Meet Alaska's team for the Sochi Games

bbragg@adn.comFebruary 6, 2014 

  • HOLLY BROOKS, cross-country skiing
    31 years old
    Olympic history
    2010 Vancouver -- 11th, 4x5-K relay; 35th, 30-K; 38th, sprint; 41st, 10-K; 55th, 7.5/7.5-K pursuit.
    Early impression: The first time Brooks appeared in the Daily News, she was a West High coach trying to keep kids interested and active despite poor training conditions in 2004. She sent them on a scavenger hunt to homes around Kincaid Park. "You can't tell a team of 75 to go out on a two-hour run. This way they get a workout without even knowing it," she said.
    Fun facts: Married to Service High grad Rob Whitney, former Alaska high school Skimeister. She coached APU nordic skiers before becoming a member of its elite team. Has a cat named Buggz. Despite a broken wrist, she skied the 2012 Tour de Ski, a grueling series of seven races in nine days.
    Career highlights: 2012, bronze medal, World Cup 4x5-K relay; 2012, fifth place, World Cup 10-K freestyle; 2012, Mount Marathon champion

    RYAN STASSEL, slopestyle snowboarding
    21 years old
    Olympic rookie
    Early impression: We first met Stassel when he was 10, taking on a 17-year-old twice his size in the finals of an April 2003 boardercross race in Girdwood. He was a few yards from winning when the older, experienced rider whooshed past him. "I was like 'What the ... !?' Man, I thought I had him," Stassel said.
    Fun facts: Fishes commercially on the Kenai in the summer -- and takes a trampoline with him to stay in shape. Started snowboarding at Hilltop. Graduated from Service High. Got into slopestyle long before it was an Olympic sport.
    Career highlights:Three-time U.S. Revolution Tour champion; 2014, gold medal, U.S. Grand Prix; 2014, bronze medal, U.S. Grand Prix

    KIKKAN RANDALL, cross-country skiing
    31 years old
    Olympic history:2010 Vancouver -- sixth, team sprint; eighth, sprint; 11th, 4x5-K relay; 23rd, 30-K; 2006 Turin -- ninth, sprint; 10th, team sprint; 14th, 4x5-K relay, 53rd, 10-K; 2002 Salt Lake City -- 44th, sprint; 66th, 10-K pursuit
    Early impression: The first time Randall made headlines for a sports achievement was the 1997 Tortoise and Hare 5-K, when she was 14. She chased down two experienced runners -- Ruth Horton and Kjerstin Lastufka, the reigning Crow Pass Crossing champion -- for the win. "I started putting in the kick and counting down as I got closer -- 14 seconds, 10 seconds, five seconds," Randall said of catching Lastufka with less than two kilometers left. "I started putting in the long strides. I kept counting and I started to push,'' she said of reeling in Horton. Said Lastufka, "She snuck up on us. She's an awesome runner and she's going to be making some news.''
    Fun facts: Makes history every time she wins a World Cup medal -- no American woman, past or present, rivals her record. East High graduate. Rides a unicycle.
    Career highlights: 24-time World Cup/World Cup Stage medals (11 gold, seven silver, six bronze); Two World Championship medals (2013 team sprint gold, 2009 freestyle spring silver)

    JESSICA SCHULTZ, curling
    29 years old
    Olympic history: 2006 Turin -- eighth place Early impression: As a 14-year-old, Schultz and three other teens pulled off a shocking championship victory in the Anchorage Curling Club's Spring Bonspiel. They knocked off all the adult teams and scored a lospided win over a team of servicemen from Canada -- the country that owns the sport -- in the finals. "It was very scary," Schultz said. Fun facts: Was MVP of the East High softball team in 2003 and an all-conference pick throughout her high school softball career. A gardener, she grew swiss chard last summer without even knowing what it tastes like. Works in Minneapolis as a physical therapy assistant.
    Career highlights: 2014, U.S. Olympic Team Trials champion; 2013, fourth place, World Championships; 2005, silver medal, World Championships

    SADIE BJORNSEN, cross-country skiing
    24 years old
    Olympic rookie
    Early impression: After her first season with APU, she helped nudge brother Erik, who was skiing for UAA at the time, to join her. "Of course I was pushing him. I wanted him to come here because I've had such an awesome experience and it's been such a sweet season. Summers on the glacier? C'mon, Erik!" she said. Fun facts: Pursues her college degree online while competing, rising early to attend online classes with APU. First came to Anchorage to ski for UAA, then joined APU. Was an NCAA All-America for UAA, placing third in the classic race at the 2009 national championships.
    Career highlights: 2013, bronze medal, World Cup relay; 2013, fourth place, World Cup team sprint; 2013, three golds, two silvers, U.S. National Championships

    ERIK BJORNSEN, cross-country skiing
    22 years old
    Olympic rookie
    Early impression: The Bjornsens started as alpine skiers but they lived in Washington's Methow Valley, prime cross-country territory, so they switched sports. Erik remembered his alpine days in 2011, after joining the APU team: "We started slowly trying it out and I enjoyed it a lot more. When I think back to downhill skiing, I think of being cold and going up the chairlift freezing," he said. Fun facts: Scored World Cup points for the first time in his career earlier this month; it was his 11th career start on the big stage. Earned NCAA All-America honors by winning a silver medal in the classic race at the 2011 national championships.
    Career highlights: 2014, 18th place, World Cup 15-K classic; 2014, one gold, two silvers, U.S. National Championships
    -- Beth Bragg, adn.com

For years, they could see Russia from here.

Now, a half-dozen Alaska athletes are sampling borscht and taking flight over giant Matroyshka nesting dolls situated at the competition venues at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

They are 13 time zones away in pursuit of personal goals, if not global dominance -- although the latter is expected from one of them. Anchorage's Kikkan Randall is a gold-medal favorite in cross-country skiing's freestyle sprint.

Joining her on Team USA:

• Anchorage cross-country skier Holly Brooks, 31, a veteran of the 2010 Games.

• Anchorage curler Jessica Schultz, 29, a member of the 2006 team.

• Anchorage cross-country skiers Sadie and Erik Bjornsen, one of at least seven sibling acts on Team USA, both of them Olympic rookies.

• Anchorage slopestyle snowboarder Ryan Stassel, whose Olympic debut coincided with the Olympic debut of his sport. Stassel, 21, placed 16th in Thursday's preliminaries and will face heated competition in Friday's semifinals.

Randall, 31, is the Olympic expert of the bunch. This is her fourth Olympics.

"Having been to three so far, I've gone from knowing a great result would be to break into the top 10 to knowing that if things go well there could be some medal chances," Randall said in an interview earlier this season. "The most important thing is to do the preparation and come in with a great frame of mind.

"I'm excited for the opportunity but I'm not gonna hang my career on whether I win a medal at this Olympics."

No reason for that. Randall's greatness has been well chronicled. No other American cross-country skier has had a better career. Only one, 1976 silver medalist Bill Koch, has won an Olympic medal.

Randall recorded two victories in her last three sprint races, an indication she is ready to roll in Russia. Her big race -- the freestyle sprint -- is Tuesday. Alaskans will have to pull an all-nighter to watch it live -- preliminaries begin at 1 a.m. Alaska time and the finals are shortly before 4:30 a.m.

PRIMED

Many of the other Alaskans also seem primed:

• Brooks enjoyed the best season of her life a year ago -- among other things, she earned a bronze medal in a World Cup relay. But she struggled early in this season, and after Christmas she decided to make a quick trip back to the United States to regroup. Since returning to Europe, she has posted her best results of the season.

• Sadie Bjornsen was held back by injuries in recent years but she's been on fire this season. A strong classic skier, she earned two top-10 World Cup finishes and helped the Americans to bronze in a relay.

• Erik Bjornsen has competed primarily in domestic races in recent years but after winning three medals at the national championships last month in Utah, he joined the U.S. team in Europe. He came up big, placing 18th in a 15-kilometer classic race for the first World Cup points of his career.

• Schultz and her teammates were one spot away from a medal at last year's world championships, placing fourth. If things go well, they could wind up in the medal round at Sochi. Four years ago, Schultz was a member of an underdog team that won the U.S. Olympics trials and finished eighth in Vancouver. She has new teammates now, and a lot more experience.

"Going into the Olympics we didn't know how to prepare or what to expect," Schultz said earlier this season. "Being on the team I'm on now, we know what we need to do to reach our goals. We know what to expect."

TEAM ALASKA ASTERISK

Because this is the Olympics, everyplace wants Olympians to call their own.

Remember back when Tommy Moe won Olympic gold and silver in 1994, and both Girdwood and Palmer fought for the right to be called his hometown? And some town in Montana even tried to claim him as a local?

With that in mind, meet Team Alaska Asterisk.

It's a squad of five athletes with strong ties to Alaska:

• Figure skater Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., who grew up in Eagle River and learned to skate during the several years her military family lived here.

• Slopestyle skier Dave Duncan of Canada, who was an alpine skier for UAA in 2003-06.

• Cross-country skier Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, the son of an oil executive who learned to cross-country ski while his family lived in Alaska. His older brother Ben skied for Service High.

• Alpine skier Anna Berecz of Hungary, who is a junior on the UAA ski team.

• Biathlete Sara Studebaker of Boise, who has made Anchorage one of her training bases. Her tie is about to get stronger -- she is engaged to Nikiski's Zach Hall, a former member of the U.S. Biathlon Team.

IN THE RUNNING?

At least a couple members of Team Asterisk -- Wagner and Duncan -- could be in the medal hunt.

Duncan won the last two World Cup slopestyle races, so he is among the favorites in Sochi. And skater Wagner is ranked fifth in the world, higher than any other U.S. woman.

You'll see plenty of Wagner, because figure skating is one of the Winter Olympics' glamor sports. She's also getting attention because she is one of the few American athletes willing to publicly denounce Russia's anti-gay law prohibiting gay "propaganda" aimed at children.

She spoke out last year when the law was passed, and earlier this week she told reporters that she won't hide her opinions if asked about the issue while in Sochi.

"It doesn't really matter where I am. It's still my opinion," Wagner was quoted by The Associated Press. "I just believe in equality for all."

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

 

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