While the state of Alaska was dumping a couple million dollars into a holiday basketball tournament, the under-financed, privately funded, fight-and-scratch-just-to-survive Nordic skiers from Alaska Pacific University were scoring big on the world stage.
On Sunday, APU skiers Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks comprised half of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team that charged to a historic third-place finish in the FIS World Cup relay. The finish shocked the Europeans who swarmed to Gaellivare, Sweden. The U.S. had never before put a cross-country ski team on the podium.
The country has long been considered a second-rate -- if not third-rate -- power in world Nordic skiing, but Anchorage-grown Randall has been leading an American uprising staged in significant part in the great white silence of the nation's far north.
World Cup and Olympic teammate Holly Brooks, a former APU Nordic Center coach, opened the relay in Sweden on Sunday, to put the U.S. in contention. Randall took over from her to hammer home the motto of one of the state's favorite bumper stickers: "Alaska Girls Kick Ass."
"This race was epic for several reasons," said Chris Hodel, a diehard Anchorage skier and member of the APU Board of Trustees who was monitoring the World Cup race as it unfolded. "This was a race at distance; they were amongst the best women skiers in the world; and they were racing at a level that has not previously been achieved by US women."
Back home in Anchorage, the big news was that unranked Charlotte, a second-rate basketball power, had topped Northeastern, another second-rate basketball power, in The Great Alaska Shootout. The state-funded Seawolves from the University of Alaska Anchorage claimed fourth against no-name Loyola-Marymount.
Score one for private enterprise.
The APU Nordic Center, which has a record of getting results, is funded by a hodge-podge of Alaskans and Alaskan businesses who support cross-country skiing: Former Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas and his wife set up an endowment to fund a training center; Carlile Transportation Systems, an Alaska-based business with a national reach, takes cares of moving the skiers around the world; Conoco-Phillips, an oil company; and McKinley Capital, an investment fund, kick in funds.
The entire APU team, which currently includes two Olympians and about two-dozen skiers in an Olympic development program, was formed a decade ago to try to put U.S. cross-country skiing on the map. It has made steady progress. The program has to date produced six Olympians.
In the 4x5 kilometer relay on Sunday, Brooks -- coming off a personal best in the fifth in the 10K freestyle (skate) race on Saturday -- strapped on the classic skis to pace the U.S. to eighth place after the first leg.
Randall, who put herself on the podium in a 10K for the first time in that Saturday freestyle, picked it up from there with the fastest freestyle of that leg to move the U.S. into second, only 8.2 seconds behind the dominate Norwegians.
With the U.S. sensing the opportunity for a break-through performance, Liz Stephen from East Montpelier, Vt., cut the lead of the Norwegians even more. She had the U.S. within 4.2 seconds before the hand off to Jesse Diggins from Afton, Minn. She couldn't quite hold off Sweden's Charlotte Kalla, an Olympic champion, for second, but she did beat back a challenge from Norway II to put the U.S. on the podium for the first time.
The steadily improving team's previous best came last winter in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, when the skiers finished fifth sans an ailing Randall. The women's results this year have been impressive, with the team on the podium in the relay and Randall there in the 10K -- an event in which the reigning world sprint champion has struggled in the past.
One of the fastest women in the world -- at least on skis -- is this year showing signs she can go the distance as well, and Brooks, who came close to the podium Friday, doesn't appear to be far behind. Erik Flora, the APU center Nordic coach and the international cross-country "Coach of the Year," was ecstatic, as was brother Lars, a former Olympian, and development coordinator for the APU ski team.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com