Four CB Nordic team athletes headed to Junior Nationals

Bound for Lake Placid and perhaps a Miracle on Ice-y snow

By Than Acuff 

Four skiers from the Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT), Sawyer Ezzell, Brie Bender, Finn Veit and Sophia Bender, qualified for Junior Nationals and are headed to the prestigious Lake Placid venue at the end of the week.

“The venue is a touchstone in our sport,” says CBNT head coach Ben Theyerl. “There are not many venues that capture your imagination and the competitive spirit driving skiers to race like Lake Placid, and I’m excited for our athletes to feel that in full force.”

The team wrapped up their season of Junior National Qualifiers (JNQ) in Minturn on February 24–25 with different plans in place for the four athletes. U18 athletes Veit and Ezzell had qualified for sure, but Sophia in the u18 age class and u16 skier Brie still had to finish strong in the final JNQ to seal their spots. That said, both Theyerl and coach Vince Rogers made a point of keeping those two focused on what really mattered.

“We spend 363 days of the year thinking about how we put together a ski race that’s reflective of our best abilities, and so to think about anything else for these two days would have been not true to who they are as racers,” says Theyerl. “For both Sophia and Brie, we talked through hyper-focusing on the details of the courses they were racing and coming back to simple cues around what they do best when their minds wandered towards results.”

Both Sophia and Brie took it to heart and executed their focus in the sprint races on the first day of the JNQ as both made it through to their semifinal heats before getting knocked out. 

“Both performances saw them move up in the JNs points, and in retrospect, they punched their ticket in that race,” says Theyerl. 

And while Veit and Ezzell were already secured to ski at Junior Nationals, they didn’t let up as Veit also made it through to the semifinals while Ezzell took second place.

But, at the time, there was no way to know for sure, so they both lined up Sunday, February 25 for classic races. Although fatigued, Brie put in a gritty effort to place 13th while Sophia built off her sprint effort the day before, and worked off the pace set by teammate Ezzell out front during the classic race to finish fifth. 

“It was a weekend where she punched through a ceiling that we didn’t even know was over her head,” says Theyerl of Brie’s effort. “She’s coming into Junior Nationals skiing so well, and I am so proud of her work getting here.”

Veit was battling an illness so he pulled out from his race while Ezzell would go on to win her race on Sunday.

“She’s a senior, and that was her last JNQ with CBNT, so it was a dream ending to her career here,” says Theyerl. “Plus, it was exactly two years on from her first podium in a JNQ, which was at Frisco too, which made the circle really come full.”

The four CBNT skiers leave for Lake Placid on Friday, March 8 with the racing starting on Monday, March 11 and continuing through next week. Theyerl expects they will be on man-made icy snow with a slight chance of new snow, but they will have a chance to acclimatize to the unique conditions prior to their first race.

“The first race is next Monday, which gives us a weekend to adjust to the fast-moving man-made snow, a big contrast to our low-moisture powder in CB,” says Theyerl.

In addition to the usual preparations leading up to the Junior National Nordic races, Theyerl has additional plans for the team.

“We’ll watch the grainy footage of the Finns and Swedes that battled at the 1980 Olympics beforehand, and we’ll make sure we re-watch Miracle,” says Theyerl.

This is the second time in a row in the past decade the team has four skiers at Junior Nationals and while they’re hoping to continue climbing the results list, the expectation is not as concrete for Theyerl as the final result. Though, punching a top result is not out of the question. 

“That consistency is a big indicator that we’re headed towards a healthy, and sustainable, competitive program for years to come,” says Theyerl. “My biggest hope is that our skiers bring the attitude and approach towards racing they’ve had all season to these races. With four races, there is sure to be some lessons learned and valuable experience gained. If all the variables come together for just one of their races though, I think our skiers are capable of competing against anyone in these Nationals fields.”

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