Even with its two biggest stars in Europe, the Alaska Pacific University nordic ski program dominated the women's competition Wednesday at the U.S. National Championships.
Led by second-place Sadie Bjornsen, APU placed four women in the six-skier final of a classic sprint race at Utah's Soldier Hollow. Bjornsen, a member of the U.S. Ski Team from Winthrop, Wash., lost her shot at a national title when Jennie Bender of Johnson, Vt., outlunged her at the finish line for first place.
APU's Rosie Brennan of Park City, Utah, and Kate Fitzgerald of Palmer finished third and fourth, respectively, and Becca Rorabaugh of Fairbanks placed sixth. Breaking up the train of Alaska-trained skiers was Sophie Caldwell of Stratton, Vt.
The sprint kicked off the national championships, which are taking place without the country's best skiers. The nation's elite skiers, including APU's Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks, are in Europe competing internationally.
Alaskans still represented. Besides the four APU skiers in the women's top six, four Anchorage skiers made it to the finals of the junior boys and junior girls races, with Annie Liotta winning the girls race, and two made it to the finals of the junior boys race. Liotta was joined on the junior girls podium by third-place Marion Woods, her former teammate on the Alaska Winter Stars and West teams. Liotta races for Montana State, while Woods is still in high school, racing for AWS and West.
Two other Anchorage skiers -- Celia Haering of APU and Stephanie Kirk, formerly of AWS and now with the University of Vermont -- advanced to the B Final and finished 1-2, which earned them seventh and eighth place overall, respectively.
In the junior boys race, APU's Forest Mahlen grabbed second place and APU's Thomas O'Harra placed fourth.
The only race in which Alaskans came up empty was the men's race. Just one skier advanced to the semifinals -- APU's Peter Kling of Waitsfield, Vt., who ended up last in the B Final to place 12th overall.
Bjornsen, who captured a World Cup silver medal in a team sprint race last season with Randall as her teammate, won her quarterfinal and semifinal races on her way to another silver-medal performance. Gold eluded her in the final meter when Bender lunged at the end, getting her front ski across the finish line ahead of Bjornsen's.
"In the semifinal I got really frustrated taking it sort easy and I just decided if you want to learn to be a World Cup racer, you have to go hard all the time," Bjornsen said in a release from the U.S. Ski Team. "So I went a bit hard there.
"Then in the finals I found myself in the lead and I thought I could break off on the downhill but there's always that draft, and coming into the finish line it was like a double-pole derby. But it came quicker than I expected, so I didn't get my lunge in."