Ski racing got real again Friday for Rosie Brennan and other Alaskans in Finland for the opening of the World Cup cross-country season.
Brennan, an Anchorage woman who ranked 17th in last season’s overall world rankings, is among several Alaskans who raced for the first time since the pandemic abruptly halted the 2019-20 season just as the World Cup tour was set to come to North America.
Competition resumed Friday with a classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland, that marked the first of three days of racing in the Ruka Mini-Tour.
“It felt pretty surreal to be racing today,” Brennan said by email. “I honestly didn’t know when I would again after the season was called short last year.”
Brennan and Hailey Swirbul of the Alaska Pacific University ski team were the top American finishers, placing 17th and 18th, respectively. Each placed fourth in her respective quarterfinal heat, as did Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins, who placed 24th overall.
For Swirbul, 22, it was her best result in a World Cup sprint.
“It was my first heat where I felt like I was truly in the mix and fighting to the end, though I definitely need to work on my double-pole finish,” she told U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding. “Now we remember what it feels like and can look ahead to tomorrow.”
In the men’s race, UAA junior JC Schoonmaker led the Americans by finishing 35th in qualifying. He missed the top 30 — and World Cup points — by 1.13 seconds.
It was the third World Cup start of Schoonmaker’s career. He raced twice last season in Germany en route to the World Junior Championships, where he placed 13th in the freestyle sprint.
“I felt like I gave it a good effort out there but I was a little too frantic and needed to just calm down and ski more relaxed,” Schoonmaker told U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding. “It feels good to get that first race of the season out of the way and hopefully get rid of some of the nerves for the rest of the weekend.”
The next two fastest American men were also Alaskans — Gus Schumacher of the Alaska Winter Stars was 43rd and Logan Hanneman of APU was 46th.
“Really happy to be racing again,” Schumacher said by email. “I forgot how fun it can be.”
Norway swept the podium in the men’s race, with the gold going to first-time World Cup winner Erik Valnes. In the women’s race, Linn Svahn led a podium sweep for Sweden.
Brennan, a 2018 Winter Olympian, said life on the World Cup is different this season because of the pandemic. There is frequent COVID-19 testing, social distancing, mask wearing and unpredictability. Already racers are getting an unexpected week off from competition — races scheduled for next week in Lillehammer, Norway, have been canceled.
“There are a few more things I have to be on top of, but the racing itself is still the same,” Brennan said. “It was great to be out there pushing myself again. Knowing that I want to be ready to take advantage of every opportunity I get to race this year, I tried hard to be ready to go when the time came.”