Skiing

Alaska men sweep the medals and Hailey Swirbul gets her 3rd gold on final day of US Cross Country Ski Championships

U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships

Anchorage skier Hailey Swirbul is on such a roll that even her weaknesses have become strengths.

Swirbul on Tuesday claimed her third national championship in four races at the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships, winning the women’s classic sprint with a finish-line lunge.

“Which is a great thing for me, because historically I have not been good at lunging,” she said. “I have not figured out the technique, but I did it pretty good today. I was proud of myself.”

Swirbul, a 21-year-old member of the Alaska Pacific University nordic program, has plenty reason to be proud.

She was the dominant skier at the six-day race series in Houghton, Michigan, with a medal in all four races — gold in the two sprint races, gold in the 20-kilometer classic race and bronze in the 10K freestyle race.

“The competition here is no joke,” Swirbul said. “I think I was really lucky to be in good form and to have some good luck and amazing skis.”

On Tuesday, she was part of another banner day for Alaskans.

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Swirbul edged South High graduate Caitlin Patterson by .24 seconds in the six-skier women’s final that also included fifth-place Mariel Pulles of UAF and sixth-place Rosie Frankowski of APU.

The men’s podium was an entirely made-in-Alaska production — gold for Hunter Wonders, silver for Luke Jager, bronze for Tyler Kornfield.

Anchorage skiers Gus Schumacher and Erik Bjornsen went 1-2 in the men’s B final to finish seventh and eighth overall, respectively, and Becca Rorabaugh of Anchorage was third in the women’s B final to finish ninth overall.

In the junior races, Kai Meyers, Alexander Maurer, Garrett Butts and Peter Hinds placed 2-3-4-5 in the junior men’s final and Quincy Donley and Garvee Tobin placed fifth and sixth in the junior women’s final.

Racers contended with gusting winds and snowfall, and the accumulation of snow made for slower than normal times. It was snowing hard right before the finals, and that might have cost Jager, 19, his first national championship.

U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships

He was leading the men’s final and was less than a foot away from the finish line when he stumbled and fell, allowing Julien Locke of Canada and Wonders to ski past him. Locke won the race but wasn’t a podium presence because only Americans can win medals at the U.S. championships.

“I had a little bit of a lead and the Canadian and I were dueling it out the last 100 meters,” Jager said. “There was a brutal headwind and it was an uphill finish, and we were both completely gassed.

“I was feeling like I was going to get (the win), and I’m not sure exactly what happened — my skis iced up maybe, and I fell eight inches from the finish line. I was so flooded (with lactic acid) that it took me a minute to get up.

“It’s definitely a bummer, but I can’t feel bad about third place.”

The biggest disappointment, Jager said, was coming eight inches short of achieving a big goal.

“I’ll never get another chance to do that as a teenager, which was one of my goals,” he said. “I heard my coach yell, ‘You can do this, you can do this!’ and I thought oh my god, this is one of the biggest dreams of my life and I’m about to do this.

“It was like slow motion, but that’s life. I can’t be too unhappy. I got beat by one of my best friends.”

That would be Wonders, who had never before won a medal at the senior national championships and now owns gold.

Wonders had had an unremarkable national championships until Tuesday, placing 19th in both of the distance races and failing to advance from the morning preliminaries in the freestyle sprint.

He barely made out out of Tuesday’s qualifying — he was 29th in preliminaries (the top 30 advance) and 20 seconds behind Jager, who was second-fastest in qualifying. During the heats, Wonders twice advanced as a lucky loser — he was fourth in his quarterfinal and third in his semifinal, but both times he was fast enough to make the cut for the next round.

Jager praised his friend’s performance.

“To almost not qualify and to end up the first American, that’s a testament to his attitude as an athlete,” he said.

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Wonders was part of a huge medal haul staged by Alaskans at the national championships. Alaska skiers grabbed 15 of the 24 medals awarded and won seven of the eight national titles at stake in the senior-level races. Among the national champs were Wonders, Swirbul, Schumacher, Erik Bjornsen and Caitlin Patterson. Additionally, eight skiers were named to the U.S. teams that will race at the World Junior Championships and the U18 World Championships.

The results are staggering, especially when you consider some of Alaska’s top skiers weren’t even in Houghton. Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, David Norris and Logan Hanneman are World Cup skiers who just wrapped up the grueling Tour de Ski in Europe.

For Swirbul, the national championships were a realization of her promise.

She is a three-time medalist at the World Junior Championships — no American has won more in the history of the race series for skiers under 20 — and she came to Houghton after spending the first part of the season on the World Cup tour in Europe.

In December, Swirbul tallied the first World Cup points of her career by placing 21st in a 10K freestyle and 30th in a freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland. Instead of staying in Europe for the Tour de Ski, she returned to the United States to race in the national championships and train for the U23 World Championships.

“It’s a different mental game, because (on the World Cup) a top 30 is an incredible day and a top 60 is almost a more realistic goal,” she said. “Coming back to the states, you’re fighting for a podium here. So it’s definitely confidence-boosting to have a good week here.”

She said she had to fight for her podium finishes in Houghton, where the weather provided an extra challenge.

“It’s always pretty stormy here, and today there were gusts up to 45 mph with snow accumulation,” Swirbul said. “The tracks filled in with snow so they got really slow, and that threw a curveball into things.

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“Today was a bit of a fight because it was a lot of double-poling, and that’s not my strength.”

But Swirbul’s weaknesses didn’t keep her down at the national championships, and she’s got four medals to prove it.

Here’s a look at Alaska’s top-10 finishers in the senior-level races at the national championships, plus a look at the eight junior-level racers named to world championship teams.

Freestyle sprint race

Men

1) Gus Schumacher

6) Thomas O’Harra

8) Erik Bjornsen

Women

1) Hailey Swirbul

2) Caitlin Patterson

9) Mariel Pulles

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Interval-start freestyle

Men (15K)

2) Gus Schumacher

3) Erik Bjornsen

6) Zanden McMullen

7) Tyler Kornfield

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Women (10K)

1) Caitlin Patterson

3) Hailey Swirbul

7) Rosie Frankowski

9) Kendall Kramer

Mass-start classic

Men (30K)

1) Erik Bjornsen

4) Gus Schumacher

7) Tyler Kornfield

Women (20K)

1) Hailey Swirbul

2) Caitlin Patterson

5) Rosie Frankowski

7) Becca Rorabaugh

10) Emma Tarbath

Classic sprint

Men

1) Hunter Wonders

2) Luke Jager

3) Tyler Kornfield

7) Gus Schumacher

8) Erik Bjornsen

Women

1) Hailey Swirbul

2) Caitlin Patterson

5) Mariel Pulles

6) Rosie Frankowski

9) Becca Rorabaugh

World Junior Championships (U20)

Gus Schumacher, Alaska Winter Stars

Kendall Kramer, Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks

Luke Jager, University of Utah

JC Schoonmaker, UAA

Zanden McMullen, Montana State

U18 Championships

Kendall Kramer, Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks

Garvee Tobin, APU Nordic Ski Center

Alexander Maurer, Alaska Winter Stars

Michael Earnhart, Alaska Nordic Racing

Alternate -- Maggie Druckenmiller, Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks

This story has been updated to reflect that Caitlin Patterson graduated from South High.

Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

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