James Southam, race director of the 2014 U.S. National Championships, put a twist on Tuesday's nordic skiing relay at Kincaid Park -- mixed gender. Two men and two women from each team competed in the 4x5-kilometer race, the first two skiing classic technique on one course and the second two skiing freestyle on a different course.
The idea first surfaced at last year's U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Congress and athletes were thrilled when it was made an event in Anchorage, he said.
"There was a buzz," Southam said.
He heard the same reaction when it was over.
"Today was all they were hoping for," he said.
Skiers from Alaska Pacific University's Nordic Center were certainly happy. APU's first team of Reese Hanneman, Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall had three of the fastest leg times and cruised to victory in 55 minutes, 51.5 seconds. The foursome finished 46 seconds ahead of Stratton Mountain School (56:37.1) while APU's second team of Lex Treinen, Rosie Brennan, David Norris and Holly Brooks was third in 57:09.1.
Hanneman gave APU a 12-second lead after the first five kilometers.
"Reese started it out well," Sadie Bjornsen said. "He set the tone for the rest of us."
By the time she tagged her brother midway through, Sadie increased APU's lead to 50 seconds. Stratton made up about 10 seconds during the third leg, but didn't close the gap nearly enough to challenge Randall, APU's anchor, a four-time Olympian and the reigning three-time World Cup sprint champion.
Even with a sizeable lead, Randall said she needed to ski all-out due to the strength of the other clubs. Since her days skiing at East High, club programs have been getting more competitive, said Randall, 32, who now owns 18 national titles.
Southam agreed, which is one reason he opted for the mixed relay.
"Clubs now in the country are strong enough to support an event like this," he said.
There's nothing better than relays, Hanneman said.
"Team events are just so fun," he said. "You can all celebrate with each other."
Mixed relay made its Olympic debut this year in Sochi in biathlon. Randall said there's been talk of adding it as a nordic event at the World Cup level. Kincaid made for a great venue to test mixed relay on the national circuit, she said.
"It was perfect to try it out here in Anchorage," Randall said. "Hopefully, this race is here to stay."
While it was Olympians who earned prize money -- the winners split $750, second place shared $500 and third place earned $300 -- competing against the country's top skiers was plenty rewarding for West High freshman Maggalen York.
"It was amazing," she said. "It's cool to race with them. Seeing your name on the same list as theirs.
"It's tough because you're getting passed by so many people," York added. "But it's cool to ski side by side with Olympians."
The U.S. National Championships conclude Friday with the women's 30-kilometer starting at 10 a.m. at the Hillside Trails and and men's 50-kilometer race following at noon.
Kids have a chance to ski with Olympians on Wednesday night, when kids ages 9 to 19 can meet a host of Olympians who are in Anchorage for the U.S. National Championships and SuperTour Finals.
The free event, which allows children to ski with, take photographs with and get autographs from Olympic athletes, will be held at Kincaid Chalet from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Parental supervision is requested.
Reach Mike Nesper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
2014 U.S. National Championships
4x5-kilometer mixed relay
1. APU-1, 55:51.5 (Reese Hanneman 16:20.5, Sadie Bjornsen 18:45.1, Erik Bjornsen 10:18.4, Kikkan Randall 10:27.5); 2. Stratton Mountain, 56:37.1 (Andrew Newell 16:48.9, Sophie Caldwell 19:08, Simeon Hamilton 10:07.8, Jessica Diggins 10:32.4); 3. APU-2, 57:09.1 (Lex Treinen 16:32.8, Rosie Brennan 19:23.6, David Norris 10:15.1, Holly Brooks 10:57.8); 4. Stratton Mountain-2, 58:00.6; 5. Fastest of the Fast Twitch, 58:14.5; 6. Sun Valley, 58:16.2; 7. Craftsbury, 58:17.9; 8. APU-3, 59:07.4; 9. Universit of Vermont, 59:39.7; 10. Sun Valley-2, 1:00:00.1.
By MIKE NESPER