By Josh Niva
Alaskans Kramer, Schumacher finish four-race sweeps with anchor leg comeback wins in 2019 U.S. Junior Nationals freestyle relays 3X3K relay races conclude week of championship racing in Anchorage.
After a week of impressive, and at times dominant, individual race wins, Alaska’s Kendall Kramer and Gus Schumacher outdid themselves with dramatic comeback anchor legs, giving their respective teams victories in Saturday’s 3X3K freestyle relays on the final day of the 2019 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Junior National Championships at Kincaid Park. The wins gave Kramer, a U18 skier from Fairbanks, and Schumacher, a U20 skier from Anchorage, rare four-race JN sweeps.
“No win is a given and every race is different – some are close, some are decided by a jury,” said Schumacher, referring to Wednesday’s U20 classic sprint, in which he was beat to the finish line by Far West’s J.C. Schoonmaker’s toe but later awarded the win after officials ruled that Schoonmaker violated classic technique rules. “But to produce in every race, and to do it here, is so cool.”
Schumacher’s week of wins started with an overall first in the U18/U20 10K individual freestyle Monday, the controversial classic sprint Wednesday, and a big blowout in the 15K classic mass start Friday.
Kramer left no doubt in any of her races, winning by big margins in the U18/U20 5K individual freestyle Monday, the classic sprint Wednesday, and the 10K classic mass start Friday.
Both skiers ended their JNs on Saturday in the same position – skiing amazing come-from-behind anchor legs for thrilling team wins.
Kramer started her anchor leg an anxiety-inducing 32 seconds behind New England’s Anna Lehmann with only three kilometers to catch her. Eight minutes later, Kramer reentered the stadium in the lead, finishing smooth, strong and happy, giving her teammates Garvee Tobin and Ivy Eski a nine-second win.
Schumacher started his anchor leg in third place, 15 seconds behind Rocky Mountain’s Jimmy Colfer with three kilometers remaining. He ended up winning by 11 seconds, enough of a gap to slow down for the first time all week to grab an Alaska flag from a fan 25 meters from the finish line, then slide into the arms of his teammates Kai Meyers and Karl Danielson to celebrate.
Also collecting 3X3K freestyle relay wins on Saturday were: New England’s Sophia Laukli, Kirsten Miller and Callie Young for U20 women; Intermountain’s Logan Smith, Samantha Smith and Sabine Wilson for U16 women; Intermountain’s Kai Mittelsteadt, Haydn Halvorsen and Johnny Hagenbuch for U18 men; and Midwest’s Victor Sparks, Drew Sampson and Adrik Kraftson for U16 men.
Saturday’s 3X3K relay format consisted of three-person teams, each skier skating over the 3-plus- kilometer course. Skiers lined up 17-wide and even two-deep in the starting area’s tracks. The course began with a fast 800-meter drop out of the stadium, then it was practically all uphill from there, with 1,200 meters of steady, sometimes steep, climbing back to the stadium. After ascending Elliott’s Climb to the high-point of the backside of Gong Hill, skiers disappeared from sight again and spent the final K-and-a-half on a roller-coaster ride that led from one tunnel to another, and then back to the stadium for a flat stretch, a climb-drop-climb combo, and then a sharp turn into exchange zone, where teammates were waiting. The next skier began their leg by skating a quick U-turn out of the exchange zone. The anchor skier got the glory of skipping the exchange zone and instead ending on the flat 100-meter finish zone.
Racing started under a cloudy sky, with temperatures hovering around freezing. A week of Anchorage’s freeze-thaw cycles created icy conditions, so the day’s corduroy groom was an inch-plus of sticky, sugar- and-crystalline snow. This meant for slow skiing and hard work, even for the strongest skaters.
U20 men 3X3K freestyle relay
Alaska’s Kai Meyers and Karl Danielson knew exactly what they needed to do to have a chance at a national title: keep the competition within sight and get to their anchor, Gus Schumacher. After two legs, they had done that, though two anchors were already pulling away: Rocky Mountain’s Jimmy Colfer had a 15.6-second head start and the lead; New England’s Will Solow was just two seconds in front.
Looking at Schumacher after the race, Meyers said that it was time for “this guy to do his thing.”
Schumacher’s thing is winning. He caught New England quickly, then started a train when they ran down Rocky Mountain on the Gong Hill. Schumacher felt them fading while others, like Far West’s J.C. Schoonmaker, were coming on. Schumacher didn’t want anyone drafting or even feeling confident, so he decided, “I have to get out of here.”
He did. A cheer of surprise and pride came from the crowd as Schumacher entered the stadium alone, skating in high gear. It got louder as he crossed the finish line, Alaska state flag in hand.
U20 women 3X3K freestyle relay
A skate skiing shootout unfolded as New England (Sophia Laukli, Kirsten Miller and Callie Young) and Alaska (Jenna Difolco, Aubrey Leclair and Anja Maijala) team members raced practically side-by-side for eight kilometers. And then Young killed all the drama.
She used trail memory from her experience at last year’s Senior Nationals at Kincaid Park, as well as her knack for skiing good in bad conditions, to take, and keep, the race lead. After training and racing on the steep Gong Hill at last year’s Senior Nationals, and reacquainting herself with it this week, she knew the last big climb of her anchor leg would be tough – and it would also be where she’d take over the race.
“I’m strong at jump skating in slush,” she said, noting the trail’s silty snow. “I knew I’d have to ski it hard and that’s what I did.”
Instead of facing a sprint duel to the finish with Maijala, Young pulled away and crossed finish line with a 14-second win. New England finished at 26:57.3, followed by Alaska at 27:12.2, and Midwest (Hannah Bettendorf, Regan Duffy, Lucinda Anderson) 27:59.6. Fifteen teams completed the race.
U18 men 3X3K freestyle relay
It was a wild week for Johnny Hagenbuch, one of America’s top U18 skiers. He’d felt successful (a first, second and third in individual racing), sore and even sick. On Saturday, he said he felt “vindicated.”
Hagenbuch jumped his Intermountain team from third to first and held off rival Zanden McMullen of Alaska to close out an exciting win by .6 seconds. Intermountain (Kai Mittelsteadt, Haydn Halvorsen and Hagenbuch) clocked at 22:44.2, followed by Alaska (Alexander Maurer, Michael Earnhart and McMullen) at 22:44.8. Pacific Northwest was third at 22:53.8, grabbing the last podium spot in the 28-team race.
On Friday, Hagenbuch was ill and irritated as he faded while McMullen raced past him near the finish line to win the 10K classic mass start race. Saturday, with color back in his cheeks and a confident smile returned to his lips, Hagenbuch used his hill-climbing strength and hunger to finish on a high note to close a six-second gap and pass two teams to take the lead. With McMullen making an equally inspired skating surge and passing attack to the finish, Hagenbuch held him back and grabbed the win by a slim margin.
“It was a collective effort,” Hagenbuch said. “And it’s great to do it with two of my buddies.”
U18 women 3X3K freestyle relay
After Kramer’s week of impressive racing, she gave the crowd and her teammates Garvee Tobin and Ivy Eski an unforgettable finish, along with a nine-second win and a national title.
“I was really glad to make Garvee and Ivy proud, and so glad to be on a team with them,” Kramer said. “Before this race, I was ready for it to be over. I’m so sore. But I’m really happy I got to end it with a bang.”
More like an explosion. When Eski tagged Kramer, Lehmann was already out of sight, 32 seconds ahead. But after the kind of week Kramer’s had, few were truly shocked to see her speed back into the stadium in first place and jetting toward the finishing stretch.
“I didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she’s Kendall,” Tobin said with a smile and a shrug. “That was impressive.”
Kramer even does celebrations bigger than everyone else. She carried a large Alaska flag to the podium and handed it to her teammates to wave.
Kramer, Tobin, and Eski finished at 27:27.5, followed by New England’s Charlotte Ogden, Nina Seemann, and Lehmann at 27:36.8. In the 25-team field, Pacific Northwest’s Ella-Sophie Kuzyk, Gretta Scholz, and Annie McColgan were third at 28:08.3.
U16 men 3X3K freestyle relay
When a member of the Midwest’s U16 men’s relay A team woke up throwing up Saturday, Adrik Kraftson was called up. The last-second fill-in became the anchor-leg game-changer as he erased a 10-second gap to overtake the leader, then added more than nine seconds to his team’s eventual victory margin.
Kraftson, with teammates Victor Sparks and Drew Sampson, clocked a 25:58.1, with Rocky Mountain’s Lasse Konecny, Wally Magill, and Sumner Cotton second at 26:07.4. Midwest’s B team of Stas Bednarski, Roger Anderson, and Noah Erickson were third at 26:09.4; 22 teams finished the event.
In the middle leg, Rocky Mountain’s Magill, a star of the week’s individual racing with a win and a third-place finish, shot his team into first. His ski was nearly 20 seconds faster than the next best. Suddenly Rocky Mountain took a 10-second lead into the final 3K.
Midway through the anchor leg, Kraftson had reeled in Rocky Mountain’s Cotton, using a vicious climb up the steep Gong Hill to make his move. Then he put everyone in his rearview.
“I’m a good climber and I hammered that uphill,” Kraftson said. “And I kept (the lead) from there.”
U16 women 3X3K freestyle relay
Intermountain’s Logan Smith was a bright star at this year’s JNs, with two individual victories. After Saturday’s relay win, it’s clear she’s also one heck of a teammate: as a skier and a positive motivator.
Smith’s awesome anchor leg closed a 12-second gap and rocketed her team to a six-second win. Afterward, her teammates – younger sister Samantha Smith and Sabine Wilson – praised their leader, but it was the elder Smith who reminded them that relays are all about team.
“These girls are so fast, I just didn’t want to blow it,” a sheepish Wilson said about her rough opening leg. To which the older Smith immediately said, “We won. We did it.” Emphasis on “We.”
And it was Smith’s tiny 13-year-old sister who truly stole the show. She slashed a 32-second gap from the lead to just 12 seconds with the event’s fastest leg, covering 3K in a sizzling 9:26.2. Big sis Logan did the rest with her 9:37.6, overtaking the remaining frontrunners and crossing the finish line in style.
When asked of her impressive leg, the younger Smith said, “I think it went well,” which her older sister correct to, “Oh, it went well. … I’m so proud of you.”
The trio smiled at the statement, then posed for a photo with other teammates before and climbing to the top step of the podium for more photos and smiles.
Intermountain’s 29:06.2 beat New England (Sofia Scirica, Ava Thurston, Quincy Massey-Bierman) by six seconds (29:12.3), with Alaska (Maria Nedom, Katey Houser, Quincy Donley) just behind (29:12.8). Twenty-two teams finished the event.
Find full race results at www.superiortiming.com/2019/03/us-cross-country-junior-nationals-2019/.
New England retained the Alaska Cup for the sixth-straight year and for the 10 of the last 11 years. The Alaska Cup Award is given to recognize the outstanding divisional team performance in cross-country skiing at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Junior Nationals. New England skiers posted 1,427 points, followed by Alaska in second at 1,207, and Midwest in third at 973. Find full results and points breakdown at https://my4.raceresult.com/118880/.
Past recipients: 1987 New England; 1988 Alaska; 1989 Alaska; 1990 Alaska; 1991 Alaska; 1992 Alaska; 1993 Alaska; 1994 Alaska; 1995 Alaska; 1996 New England; 1997 Midwest; 1998 Intermountain; 1999 Alaska; 2000 Alaska; 2001 Alaska; 2002 Alaska; 2003 Alaska; 2004 New England; 2005 New England; 2006 New England; 2007 Intermountain; 2008 Alaska; 2009 New England; 2010 New England; 2011 New England; 2012 New England; 2013 Alaska; 2014 New England; 2015 New England; 2016 New England; 2017 New England; 2018 NENSA (New England Nordic Ski Association).
JUNIOR NATIONAL CLUB TEAM AWARD
Sun Valley SEF was crowned the top Junior National Club Team with 1,501 points, followed by Loppet Nordic Racing at 1,126 and Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center at 1,005. Find full results and points breakdown at https://my4.raceresult.com/118880/.
ROGER WESTON AWARD
Anchorage’s West High earned the Roger Weston Award for top high school performance. West scored 819 points, with Fairbanks’ West Valley High second at 731, Anchorage’s Service High third at 731 and Forest Lake High School (Minnesota) fourth at 648. Find full results and points breakdown at https://my4.raceresult.com/118880/.
A complete event program, which includes team rosters and race course maps, is available on PDF at www.juniornationalsxc2019.com/event-info/. Racer registration is available at www.superiortiming.com/2019/03/us-cross-country-junior-nationals-2019/.