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Erik Bjornsen gives U.S. a sibling act for nordic skiing

Beth Bragg
Erik Bjornsen won the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle race on the Soldier Hollow trails Friday, January 4, 2013, in Midway, Utah. He earned redemption by racing to a time of 37 minutes, 2.7 seconds, beating defending national champion Tad Elliott of Vail, Colo., by six seconds.

Erik Bjornsen caught up to his older sister on Wednesday.

Bjornsen, 22, will join sister Sadie at the Winter Olympics next month, giving Alaska Pacific University's nordic program four of the 14 skiers named to the U.S. team.

Sadie was an early selection to the squad, as were fellow APU skiers Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks.

Erik's selection to the team was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Ski Team, which added seven skiers to a team that includes seven others who clinched Olympic berths last month.

Joining Erik Bjornsen as additions to the team were one woman and five other men -- Ida Sargent for the women and Simi Hamilton, Kris Freeman, Torin Koos, Andy Newell and Brian Gregg. Previous selections included Randall, Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins and Noah Hoffman.

"This is perhaps the strongest USA cross-country team going to the Winter Olympics in modern history, if not ever," said Chris Grover, a West High graduate who is the head coach of the U.S. team, said during Wednesday's announcement.

"Part of the reason of our excitement is if you go back four years, we hadn't had any World Cup (podium finishes) leading up to those Games. This year we're in a different place -- we've had four World Cup podiums and wins going into these Games, and four podiums and wins in World Cup stage races. We feel like we're coming in with a lot more momentum, and we're excited to see what we can do in Sochi."

Randall, the 31-year-old East High graduate, is the star of the team, the winner of two straight World Cup sprint races and a medal favorite going into to Russia.

A number of the other women on the team, including Brooks and Bjornsen, have earned World Cup medals in either the relay or team sprint. Top-10 finishes have become common, at least for the American women, whereas a decade or so ago they were inconceivable.

The United States has fielded bigger cross-country teams for the Olympics, but Grover said coaches decided to keep the team small this time because of its overall strength, The hope that everyone will get to race in at least one event. There are 12 cross-country races on the Sochi schedule.

"We decided to only bring the athletes we plan on starting, and with seven women and seven men, we have our start positions filled," Grover said. "Seven and seven was the magic number for us."

Asked if the plan is for everyone to start at least one race, Grover said "absolutely." Who will ski what hasn't been determined, and the relay teams won't be decided until competition is in progress and coaches see who is skiing well at that particular time.

A smaller team means heartbreak for skiers left off the roster. Among the Alaskans who were on the bubble but didn't make the cut are APU's Reece Hanneman, Rosie Brennan, Becca Rorabaugh and Kate Fitzgerald.

All turned in strong performances at the recent national championships -- Hanneman (gold, silver and bronze) and Brennan (gold, bronze, bronze) each won three medals and Rorabaugh won two (gold, bronze). Bjornsen claimed a gold and a silver.

Grover said the team was selected based on international rankings.

"We used no discretion to name this team," he said.

"That becomes for sure a challenge, especially on the men's side when you get down to the sixth, seventh, eighth guys. You're really splitting hairs because the FIS points get quite close at that point. Because (the points) were so close it became extremely tough to use discretion, so we decided not to use discretion -- we would have had to use discretion to put an athlete with marginally less points over an athlete with marginally more points."

The Bjornsens are the first siblings to make the same Olympic team in cross-country, U.S. Ski Team officials said Wednesday.

The United States has had its share of sibling acts -- most famous among them, perhaps, are twins Phil and Steve Mahre, who earned gold and silver in the slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

So far, there are seven pairs of siblings on Team USA -- Bryan and Taylor Fletcher in nordic combined, Craig and Erika Brown in curling, Maia and Alex Shibutani in figure skating, Arielle and Taylor Gold in snowboarding, Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux in women's hockey and Amanda (women's hockey) and Phil Kessel (men's hockey).

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


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com