A sea of blue suits in Bozeman. Photo via Sydney Palmer-Leger.
The focus when it comes to results is quite consistently on the individual athlete. It is a logical inclination, given the nature of the sports that are offered through SVSEF programming; from snowboardcross competitions to GS races to skate sprints, it’s the athlete’s time or technical proficiency alone that counts. While Athlete of the Month is a platform to highlight skiers and riders who have achieved results-based success, it behoves us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The aggregate of top results recently amassed by cross country athletes as a team warrants recognition of the program’s overarching strength; this is the reason why our Athlete of the Month is not an individual, but the entire Cross Country Comp Team.
As of mid-January, SVSEF athletes have competed at three major events, both regionally and nationally. At each of these events, they have featured prominently at the top of the result lists. At the first JNQ, SVSEF secured over half of the podiums for the weekend. Across the country at U.S. Nationals at Craftsbury, top finishes resulted in four SVSEF athletes earning spots at Junior and U23 World Championships. SVSEF again nabbed a large number of podiums at the super qualifier at Soldier Hollow on January 18-19, which featured large fields of competitors, not just from the Intermountain region, but from all over the west.
In years past, SVSEF cross country skiers have certainly garnered significant results. This season, though, the range is especially impressive. “This year, in particular, we just have athletes in almost every age category who could likely podium or ski in the top ten at Junior Nationals,” explained comp team head coach Ashley Knox. “Other years, we might have a couple of really strong age groups, but not across the board. And some years, like this one so far, all the pieces fall into place better than others.”
Knox acknowledges that success for the cross country program is, at least in part, rooted in the influence of its younger teams. “I really think the success at the Comp Team level speaks to the growth and strength of our Devo and Prep programs,” said Knox. “The addition of the Prep Pro and Prep summer training has really upped the level and ability of skiers moving up to comp team. Instead of having the majority of our move-ups being new to summer training and roller skiing, they come to comp team already competent at roller skiing, and with an understanding of the importance of summer training.”
Young SVSEF skiers at Striders and Prep training; these, along with Devo, are the precursors to Comp Team.
Training at Lake Creek, photo by Travis Jones.
Also playing a major factor is the volume of time spent together, and the mutual respect and work ethic that are widespread amongst this group. The Comp Team offers team training 44-46 weeks out of the 48 weeks of the calendar year, with athletes logging an average of 10 hours a week. Training in the spring is lighter, and builds through the summer and into the competition season. Kids can end up in close quarters, as they do on the Haig glacier and on competition trips, and they ultimately spend a significant number of hours together on the trails, on the road and in the gym. Knox explained the team’s approach to cultivating an environment in which support, respect and drive take form naturally:
“We have always made a point of building a program based on mutual respect and holding ourselves to a high standard for who we are as individuals and a team. The athletes all know they are in a hard sport and understand it takes countless hours of dedicated hard work, and I think most know it is much more enjoyable with teammates. Many of these skiers spend more time with each other, both inside and outside of training, than they do with their families, which makes ski team almost a second family and the hut a second home. And as much as everyone wants success for themselves, they want it for each other too. So whether it’s pushing each other during intervals, doing school work together on a race trip, or hugging at the finish line, they are usually there to support and push each other.”
Comp, PG and Gold Team athletes at summer training at Community School’s Dumke Family Sagewillow Campus.
An organic mentorship system also lends itself to the cross country program’s success. “The PGs add depth and variety to the training group – they train and travel with the Comp Team often,” said Knox. “The Gold Team shows the younger athletes what is possible. Our most recent example is Kevin Bolger. He made the U.S. Ski Team and is currently skiing on the World Cup and posting some good results. This summer, Johnny Hagenbuch was jumping into some training sessions with Bolger. Pretty cool to have that connection.”
With 211 of SVSEF’s 695 enrolled athletes, it’s expected to find some snippets of success in the cross country program. What stands out, however, is how widespread the success has been so far this season, and how the team dynamic, from the ground up, has lent itself to both individual and group success.
Gold Team skier Kevin Bolger is racing on the World Cup circuit this winter.
Sophia Mazzoni and Sydney Palmer-Leger in Finland for Junior World Championships.
Time trial at Prairie Creek, photo by Glen Allison.
The JNQ season opener at Bozeman was both a nod to the base SVSEF cross country skiers have steadily built over the past eight months, and an indication of good things to come. Prep, comp and PG athletes raced December 22-23 at Bozeman for the first of three Intermountain region JNQ qualifiers. SVSEF athletes were constantly on the podium; Johnny Hagenbuch won the men’s U18 freestyle mass start, and PG athletes Scott Schulz and Adam Witowski were first and second for U20s. Bjorn Halvorsen also secured a win in the U16 age class. For U18 women, Sydney Palmer-Leger took the win, followed by Sophia Mazzoni in second and Anja Jensen in fourth. Lily Brunelle was the third U20, followed by Heidi Booher in fourth and Sarah Morgan in fifth. U16 women swept the podium, with Logan Smith in first, Sammy Smith second and Anja Grover third. All told, SVSEF took 10 of 18 podium spots for U16-U20 classes; over half of the kids standing on the podium throughout the weekend were wearing the SVSEF suit.
The team’s momentum continued into the new year at Nationals. Top professional, collegiate and junior athletes from across the country converged for classic sprints and classic and skate distance races. Johnny Hagenbuch was the top U18 in the nation in the classic distance race. On the women’s side, Sydney Palmer-Leger was the top U18 female in the classic distance race, as was Logan Smith for U16s. Peter Holmes stepped onto the American podium in third for the men’s classic sprint. He was fourth overall and the first U23. Sophia qualified for women’s senior heats and was the second junior overall, and Logan Smith also qualified for senior heats as a U16. Sydney Palmer-Leger skied to second in junior heats, Sarah Morgan to fifth and Johnny Hagenbuch to fifth. In Sunday’s mass start, Johnny Hagenbuch again won his age group, this time in the men’s 10km freestyle race. PG skier Scott Schulz broke the top 10 in ninth. Sydney Palmer-Leger made the junior women’s podium in third for the 7.5km, and Logan Smith was 15th and the top U16 finisher.
Aside from overall titles, athletes competing at Nationals were looking to qualify for race opportunities abroad. A record number of SVSEF athletes did so; Peter Holmes, Johnny Hagenbuch, Sydney Palmer-Leger and Sophia Mazzoni all made the cut for U.S. World Junior Championships in Lahti, Finland, which are currently taking place. SVSEF has often had one or two (and twice, three) athletes qualify for World Juniors, but four is unprecedented. In addition to the four who qualified for Junior Worlds, Comp Team athlete Logan Smith had a standout series. At just 14 years old, Logan pre-qualified for Junior Nationals, and also qualified for the U18 Nordic Nations Cup in Scandinavia. She was also the second alternate for Junior Worlds, based on her results at Nationals.
These four athletes aren’t the only SVSEF skiers representing the organization in Europe. Gold Team skier Kevin Bolger has been competing on the World Cup circuit as a member of the U.S. National Team; he was named last spring following success domestically as well as in his first World Cup competition (he placed 11th overall in a freestyle sprint in Lahti last season). He has recorded some solid results for his first season racing full-time in Europe; Kevin qualified 13th in Toblach in the skate sprint, and finished 21st overall.