With temperatures rising into the low 40s and the women’s 5km freestyle at the NCAA Ski Championships heating up to a three-way battle for the title, University of Utah’s Veronika Mayerhofer dropped the hammer.
In Wednesday’s race in Lake Placid, NY, skiers raced against the clock, each starting solo, 30 seconds apart. Midway through, Mayerhofer passed Utah's nordic coach, Abi Holt. As Mayerhofer went by Holt gave some welcoming news: the freshman from Bad Gastein, Austria was tied for first through 2.5 kilometers.
“I didn’t feel super special until I heard that first split,” Mayerhofer said. “Then I decided to really go for it. You had to push so hard to the top of the final climb. Maybe it was a risk…”
The course’s second half climbed to the top of Russian Hill, a hill so steep and challenging Olympic skiers from Russia lobbied — successfully — to have the hill’s peak bulldozed before the start of the 1980 Games.
Mayerhofer said she was flooded with lactate and nearly seeing stars on the final downhill into the finish from the uphill effort. If it was a gamble to pick up the pace on the hardest part of the course for Mayerhofer, the risk paid off.
“I knew Veronika would be a contender, but I’m shocked to see these final results,” Holt said. “To win by 13 seconds… I wish I could have seen the second-half of her race. It must have been something else.”
Mayerhofer adding her name to the record books
The last Utah woman to win an NCAA title came in 2012 from Maria Graefnings of Sweden. All told, the Utes have had five women win a total of eight national titles in the cross-country skiing in school history.
Mayerhofer’s competitors probably can’t count on the victory changing her approach. The night after her win, the Academic All-America could be found brushing up on her studies in psychology.
The skiing and school combination gives skier new motivation
The 22-year old Austrian credits Utah for helping her find new motivation after making the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“After the Olympics I said, ‘Now I need a change,” Mayerhofer said. “I just thought it was a good opportunity to come to Utah. I didn’t talk to other teams — I don’t know why. I just had a feeling it’d be good here. It’s been even better than I thought.”
Utah’s first day: four All-Americans
Utah junior Sloan Storey from Hailey, Idaho was fifth while sophomore Anna-Lena Heynen, from Regensburg in Germany’s Bavarian region, finished ninth.
While Utah’s women surged, the men’s team struggled a bit. Niklas Persson, a junior originally from Sweden, was tenth to earn his third All-American citation. Sophomores Noe Bellet, from Serre-Chevalier, France, and Kevin Bulger of Minocqua, Wisconsin were 17th and 26th.
“I’m not counting them out at all,” Holt said about the men’s nordic performances. “I think they will all take that starting line again on Friday and know we all have their backs. They were a little off today. That happens.”
Sitting in second heading into day two
While Utah’s last team title came in 2003, the Utes are in a decent position to end the longest NCAA team title drought in school history. Utah is in second in team scoring with 131 points, just behind Colorado’s 155 points. Vermont and New Mexico are tied for third with 106 points while Denver University, last year’s defending national champion, are in fifth.
“Sitting in second, I think that’s a healthy place to be after day one,” Holt said. “This certainly gives everyone the sense that we’re in striking distance of an NCAA championship title. But no one has the impression that we have a lot of room for error, either.”
Day two of the NCAA Championships turns to the alpine side. Competitors will take to the slopes at Whiteface Mountain for the giant slalom competiton. The venue has plenty of history as the place where ski legends Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden and USA’s Phil Mahre battled for Olympic gold in 1980.
On the women’s side, the Utes turn to Kristiina Rove, Chloe Fausa and Ana Kobal. All three are returning All-Americans. The Utah men’s team will rely on Andy Trow, Joergen Brath and Endre Bjertness. Trow and Brath are returning All-Americans while the freshman Bjertness gets his first NCAA start.