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Once rivals, APU nordic men ski toward group goal

  • Author: Doyle Woody
  • Updated: July 20, 2016
  • Published July 19, 2016

Members of the US and APU Nordic Ski Teams practice at an altitude of 5,500 feet on Eagle Glacier just to the northeast of Girdwood on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

EAGLE GLACIER — Training partners, teammates and buds these days, many of the elite men in the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center program were once adversaries of a sort.

In one geographic faction was the Anchorage crew — Scott Patterson, Eric Packer, Tyler Kornfield and Lex Treinen. Their nemeses, Reese Hanneman and David Norris, hailed from Fairbanks. At stake in the rivalry was city pride, first as kids and later on the front lines of high school and club competitions.

"We hated the Anchorage guys,'' Hanneman recalled, with more amusement than venom, Monday during a training camp on Eagle Glacier. "We were like the rednecks from Fairbanks, out skiing in the woods, going up against the city boys.''

Reese Hanneman visits with a member of the press between workouts inside the house where the athletes stay during the summer training sessions on Eagle Glacier on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Glimpse the Skimeister standings from the state high school championships in 2007 — Treinen of West High runner-up, Norris and Hanneman of Lathrop in third and fourth, Packer and Patterson of South following in fifth and sixth.

Erik Bjornsen, in front, and Scott Patterson sprint up a short hill during summer training on Eagle Glacier on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Nearly a decade later, those principals have become united, allies in quest of common goals — most immediately, consistent World Cup starts, and ultimately, the 2018 Olympics.

What drew them together was the lure of coach Erik Flora's powerhouse APU program, arguably the strongest in the country and one that has forged Olympians for the better part of two decades.

This current crop of APU men hopes to duplicate the prosperity and depth generated by the program's women. APU's women's ranks include Kikkan Randall, a four-time Olympian and three-time World Cup sprint titlist; Sadie Bjornsen, a 2014 Olympian who placed 14th overall in the World Cup last season; Rosie Brennan, who ranked 54th overall in the World Cup last season; and Chelsea Holmes, who last season scored her first World Cup points and won two medals at the national championships.

"The women are finding huge success,'' Hanneman said. "We've definitely learned a lot from the women and how they got together.

Kikkan Randall, left, and Sadie Bjornsen sprint up a short hill during summer training on Eagle Glacier on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"Seeing Kikkan do it, you realize you can be the best in the world, and you can be from here.''

APU men have enjoyed success previously. Lars Flora, Erik's brother, and James Southam were each two-time Olympians, Flora in 2002 and 2006 and Southam in 2006 and 2010. And APU's current leading man, Erik Bjornsen, Sadie's brother, was a 2014 Olympian and finished 67th in the World Cup overall standings last season.

The current crew gives APU the measure of depth Erik Flora seeks. Last season furnished ample evidence.

Packer won the classic sprint at the national championships, Hanneman finished runner-up and Kornfield came in fourth. Hanneman won the freestyle sprint at nationals. Patterson won the 15-kilometer classic national title. And Bjornsen won the 50K national championship, with Norris third, Packer fifth, Patterson sixth and Treinen 10th.

Norris also won the American Birkebeiner 55K, the country's most storied ski marathon. And Packer seized the overall title on the domestic SuperTour, which earned him the right to start next season on the World Cup tour.

David Norris visits with a member of the press between workouts inside the house where the athletes stay during the summer training sessions on Eagle Glacier on Monday. Norris recently won the well-known Mt Marathon race in Seward on July 4. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"They are absolutely pushing to the next level,'' Flora said. "The difference now is the depth, and that was always one of our goals, to get a group together so they can push each other.''

Most of the current group of APU men zeroed in on the program when they decided to continue pursuing racing ambitions after their college careers.

Norris returned to Alaska after graduating from Montana State and Patterson after graduating from Vermont. Packer came back after his career at Dartmouth. Kornfield graduated from UAF. Treinen attended UAA and UAF. And Hanneman, the longest-serving men's team member, joined APU after two years at UAF.

What they sought was a program that could tap their potential and furnish elite training partners and exceptional coaching. Flora has trained many Olympians — two-time Olympian and two-time Birkebeiner winner Holly Brooks was also an APU athlete — and in 2013 he was named the U.S. Olympic Committee's National Coach of the Year for all sports.

Another benefit at APU is the training facility on Eagle Glacier, just a 10-minute helicopter ride from Girdwood. The venue allows elite skiers to log high-volume summer training on snow, and training camps there foster an environment of strenuous training and a culture of camaraderie.

The house in which nordic skiers stay during their summer training sessions on Eagle Glacier overlooks Girdwood and Turnagain Arm on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Flora and his skiers have long pointed to Eagle Glacier as a springboard to APU's international and domestic success. Flora and his staff have groomed serpentined, undulating trails there that mimic courses for the 2017 World Championships in Finland.

APU skiers and U.S. Ski Team members — Randall, Brennan and the Bjornsen siblings are among members of both teams — conducted training camps at the glacier this month.

Skiers spent a week hammering twice-a-day workouts. The schedule: morning ski workout, eat, afternoon ski workout, eat, sleep, repeat. Between workouts, skiers shared cooking and cleaning duties, so they bonded outdoors and indoors.

"Looking at a domestic ski team, you'd have five guys you want to train with and they're in this program,'' Patterson said, relaxing between workouts Monday.

André Horton makes photos of the APU Nordic Ski Team overlooking Girdwood and Chugach Mountains on Monday. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"There's no better situation than training with your best friends,'' Norris said.

The men can play off each other's strengths, Hanneman noted. Hanneman is best known as a sprinter so he can share his knowledge with teammates like Patterson and Norris, who are better at longer distances, and vice versa.

"It's very motivating,'' Hanneman said. "It's a really healthy mix of guys. What we're doing is working — look at nationals. You're so stoked. You're like, 'It's like an APU training session.'

"The staff, the structure of the team and the coaching, and the support of a program, is the best in the country. We're the boys from Alaska. We've been skiing together since we were 8. We're here to dominate.''

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