The Norwegians are back. But guess what? The Alaskans haven’t gone anywhere.
After skipping several weeks of competition with COVID-19 concerns, Norway’s powerful cross-country ski team returned to the World Cup stage Saturday in Lahti, Finland. To no one’s surprise, the Norwegians swept the podium in the men’s and women’s races.
Alaska skiers didn’t fade into the background though.
Rosie Brennan of Anchorage ascended to second place in the World Cup overall standings by placing 11th in the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon, and a quartet of Alaskans fared nicely in the men’s 30K skiathlon.
On Sunday, those four men will become what is believed to be the first all-Alaska relay team to compete at the World Cup, World Championship or Olympic level.
The team of David Norris, Gus Schumacher, Scott Patterson and Hunter Wonders — skiing in that order — will see what an Alaska-grown team can do against the best in the world in the 4x7.5-kilometer relay.
“Pretty cool! Hope we can pull something off,” Schumacher said by text.
Schumacher, a 20-year-old Alaska Winter Stars skier in his first World Cup season, added to his string of top-20 finishes by placing an American-best 18th in Saturday’s skiathlon. He has finished in top top 20 in five of his last six races and has been in the top 30 in nine of 20 races.
Patterson, 28, finished four seconds behind in 21st place for his best race of the season. Wonders, 22, finished 46th in his World Cup debut. And Norris, 30, placed 32nd in his first race since recovering from COVID-19.
“The first 10 (kilometers) were a shock to the system, but I came around in the end and felt really good,” Norris said by text. “I’m happy with today as a strong start. Excited to build on it.”
The skiathlon is a mixed-technique race. Men skied the classic technique for 15 kilometers before skating the final 15K. Patterson, an Alaska Pacific University skier whose strength is long-distance races, said he welcomed the long race.
“I was looking forward to today as one of the relatively few opportunities where we got to race more than 15K,” he told U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “The classic portion felt fairly chaotic and fast, but I was feeling quite good for the skate.”
Patterson gained on the leaders in the second half, working his way up to become the caboose of a train led by a British skier with Alaska ties — 15th-place Andrew Musgrave, who learned to ski at age 5 while his family lived in Anchorage.
Schumacher was part of that pack, one of six skiers who finished within two seconds of each other. Patterson trailed by just a couple of seconds.
“Fun to ski with Scott a little and have good energy at the end of a 30K,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher, Patterson and Brennan were all coming off the Tour de Ski, a punishing series of eight races in 10 days and two countries. When that series wrapped up, the U.S. team spent 10 days in Seiser Alm, Italy, to recover.
“Coming back down to sea level feels really good,” Schumacher said. “Felt strong today.”
Brennan -= a 32-year-old World Cup veteran who skis for APU with Patterson, Norris and Wonders -- said she held back a bit at the start of Saturday’s race because she wasn’t sure how she’d feel in her first race since the Tour.
“I decided to start controlled and then see what I had when I switched to skating,” she said by email. “I felt much stronger in classic than I have all season and as a result maybe should have been more aggressive in the classic leg, but hindsight is always 20/20.”
Brennan will race in the women’s relay Sunday with Diggins, Caitlin Patterson and Sophia Laukli. Patterson is Scott’s older sister and although she grew up in Anchorage, she lives in Vermont now.
There have been a number of times when Alaska women have made up the majority of a U.S. relay team at a major competition but there’s no record of an all-Alaska team, male or female. Holly Brooks, a two-time Olympian from Anchorage who won a couple of medals in World Cup relays, said she couldn’t remember an all-Alaska women’s team during her several years on the world stage.
At the 1972 Winter Olympics, Alaskans made up two-thirds of America’s 3x5K relay team — Alison Owen-Spencer and Barbara Britch were joined by Vermont’s Martha Rockwell. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, Alaskans made up three-quarters of the 4x5K relay team — Nina Kemppel, Aelin Peterson and Wendy Wagner were joined by Minnesota’s Barbara Jones.
Left off that 2002 team? Olympic rookie Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, who went on to win Olympic gold in the team sprint 16 years later.