A great season on snow for Alaskans

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 26, 2012 

From Kikkan Randall's historic World Cup title to Amy Glen's photo-finish NCAA championship to Jay Hakkinen's age-defying biathlon results to Tyler Kornfield's delayed glory, Alaskans set the world of snow sports on fire this winter.

They made history on the international racing scene, they won national championships, they earned spots on world championship teams and, in the case of Randall, they ruled the planet.

Randall, 29, earned the World Cup sprint title and placed fifth in the overall standings, becoming the first American to claim a World Cup title since Bill Koch in 1982 and establishing the best overall finish in history by an American woman.

Randall finished third in the sprint standings last season, winning a bronze medal for the effort while the coveted crystal globe for first place went to Slovenia's Petra Majdic. That end-of-season awards ceremony provided ample motivation for this season, Randall said.

"I watched the globe walk by me and get handed to (Majdic) and I remember thinking, man, I want to be in that position next year," she said.

Randall's success has been epidemic, sparking historic results for the entire U.S. team -- and inspiring younger American skiers, especially girls and women. Tom Kelly of the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association said she's having the same Pied Piper effect that Koch did more than 30 years ago.

"He attracted throngs of new participants," Kelly said. "Kikkan is doing the same thing -- and embracing it. ... She truly engages in helping to motivate young boys and girls."

Young skiers in Alaska have it particularly good. They get the occasional chance to train with Randall during the offseason, especially those who belong to the Alaska Pacific University nordic program.

Randall is the biggest star of the APU program but not the only star. Holly Brooks and Sadie Bjornsen also made history this year on the World Cup tour -- Bjornsen teamed with Randall to win a silver medal in a team sprint race and Brooks was a member of a relay team that posted the best finish by an U.S. women's team.

Brooks had a storybook season. She earned a chance to ski in the early World Cup races based on her domestic results from the previous season, and she parlayed that chance into a full season on the World Cup circuit.

She earned an invitation to the arduous Tour de Ski and unknowingly competed in all nine races with a broken wrist. When she finished rehabbing she returned to action only to get sick, so she made a quick two-week trip home to Anchorage, hoping familiar surroundings would hasten her recovery. It did that and more -- while back in the United States, she decided to fly to Wisconsin for the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner. She won the race and a $7,500 in prize money.

Randall's World Cup winnings for the season are somewhere in the $80,000 range, Kelly said. The money comes in the form of Swiss francs, and Randall joked that it's her husband's job to figure out the exchange rate.

The crystal globe, meanwhile, is priceless -- the culmination of a decade's work for Randall, who was 19 when she made her Olympic debut in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Also priceless is the experience reaped by Alaska skiers, especially girls and women, who get to train with Randall, Brooks and Bjornsen during the offseason.

Celia Haering is West High skier who is also part of APU's training program, which gives her plenty of chances to test herself against some of the world's best.

"I'm 17 and still in high school and I get to train with Kikkan Randall," Haering said at this year's state high school championships. "In the summer I ski myself into the ground chasing Holly and Kikkan.

"You see the girls go out there and working hard every day and you think, that can be me too."

For many of Alaska's best skiers, biathletes and snowboarders, the future looks sweet if this winter is any indication. Only Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, a 2010 Olympian from Girdwood, had a truly disappointing season: she suffered a season-ending knee injury while training in Utah.

Here's a look at some of the season's highlights.

Glen's final hurrah

It took about 20 minutes for officials to determine that Anchorage's Amy Glen was the winner of the 15-kilometer classic race at the recent NCAA championships in Bozeman, Mont. And maybe no one was pulling harder for a Glen victory than her coach at the University of Vermont.

Glen beat Dartmouth's Sadie Caldwell in a photo finish to become the third Alaskan to win an NCAA title, joining Amy Crawford and Tim Miller.

For Vermont coach Patrick Weaver, Glen's victory was both deserving -- and a relief.

"Of the top six women at Vermont and Dartmouth, the only one that hadn't won a race was Amy, and that was her last college race," Weaver said. "At that point we didn't really know who won, but because it was Amy and because she hadn't won a race, I was thinking, 'Please let it be Amy.'

"She's about as shy as you can get, so when I asked her if she thought she had won she said, 'I hope not, because I don't want to talk.' ''

Once she was declared the winner, Glen made it through the post-race interview with the race announcer just fine. And Vermont was on its way to its first NCAA team title in 18 years.

Glen and Anchorage's Caitlin Patterson were huge contributors to the Vermont victory. Patterson, also a senior, grabbed second place in the freestyle race and fifth in the classic to cap her career with a pair of All-America awards.

Patterson said the competition between the Vermont and Dartmouth women made her final college season memorable.

"We know we always have our work cut out for us. You have to challenge yourself to ski your fastest to be up there at the top, because there are so many fast skiers this year," she said.

Delayed gratification

While Glen faced a 20-minute delay before knowing if she was an NCAA champion, Anchorage's Tyler Kornfield had to wait five days to learn whether he was a national champion.

Kornfield placed second in the classic sprint race on the final day of this year's U.S. National Championships in Maine, but at the end of the race the skier who crossed the finish line first, Torin Koos, was disqualified.

That made Kornfield the national champion. But the Koos appealed his disqualification, and five days passed before his appeal was denied, leaving Kornfield with the gold medal.

Earlier in the championships, Kornfield faced another delay -- he was involved in a photo finish for third place in the freestyle sprint race. He wound up taking the bronze medal.

Ageless wonder

At age 34, Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof turned in one of his best seasons in a biathlon career that has spanned four Olympics.

He cracked the top 15 in several World Cup races and wound up ranked 36th in the overall standings, missing his goal of a top-30 finish. But he showed that both his skiing and shooting are at a level that could earn him a fifth trip to the Olympics.

"After the 2010/2011 season, where I had been sick and lost too much training to be able to ski at a top level, I was really looking forward to this season," Hakkinen said in an email. "I knew if I could maintain or even improve my shooting this season I could be well on track to achieve my goals, especially looking toward the 2014 Sochi Olympics."

Hakkinen, who works hard to find sponsors, credited Peak Oilfield Services and Ucore for financial support that allowed him to spend more time with a personal trainer and to spend time at an indoor ski venue in Germany.

"I was able to afford more on-snow training in the Oberhof ski hall, where they have man-made snow year round, but it also costs over $25 just to touch the snow each session," he said.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

Top moments in U.S. cross-country history

1974

Martha Rockwell places 10th at the FIS World Championships in Falun, Sweden. Marty Hall, former coach of the U.S. Ski Team, calls the performance "the first real breakthrough in international cross-country racing for the U.S."

"This result would have been even better if she hadn't been knocked down by a course guard in the last kilometer -- we had her in sixth place at that time," Hall wrote in an email. "She did this just five years after being named to the first ladies National Team in 1969 -- she was a pack-a-day smoker when she changed worlds from being a book publisher to when she started training full time. She was an amazing athlete."

1976

Vermont's Bill Koch captures a silver medal in the 30-kilometer race at the Winter Olympics. It was the first and so far only Olympic medal awarded to an American in cross-country skiing.

1978

Alison Owen-Spencer of Anchorage -- one of Jim Mahaffey's skiers at Alaska Methodist University, which is now Alaska Pacific University -- sweeps the women's races at the inaugural FIS World Cup races, winning the 5-K and 10-K in Cable, Wis.

These days the FIS says World Cup competition didn't begin until 1982. But the February 1979 issue of Nordic World magazine carried extensive coverage of the December 1978 races in Wisconsin, which were sanctioned by the FIS. The magazine also printed the entire FIS World Cup schedule 1978-79.

1982

Bill Koch wins the overall World Cup title. Until Randall claimed this year's sprint title, Koch was the only American to be awarded a World Cup title based on an entire season of results.

That same season, the American men enjoyed success in relay races, winning at least one World Cup relay race, according to a 2007 report in "Skiing Heritage Magazine" by John Caldwell, a 1952 Olympian and a U.S. coach from 1966-89. John Estle, a longtime coach and official from Fairbanks, said the relay team -- which included Jim Galanes, the former head coach of the APU nordic program -- won two World Cup races and was second in another that season.

1983

Judy Rabinowitz of Fairbanks finishes 20th in the World Cup overall standings, the highest finish by an American woman prior to Randall.

2001

At a World Cup pursuit race at Utah's Soldier Hollow, Justin Wadsworth of Bend, Ore., places eighth, the best World Cup finish by an American since 1984. The same day, Anchorage's Nina Kemppel placed a career-high 14th in the women's pursuit, the best World Cup result by an American woman in at least 14 years.

2002

Nina Kemppel caps a long career by placing 15th in the 30-K classic at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The result came on the final day of Kemppel's fourth Olympics.

2003

Kris Freeman of New Hampshire places fourth in the 15-K classic at the World Championships, the best result by an American at the world championships in more than two decades. Six years later, Freeman duplicated the result at the 2009 World Championships.

2007

Kikkan Randall of Anchorage wins a World Cup sprint race in Russia, becoming the first American woman to win a World Cup race since Alison Owen-Spencer in 1979. Randall is the first American woman to win a race since the "official" start of World Cup skiing in 1982.

2009

Kikkan Randall claims a silver medal in the sprint race at the World Championships, joining Bill Koch as the only Americans to win medals at the World Championships. Koch claimed silver in 1976 and bronze in 1982 in the 30-K races.

2012

Kikkan Randall captures the World Cup sprint title during a season that yielded two victories, one second-place finish, one third-place finish and only one finish out of the top 10 (11th place) in nine sprint races. Randall also posts the best overall finish by an American woman, placing fifth in the standings that combine sprint and distance results.

2012

The U.S. Ski Team enjoys its best cross-country season in history, getting World Cup points from six women and five men, including three Alaskans -- Randall, Holly Brooks and Sadie Bjornsen.

-- Compiled by Beth Bragg

World Team Selections
Cross country
World Cup team — Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen, Lars Flora.
World Junior team — Logan Hanneman, Fairbanks; Scott Patterson, Anchorage; Forrest Mahlen, Anchorage; Stephanie Kirk, Anchorage
U-23 team — Erik Bjornsen, Anchorage; Eric Packer, Anchorage; Reese Hanneman, Fairbanks; Sadie Bjornsen, Anchorage; Becca Rorabaugh, Fairbanks.
Biathlon
World Cup team — Jay Hakkinen, Kasilof
World Youth team (ages 17-18) — Sam Dougherty, Anchorage; Jake Prince, Anchorage;
World Junior team (19-20) — Kimberly Del Frate, Palmer; Amanda Del Frate, Palmer.
Snowboarding
World Cup team — Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, Girdwood
World championship team — Ryan Stassel, Girdwood
World Junior team — Rosie Mancari, Girdwood
Alpine
World Junior team — Kieffer Christianson, Girdwood

NCAA ALL-AMERICANS
(Top 10 at NCAA Championships)
Cross country
Women
• Amy Glen, Vermont (1st classic, 8th freestyle)
• Caitlin Patterson, Vermont (2nd freestyle, 5th classic)
• Jaime Bronga, UAA (5th freestyle)
Men
• David Norris, Montana State (2nd classic, 7th freestyle)
• Eric Packer, Dartmouth (4th classic, 8th freestyle)
• Patrick Johnson, Middlebury (5th classic)
• Andrew Daugherty, Denver (8th classic)
Alpine
Women
• Alex Parker, UAA (8th slalom)
• Vanessa Berther, UAA (8th giant slalom)
Men
• Andreas Adde, UAA (6th giant slalom, 9th slalom)Sean Alexander, UAA (8th slalom)

U.S. CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPS
Medal winners (top 3)
• Tyler Kornfield, Anchorage (gold, classic sprint; bronze, freestyle sprint)
• David Norris, Fairbanks (silver, 30-K classic)
• Eric Packer, Anchorage (bronze, classic sprint; bronze, 30-K classic)
• Kate Fitzgerald, Palmer (bronze, classic sprint)

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