CBNT skiers step it up at Junior Nationals

“It was cool to see how pumped they are to work for next year”

By Than Acuff

Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) athletes Sawyer Ezzell, Finn Veit, Sophia Bender and Jake Pendy joined the masses of human lungs as they closed out their Nordic ski race season at the Junior Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska on March 13-16. The Nordic Junior Nationals are the biggest test of a fledgling Nordic racer’s career with the top skiers in the nation convening for three races over the course of four days, all of whom are pinning it for their best results.

Coach Ben Theyrl knows the nerves that come with the Junior Nationals, with Ezzell and Veit making their second trip to the big event looking to improve, and Bender and Pendy getting their first exposure to the pageantry and pressure. With that in mind, Theyrl made a point of setting goals without backing down for his skiers.

“The overreaching goal was to ski true to what had got them there,” says Theyrl. “Pushing every meter of the course we can and have fun when the pressure’s on.”

Fairbanks, Alaska is a haul for nearly everyone racing and coaching, and when the CBNT showed up Saturday, March 11 at 1 a.m., it was obvious that they had a cold week of racing ahead of them.

“It’s about as far north as anybody in this country skis and it was super, super cold but, in some ways, we were prepared for that,” says Theyrl.

The racing opened on Monday, March 13 with a 7.5km Classic technique interval start race. Skiers head out alone on course with some ahead and some behind and it’s easy to get off kilter when someone passes you or you can’t reel in the skier ahead of you.

“It’s stare down the black dog, as an old ski coach used to say,” says Theyrl. “If you remain true to yourself and how you ski, you’re going to have a good day.”

Pendy was the first CBNT athlete on course in his first ever Junior National race after picking up skiing just two years ago. Pendy set the tone for his teammates in the u16 boys race as he put in impressive personal splits to have a solid race.

“He’s had a great year classic racing and as soon as I saw his splits out there, I knew the kids were ready,” says Theyrl.

Veit started later in the race and was flirting with the top 10 midway through the course and continued to push through to finish the day 17th in the u16 boys.

“I think it showed him that he has gotten faster and that he belongs in that field of racers,” says Theyrl.

Bender lined up for the u16 girls race and while the first Junior National experience is all about experience, Bender remained focused on her abilities to put in a solid effort.

“It’s easy to get thrown out of the moment but she didn’t,” says Theyrl.

First year u18 racer Ezzell closed out the CBNT effort on the day in the u18 girls class. Despite facing several collegiate freshmen racers, Ezzell took the bull by the horns and pushed her way into the top 15 to finish 14th place overall.

“She wasn’t fazed at all,” says Theyrl. “As a coach who loves classic skiing, I was really proud of the kids.”

Athletes then returned to the track on Tuesday for the skate sprint races which kicked off with a qualifier round to try and make it through to the heats. Bitter cold forced organizers to push the start back to noon, and with the Crested Butte skiers coming from 9,000 feet to race at 456 feet, their bodies just didn’t have what it takes to match the sprint pace of the lower elevation teams as none of the CBNT athletes made it past the qualifier stage.

“There’s a weird feeling you get,” explains Theyrl. “Your lungs got it, but your legs feel it. All of the Colorado kids looked great out of the gate but felt it on the last hill.”

The athletes got Wednesday off, during which Theyrl gave his skiers a bowling clinic, and the team returned to action for the final day of racing on Thursday, March 16 with the u16 skiers facing a 5-kilometer skate race and the u18 skiers staring at a 10-kilometer course.

“I told the team, we just need to be tired, better than everyone else,” says Theyrl. Veit’s goal was set before him as Theyrl called on him to put himself in the mix early and then relax in that lead group. Veit followed the strategy throughout his race and skied to a 13th place finish, a proud result with eyes on the future.

“He finished the race hungry, but happy,” says Theyrl.

Pendy closed out his first Junior National experience with a 69th place finish and Bender pushed her way to a 46th place finish.

“She chased with her pack really well and pushed to the finish line,” says Theyrl.

Ezzell then got caught up in the frantic mass start but soon settled in and then pulled away from her group of opponents to skate to a 33rd place finish.

“She made up a lot of places in the end and learned a lot about start strategy,” says Theyrl.

Following the races, the athletes are already looking ahead to build on their effort from Junior Nationals. 

“It was cool to see how pumped they are to work for next year,” says Theyrl. “And cool to see our Nordic community up there at the races. We had such a great parent crew and got the sense for what makes our Nordic community unique.”

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