogla resort by hundreds of families on vacation, ski and snowboard enthusiasts, and the nordic teams from Germany, Italy, Slovenia, France, Austria, and Switzerland.
Petter Northug overlooking the weight room in the hotel

Indoor farmer's market?

Women's daily running club!!

The sheer number of people at the hotel made dining quite the experience. Imagine a college cafeteria   with a lot of hungry students trying to get dinner at the exact same time...except you can't really understand what anyone is saying and your options include mixtures of meat, potatoes, and other mystery items that fall somewhere along the beige color spectrum. Although we did find some cabbage in the salad bar we also learned that hot dogs, marinated deli meat, and macaroni are also considered "salad" in Slovenia.
Potatoes, beets, cabbage, mysterious "pink" bean and noodle salad and yellow macaroni with hot dogs
So Slovenia took some adjusting to... but eventually the fog broke, the mountains appeared and the jostling for position in the dining hall turned out to be good practice for the upcoming ski races.
Getting our Vitamin D

Miles helped dig some great lounging chairs in the snow

By the time the weekend arrived we were all pretty psyched to get the racing underway. We started with a classic sprint on Saturday followed by a 15km mass start skate race on Sunday. The ski trails in Rogla weave in and out of meadows and through the trees with plenty of climbs and some long hard flat sections near the stadium. In the classic sprint I qualified 24th and went on to finish 5th in my quarterfinal heat. Classic sprinting is probably we weakest event but skiing the heats with a bunch of fast Europeans was really fun and as soon as I was done I wanted to go out and do it again! I have a lot to work on in order to ski as powerfully and as smoothly as some of those other girls but really enjoyed trying to stick with them on the hills and navigate the corners.
The start of the men's heats

Ben had a great day finishing 2nd in his quarterfinal to move into the top 12 and finishing 10th on the day!

Sunday's race was a mass start format and in Europe you have to be ready to throw some elbows from the moment the gun goes off. Everyone is fighting for a good position in the pack and the Euros are not afraid to step on you in order to to get there. I knew I was going to need to start aggressively to ski with the lead pack and I somehow managed to stay on my feet as girls went down around me on the icy track. However, skiing aggressively while managing to stay relaxed and not waste to much energy is a delicate balance. All the jostling from the first lap caught up to me on the second lap and as my legs tired I lost touch with the lead group. I jumped in with a few Slovenians for the remaining 10km and finished the race in 19th. Still working toward that top 10 but enjoying the process nonetheless.
Once the fog cleared Slovenia turned out to be pretty beautiful! Elizabeth Guiney (left) and I enjoying the view
On the last day we also checked out the metal roller coaster/alpine slide at the hotel which was crazy fast and turny! I think I was doing some combination of screaming and laughing the entire way down.
Psyched to fly down the mountain!

On Monday we departed Slovenia for Italy. We actually drove back to almost the exact same place we were a week ago for the Swiss Cups except now we are on the Italian side of the mountains. On the way we stopped at the Bled Castle in Bled, Slovenia. The castle housed the first Slovenian printing press, a museum, moat style entrance, and the highlight...a wine cellar where I got to bottle my own wine!!! The process included filling, corking, labeling, dipping the top in beeswax and official paperwork documenting the event. I was in heaven :)
Entrance to the Castle

It was Rose's birthday on Monday so I and to get a pic with thebBirthday girl at the castle!

So much good wine!!

Ben and Annie listening to the wine bottling master 

Me and Annie enjoying castle life

This weekend we race OPA Cup Finals in Valdidentro, Italy which includes a skate prologue, classic individual start race, and skate pursuit. The field should be the most competitive yet and I think everyone is psyched to put the hammer down and see what we can do!