“I’m most proud that the whole team was out there supporting each other”
By Than Acuff
For the first time in a long time, and possibly ever, the Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) had 18 athletes from u8 all the way up to the u18 age group competing at the Super Junior National Qualifier (JNQ) event at Soldier Hollow, Utah, Friday through Saturday, January 26–27.
The Soldier Hollow event attracts all the teams from west of the Mississippi, except for Minnesota and Alaska, with a field of over 700 junior racers total. The CBNT goes there for a couple of reasons. For some, it’s a chance to compete and see how they stack up against the best in the west. For others, the Super JNQ is their first glimpse into the bigger Nordic ski racing world.
“It’s about half of the junior national field so some of our athletes see how they stack up and set goals for Junior Nationals based on that,” explains head coach Ben Theyerl. “We also get to introduce the kids to racing outside of Crested Butte and they get a taste of that in Utah.”
Among the 18 at Utah, five ski on the CBNT comp team with eyes on Junior Nationals and were thrown right into the mix on the first day competing in the classic sprint races. Theyerl has been on a quest to convince his skiers that they can be sprinters and a couple of them saw that for themselves in Utah.
“There were a couple breakthroughs,” says Theyerl.
The sprint format starts with a time trial, from which the top 30 times advance to a series of four-person heats with the top two from each heat advancing. The CBNT had three advance out of the time trial, led by u18 skier Sawyer Ezzell who posted the fifth fastest time in the qualifier round. Teammate Sophia Bender also made the cut in the u18 age class and Brie Bender made her way to the heats in the u16 age class.
All three were knocked out in the quarterfinal round, but Ezzell learned a lot from the experience that bodes well looking ahead.
“She went out, controlled the pace and drove hard, but the others drafted off her and then made their move,” says Theyerl. “In the last 100 meters she nearly caught the girl in second but ended up third. All in all, she learned some key lessons that we can take forward and her final push shows she has the fastest push at the end.”
CBNT u18 skier Finn Veit had a disappointing result in the qualifier heat of his sprint race falling shy of advancing, but it was what he did after that resonated with Theyerl.
“He took a minute and was then back with the team helping wax and prepare skis for the younger racers,” says Theyerl.
The skiers lined up the next day for the Freestyle, aka skate, interval start race. Interval starts are one skier at a time with no sense of whom to chase or when to push, just you against the clock.
Fortunately for Veit and Ezzell, they had both raced on the same 7.5-kilometer course a couple of weeks earlier at the Senior National event.
“Finn and Sawyer had a lot of confidence going in and that radiated out to their teammates,” says Theyerl.
Brie Bender set the energy for the CBNT team in her effort during her u16 five-kilometer race.
“It was the best I’ve ever seen her fight,” says Theyerl. “She set a good tone for the older girls.”
Sophia followed suit with a gutsy ski in her u18 race.
“Sophia showed the same kind of fight,” says Theyerl.
Ezzell threw down during her race as she came through the first lap with a split time that had her in the top 10, and then stepped it up to post a faster split during her second lap and push into fourth place overall just 20 seconds off third place.
“It was a really impressive race for her,” says Theyerl. “We came away thinking she can chase down 20 seconds in a 7.5k race which bodes well for Junior Nationals.”
Veit shook off the disappointment from his sprint showing to throw down in the 7.5-kilometer race. After posting a split on his first lap that had him in the mix among the top 10, he was in fourth place at the highest point of the course on the second lap and then charged into the final hill to reach one more spot and finish on the podium in third place.