The NCAA team title in skiing is coming down to the wire. Utah ski director Kevin Sweeney called the battle “a real slug fest.” The University of Colorado leads Utah 388-381 heading into Saturday's slalom competition, the final day of the four-day championships.
“It’s definitely a battle between us and CU,” Utah’s nordic coach Abi Holt said after Colorado jumped ahead of the Utes with a razor-thin advantage.
Just how close is the competition? After 12 giant slalom runs and 150 kilometers of nordic skiing, the difference separating Utah and Colorado on the race course is two seconds in cross-country. Or less than half a second in the alpine.
On Friday, the women raced 15-km and the men 20-km on trails made for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. “I can’t remember going into the final day this close,” Holt said. “We know alpine will have a lot of pressure on them.”
Mayerhofer goes from golden girl to NCAA runner-up
Utah's Veronika Mayerhofer, who became the national champion in freestyle on Wednesday, also knows something about close finishes. The freshman from Austria held a slight advantage heading into the final straightaway on Friday. Mayerhofer lost out by a photo finish to the University of New Mexico’s Emilie Cedervaern.
“I didn’t have much tactics or a big plan,” Mayerhofer said about the day’s head-to-head racing format. “I just tried to stay at the front of the race and stick with Emilie.”
Mayerhofer added: “It’s actually good she won. She was the strongest.”
Course challenges coaches and athletes alike
The terrain tested athletes with features like “Russian Hill,” an unrelenting climb that became infamous during the 1980 Games.
The conditions, with temperatures moving from the high teens to the high 20s during the race, challenged coaches in the wax cabin. With the classic tracks starting to glaze up with a thin sheen of ice on the top layer, Utah skiiers went with klister, a sticky wax that excels on the steep climbs, but comes at the cost of glide.
“You could see it. If you didn’t have kick on the hilly back side of the course, you were just out of the race,” Utah’s Niklas Persson said. “We chose right today.”
First-team All-America for Utah’s Persson
Persson paced the Utah men’s team to a fifth-place finish, the junior’s second All-America performance of the week. While Persson’s coaches say he was aiming for a podium race, Persson said he was far from disappointed with fifth.
“You had to be nice and smooth and light on your skis today,” Persson said. “I did that.”
With Kevin Bolger and Noe Bellet finishing 16th and 22nd, the Ute men rallied a bit from Wednesday’s performances. “We talked after Wednesday,” Persson said. “We weren’t super happy, we wanted to ski better. We were just more on it today. We wanted it more.”
Crowd favorite Sloan Storey earns second first-team All-America at these championships
Joining Mayerhofer and Persson with first-team All-America accolades on the day was Sloan Storey. In a sport dominated by Central Europeans and Scandinavians, Storey was the day’s top American, finishing fifth.
Storey was the crowd favorite as well. “I didn’t have to look for Sloan,” Mayerhofer said, laughing. “Everyone was cheering for her. She’s American, she had a cheering advantage.”
Utah’s team captain drew praise from Holt: “(Sloan) always shows up on race days. She’s a big championship performer. She always delivers.”
Utah's Anna-Lena Heynen added her second top-10 result of the week, moving up from 23rd to 10th in the race’s final kilometers.
Saturday’s slalom to decide skiing’s top prize
A warm swell is expected to bring a mixture of rain-snow-sleet into upstate New York Saturday. With impending inclement conditions, several teams petitioned to move Saturday’s slalom at Whiteface Mountain to Friday to ensure fairer conditions. The race jury denied the request.
Of all the alpine disciplines, slalom racing is the most fickle, with a crash or a missed gate a near certainty from at least one racer from any team. “It’s pretty wild to go into the final day like this with slalom,” Holt said. “These races are probably the most unpredictable out there for who will finish and how it will go. It’s a pretty crazy place we’re in right now.”
The Utes will turn to Andy Trow, Endre Bjertness and Joergen Brath on the men’s alpine side. Kristiina Rove, Chloe Fausa and Ana Kobal will compete for the women.
“With a slalom day, it’s really not over until that last skier really crosses that finish line,” Persson said. “All we can do is go on the hill, cheer on our guys and hope they do well.”