HOUGHTON, Michigan — NCAA skiers do not typically race sprints as part of the standard collegiate circuit, and never do so at NCAA Championships, for a mix of reasons ranging from tradition to scheduling to competitive balance.
But they’re not that bad at it when given the chance to do so, as witness the top three steps of the podium for today’s men’s SuperTour skate sprint here in Houghton: Kristoffer Alm Karsrud, from Northern Michigan University; Luke Jager, from University of Utah; and Tom Mancini, also from University of Utah.
The fourth-place finisher, Andreas Kirkeng, is also a collegiate skier, for the University of Denver. Fifth and sixth place today, Logan Diekmann and Thomas O’Harra, ski for pro ski clubs Bridger Ski Foundation and Alaska Pacific University, respectively. (APU is not an NCAA program.)
Racing commenced here Saturday morning with the women’s sprint qual at 9:30 a.m., then the men’s at 10:10, one last chance to compete before leaving town. Athletes’ legs were tired on race number four in six days, and frankly the weather was tired, too, all gray skies and high humidity and temperatures that felt colder than the mid-20s shown on the thermometer. In the afternoon lay freedom, packing, ski cleaning, a chance to unwind a little after a week of tailoring nutrition with an eye to fueling for the next race, viz., get a frozen custard–based concoction from Culver’s. But first came the qual, and three sprint heats.
Adam Witkowski (NMU) set the pace in qualifying, 2:27.02 on a 1.2-kilometer course that skied quickly, followed by Will Koch (Colorado) and Diekmann (BSF).
Notably, the men who ultimately reached the final did so with bib numbers (i.e., places in qualification) no higher than 13 and 14, with the rest of the final six all having qualified in the single digits. Wednesday’s classic sprint final, by contrast, featured two of the day’s three fastest qualifiers, but also two athletes with bibs in the 20s. Both women’s sprint finals this week, by contrast, were dominated by single-digit qualifiers.
As for today’s men’s sprint final, it began with Diekmann, Kirkeng, Mancini, Jager, Karsrud, and O’Harra, from viewer’s left to right, arrayed across the stadium. (The final starts at 3:46:30 of the livestream if you’d like to see the replay.)
Following a clean start Karsrud led the field out of the stadium, O’Harra tucked in right behind. O’Harra used fast skis and a good line to come around to the front by the base of the climb, and lead the men into the one V1 hill on the course.
O’Harra stayed in the lead up the climb, getting the best line into the sharp lefthand turn for lap two of the two-lap sprint course, Jager and Karsrud jockeying for position behind him.
O’Harra entered the second-lap climb in the lead, but his fast pace off the gun soon led to his being passed by much of the field. Jager and Mancini exploded past into the lead, with Karsrud close behind.
Karsrud put in a sharp acceleration coming into the stadium, and frankly that was the race right there. He quickly gapped Jager, then stretched his advantage over the final 100 meters. Karsrud won in 2:23.87, with Jager 0.72 seconds back, but it wasn’t even that close as Karsrud slowed slightly approaching the line with the win secured. Mancini was another 0.67 seconds back of Jager in third.
Kirkeng, Diekmann, and O’Harra, in that order, rounded out the final. It was the second-best SuperTour finish of O’Harra’s career, after a fifth in the classic sprint in Sun Valley in Period 1 of this year.
For Karsrud, the race went largely according to plan.
“It was great,” he said after the race. “It couldn’t have gone better at all. It was just building into from the qualifier, quarterfinal, and semifinal, and I just gave it all I had in the final. It was great.”
While Karsrud enjoyed success throughout the day, he did alter his strategy somewhat from the earlier heats to the final.
“I decided to stay in the top two or three from the start,” Karsrud recounted. “And I got the lead from that into the first hill. I was in second behind Luke going into the finish. And then from there, I just gave it my all and was able to pass him in there. That was what I had planned with my coach, so it’s really nice to see it go through.”
Karsrud next races at World University Games in Lake Placid later this month for his native Norway, then returns to the CCSA circuit for collegiate racing after that.
Behind him, Mancini of France (home country) and the University of Utah (collegiate ski team) had somewhat less of a roadmap for how to approach the last race of the day.”
“I haven’t a specific plan for the final,” Mancini wrote to Nordic Insights after the race. “I barely race with a specific plan by the way. Depending to the course I know where is the best position to be in the different parts, then I just try to make it happen. I like to feel the race and make some decision during, because this is the most exciting part when you race. You never know what’s gonna really happen so you just have to play the best part of yourself.”
Mancini noted that he did not know what to expect from today as he had had hard races before this throughout the week, “especially yesterday during the 20k where I totally missed out my race. So today I just tried to ski as I know skiing and enjoy the race. Turns out the shape was back.”
One athlete whose shape has not been in question this week is Luke Jager. The Utah skier had a rough time of things in Monday’s 10km skate, finishing 66th, but was then third in Wednesday’s classic sprint (and first American/national champion), first overall and national champion in Friday’s 20km classic, and second in today’s skate sprint.
“It’s nice to be done with the week and to be heading back home for some r and r,” Jager said after the race. “Because I’m pretty tired. It’s been a long week.”
Jager admitted that he was left wanting by his qualifier, calling it “not great.” But he acknowledged his tendency to “sometimes decide how the day’s gonna go, just based on the qualifier,” and was pleased to have been able to shake that off today, and remind himself that, in the heats, “anything can happen.”
Something that happened in the heats was that Jager found himself trying to figure out how best to ski on tired legs. “I knew I was maybe not going to be super wealthy in energy after yesterday,” he observed. “So I probably didn’t want to do a lot of in-front skiing.”
Instead, Jager drew on his recent experience skiing World Cup heats, trying to think, “What have people done to me that has prevented me from moving on or made me use a lot more energy. So I was trying to take up some space in the corners and really critical spaces, just so I could kind of have my own line and my own space.”
Things worked well for Jager until, well, he found himself in the lead approaching the stadium in Houghton.
“I was determined to, you know, finally overcome my demons” of leading into the stadium in Houghton, Jager noted, “but he [Karsrud] was too strong. And it’s funny, because yesterday I was saying I had some shadows because the sun was out, and I could see David’s. And today people were yelling and I was breathing so hard, I had no idea if I have like 50 meters [of lead] or like zero meters, and it turned out it was closer to zero. And he came by me, and I was, like, Ah, shit, I hope he’s the only one. And yeah, it all worked out.”
Jager closed by praising the peaking plan devised for him by his Utah coach, Miles Havlick, and said that it worked very well. “To just have the mental boost of having an actual plan and executing it in a working way was really cool.” Jager also appreciated racing with his college time, and the “nice, fun vibe” of Houghton.
— Gavin Kentch
Would you like to read more articles like this? Would you like to help cover the site’s expenses to send Gavin on in-person reporting trips to both Houghton and Whistler for U.S. Nationals and World Juniors? Find out more about our GoFundMe (terms and conditions: we’re donating anything in excess of actual expenses back to NNF), and consider donating, here. You may have noticed that there are not, currently, any ads up on this site; your support truly makes a huge difference to the financial viability of this startup website. Thank you for your consideration.