Big crowd at Kincaid Park in Anchorage sees Alaskans sprint to gold medals in national championships

One of the biggest spectator crowds ever to gather at Kincaid Park was rewarded by an Alaska sweep of the gold medals at Friday's U.S. Cross Country Championships.

Reese Hanneman and Caitlin Patterson outsprinted the competition to capture national championships in the freestyle sprint. For Patterson, the victory was her second in as many races this week.

With the sun low on the horizon and the temperatures in the low 20s for the final heats, hundreds of bundled-up fans gathered at strategic viewpoints along the short courses — 1.7 kilometers for the men, 1.4 for the women.

"This is epic. This is sick," Hanneman, 28, said of the crowd, which filled three parking lots to overflowing.

"I remember being here for the national championships when I was younger and watching those older guys and hoping to be on the podium some day."

Those hopes became reality during the six-man final. Hanneman said he was in second or third place most of the race before shooting into the lead in the final 200 meters.

Fans who watched from the finish line saw Hanneman edge Kevin Bolger of Wisconsin by 8 hundredths of a second for the men's win. Tyler Kornfield of Anchorage grabbed the bronze medal.

In the women's race, Patterson attacked the final big hill on the course and carried her speed all the way to the finish for a decisive win over Jasmi Joensuu of the University of Denver.

[Patterson family celebrates two national champs in one day]

Patterson, who on Wednesday joined brother Scott to stage a sibling sweep of the distance freestyle championships, won by more than 3.5 seconds — a huge margin in such a short race.

It was Patterson's fourth national title and her first in a sprint race. A South High graduate who lives and trains in Vermont, Patterson is mostly known for her prowess in distance races.

"On this course I realized holding your momentum was very important, especially on the last corner, the last finishing stretch," Patterson said. "Whether I was ready to go sprint-pace fast was the question, but I thought I held the momentum really well and it turned out really well."

Well enough that Caitlin, 27, planned to tease her brother about the day's events.

Scott, 25, is also known best as a distance skier, but he was among 30 men who advanced out of the morning's qualifying round. He finished last in the most tightly contested of the five quarterfinals — only 1.15 seconds separated sixth-place Scott from first place.

"He needs to work on his finishing sprint a little bit," Caitlin said with a smile. "I'll probably rub it in a little."

Unlike the Pattersons, Hanneman and Kornfield are known for their sprint skills.

Hanneman grew up in Fairbanks, Kornfield grew up in Anchorage, and both train with Alaska Pacific University's successful ski program.

Hanneman has won seven national-championship medals, six of them in sprints. Friday's victory makes him a three-time national champion — he won the 2016 freestyle sprint and the 2014 classic sprint.

Kornfield also owns seven national-championship medals, all of them coming in sprint races.

While Hanneman won all three of his heats — quarterfinal, semifinal and final — Kornfield advanced to the finals as one of two lucky losers — the name given to skiers who don't automatically advance based on their placement but who move on because of their times. The format being used for the national championship sprint races awards spots in the final to the top two finishers of each semifinal, plus the next two fastest skiers from either semifinal.

In Kornfield's semifinal, Hanneman and Bolger went 1-2 and Eivind Romberg Kvaale of the University of Denver out-lunged Kornfield for third place. Kvaale and Kornfield both advanced to the final because their heat was by far faster than the other semifinal, won by Anchorage's Eric Packer, who went on to place fifth in the finals.

"I was relieved to make it to the final," Kornfield said, "and I was relieved to make the podium, especially with this crowd.

"This is unbelievable. I remember at the 2010 national championships (at Kincaid) there was just a wave of noise, but this is even more. I'm so excited Reese and I could make the podium and make them proud."

[As national championships approach, ski coach Jan Buron's impact is easy to see]

Alaska's skiers have given fans plenty to cheer so far. All four of the gold medals have gone to Alaskans and so have two of the bronze medals — Wednesday, Chelsea Holmes of Girdwood placed third in the women's 10K freestyle.

Ten of Friday's 24 semifinalists — five men, five women — are from or train in Alaska. Of those, five made it to the finals — three men, two women. Hannah Halvorsen, a member of the Alaska Pacific University ski club, placed fifth in the women's final.

Alaska's juniors are faring well, too. Halvorsen was Friday's top junior woman and Gus Schumacher of the Alaska Winter Stars was the top junior man, placing third in the senior men's semifinal heat.

In all, nine juniors — four men, five women — qualified for the senior-level heats. Among the Alaska contingent advancing were Halvorsen, Schumacher, UAA's Hannah Rudd and Hailey Swirbul and the Alaska Winter Stars' Molly Gellert.

Separate heats were held for juniors who didn't qualify for the senior heats. In those finals, Scott Schultz of New York and Sydney Palmer-Leger took the gold medals. Schultz held off challenges by APU's Hunter Wonders and Canyon Tobin, who placed second and third, respectively.

The national championships continue Sunday with mass-start classic races and conclude Monday with a classic sprint. Though the first day of racing was held in a blizzard Wednesday, Friday's conditions were ideal.

"You couldn't ask for a more beautiful day to ski race," Hanneman said. "You hope it's gonna be like this — clear, sunny, dead-calm, gorgeous grooming."

Men's final

1) Reese Hanneman 3:11.33; 2) Kevin Bolger 3:11.41; 3) Tyler Kornfield 3:12.21; 4) Zak Ketterson 3:13.25; 5) Eric Packer 3:13.67; 6) Eivind Romberg Kvaale 3:25.41.

Women's final

1) Caitlin Patterson 3:20.93; 2) Jasmi Joensuu 3:24.49; 3) Petra Hyncicova 3:25.12; 4) Kaitlynn Miller 3:25.28; 5) Hannah Halvorsen 3:28.59; 6) Kelsey Phinney 3:30.71.