The second half of February each year marks the point in the domestic ski calendar when American ski fans turn their thoughts toward Hayward. For a certain class of skier, the American Birkebeiner isn’t the highlight of their winter of ski racing so much as it is their winter of ski racing.
Midwestern skiers will have some company next year, when the entire World Cup turns its attention to Wirth Park for a pair of ski races on President’s Day Weekend in February 2024. Unless the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation has been sitting on some pretty big news, the World Cup circuit will not then be traveling north to Birkieland; the Birkie’s silence on the heels of last week’s big announcements was conspicuous, and Birkie press representatives have not yet responded to requests for comment on the World Cup status of the 2024 race.
But if last weekend was any indication, Theodore Wirth Park in western Minneapolis will ably carry the banner for American World Cup skiing next February. This weekend’s homegrown winners will be hoping for more of the same next year, on the same stage but with bigger stakes.
Saturday brought a 1.3-kilometer skate sprint; you can see the course here. The women started the day with the qualifying round at 9 a.m.
The top end of qualifying featured some of the country’s fastest club and college skiers, and I do not wish to take anything away from them with the following observation. And it was true, as always, that you can only race who shows up. But it must be said that the high-end field in the women’s race was not particularly deep. 30th place was nearly 27 seconds back of the fastest qualifier, on a course with a max climb of 15 meters and a winning qual time under three minutes, and ten juniors made the heats. There were 33 athletes total in the women’s open field.
Again, however, you can only race the other athletes on the starting line that day, and I in no way wish to denigrate Saturday’s podium; the top end of the field was quite strong. I was also 19 seconds out of qualifying (LOL) in the last sprint qual that I did — 56 of the 57 athletes ahead of me were junior racers — so I am not really one to criticize fast junior skiers.
Back to the top end of this field: Lauren Jortberg (SMS) set the fastest mark in the qual, followed by super-junior Sammy Smith of Sun Valley and BSF skier Sarah Goble. Team Birkie skiers Renae Anderson and Erin Bianco, buoyed by skiing on their home course, were next fastest in the morning’s first lap around the course.
Everyone listed above won her quarterfinal, save for Bianco who was second, well over a second clear of third in her heat. Likely the biggest surprise in the semifinals was that Jortberg finished third in her heat, losing out on second to Anderson by the fractional-boot-length margin of 0.01 second. But sixth place in the close-packed first women’s semifinal was faster than the winner of the second women’s semi, so both lucky losers came from this heat and Jortberg moved through to the final with ease.
Of the six athletes in the final, three of them had local, or at least Midwestern, ties. Renae Anderson was very local: She grew up in Golden Valley (the adjoining suburb to Wirth Park), and attended high school at Hopkins, roughly a 10-minute drive from the venue. The first FIS race in Anderson’s profile at Wirth is from 2016, and she would have raced there multiple times throughout high school. Sarah Goble graduated from Petoskey High School in northern Michigan. And Katerina Hyncicova skis for Northern Michigan University in Marquette.
Three minutes and 1.3 kilometers later, Jortberg was the first woman across the line, taking her first career SuperTour win in the process. Jortberg has been close before, with multiple second- and third-place finishes at this level, but this was her first win.
Jortberg’s victory came despite battling illness over much of the last week. She spoke candidly, in an email to Nordic Insights, about her decision to race nonetheless:
“Unfortunately, I’ve been battling a bit of a cold all week; it’s been mostly in my nose, and my energy hasn’t been horrible. So I did a prerace yesterday, which felt pretty meh since I haven’t done much since last Sunday. However, I’m quite stubborn, and I reeeaaaally wanted to race today,” Jortberg wrote on Saturday afternoon. “For a couple of reasons: the first is the World Cup here next year, earning Period 4 sprint starts, and I’ve raced well here on this sprint course before.”
Jortberg continued: “Racing sick is a bit of an interesting place because most of the time, especially in European countries, nordic skiers take extreme caution and don’t race through anything. So, I wasn’t quite sure what the best thing to do was because I want to race the sprints in Period 4 of the World Cup, and I have quite a large break until the next set of races. I’m happy that I did race today, and I think I will know tomorrow morning if it was a really bad idea or not haha.”
Here’s what it’s like to show up at the start line for high-level domestic competition at something less than your best: “I shouldn’t bash it too much since I won the qualifier, but my honest takeaway is that my body felt weak. I didn’t have any power to give on the big V2 sections, which has been a strength of mine lately. I skied it poorly, and I say this because I know that I can ski it faster (I did in the heats with waaay slower snow) but mainly because I know that that performance wouldn’t have made heats on the World Cup today. And what I’m working on the most right now (this may seem extremely obvious, but why I’m hard on myself) is my focus during qualifiers, specifically not getting sloppy. I really have to make each one count, and I want to take non-wc opportunities just as seriously.”
And finally, since Jortberg had the best seat in the house for the heats and the final, here’s what happened from there. And also, if you were watching on the livestream and wondered what the heck happened to Sammy Smith — she was last on screen jumpskating the final climb with authority, leading the heat with 30 seconds to go and looking like a strong contender for the win, then was next seen coasting into the finish ten seconds back — Jortberg had a very close view of that as well:
“I think I got the bad feelings/sick/flatness out of the way during the qualifier today. I felt like I found the fight in the heats today, and I was really happy with how my body responded. It might be because I’m extremely competitive, and if put in heats, I can find another gear. Either way, that was a big positive on the day.
“Heats were pretty interesting, though, because the course was ‘front heavy’ and a very large downhill into the finish created a lot of slingshotting. Because of that slingshot, I was trying to figure out the best strategy for the heats. I got slingshotted in my semi and was a lucky loser that thankfully moved on, so my tactic was to not lead the last downhill in the final as I did in every other heat.
“I did exactly that for the final; I was in a great position on the last big uphill with Sammy, perfectly ready to slingshot by her. But then Sammy’s ski must have got caught in a bit of a rut because she crashed on the left-hand turn downhill 300 meters before the finish. I literally jumped over her to avoid her, but thankfully we had a big enough of a gap from the pack that my speed check didn’t cost me to be slingshotted. So, it was a bummer that Sammy crashed, she was skiing really impressively all day, but that is, unfortunately, part of ski racing.”
There were some similar themes when the men raced soon after, including just 39 athletes in the open men’s field and strong Midwestern ties up and down the results sheet. Hometown hero Zak Ketterson (local ties: born and raised in Bloomington; attended high school at Jefferson, a 20-minute drive south of the venue; skied collegiately for Northern Michigan; describes himself as “Just a dude from Minnesota” on his website, above a photo of himself racing at the 2013 Minnesota state meet) set the pace in qualifying, notching the day’s fastest time by a staggering 2.77 seconds. He may have had a small amount of on-course support out there.
Ketterson placed a close second in his quarterfinal and won his semifinal by over a second to make the final. There he was joined by Luke Fricker (local ties: skis for Northern Michigan), Kristoffer Alm Karsrud (local ties: skis for Northern Michigan), John Schwinghamer (local ties: skis for Saint Scholastica in Duluth), and BSF athletes Logan Diekmann and Finn O’Connell (okay, who are from Bozeman and Steamboat Springs, respectively).
Ketterson couldn’t quite pull out the win on his home course on Saturday; fellow NMU Wildcat Karsrud, who won both sprint races in Houghton last month, took another sprint victory here. Karsrud’s winning time was 2:30.66 for the fast course, with Ketterson 0.23 seconds back in second. The pair was well clear of Diekmann in third, who was then followed by O’Connell, Schwinghamer, and Fricker, in that order.
“I was really happy with today,” Ketterson wrote to Nordic Insights later Saturday. “Skate sprinting has historically been my most challenging discipline so I was really happy to be in the fight for the win today. It is really special to race at my home course and it was for sure made even more special knowing that there’s gonna be a World Cup here in a year.”
Classic distance race
Athletes were back at Wirth the next day for a 20-kilometer mass start classic race, seven laps of a stout 3km course. Zak Ketterson skied a smart race, sticking with the lead pack through lap five, then pulling away in lap six. His gap ahead of second was seven seconds after lap number six, then up to 24 seconds by the finish.
Behind him, Logan Diekmann outlunged his BSF teammate Finn O’Connell for second, distancing him by 0.2 seconds after 20km of racing. Peter Wolter (Sun Valley), Graham Houtsma (BSF), and Kristoffer Alm Karsrud (Northern Michigan) all followed within a few seconds to round out the six-skier SuperTour podium.
Some common themes reoccurred in the women’s SuperTour race, held shortly after the men’s race on a busy day at Wirth Park that also featured multiple Midwest division JNQ races. Alayna Sonnesyn of SMS (local ties: born and raised in Plymouth; attended high school at Wayzata, a 20-minute drive west of the venue; has won the Birkie three times so far) took the win, skiing with the pack through lap five then pulling away in lap six. Behind her, Margie Freed (Craftsbury) outlunged her teammate for second, this time by a full 0.3 seconds. They were followed by Mariah Bredal of BSF in fourth, Sammy Smith of Sun Valley in fifth, and Erin Bianco of hometown Team Birkie in sixth, a career-best distance result.
SuperTour racing continues next Saturday with a small race called the American Birkebeiner. The skate Birkie will be scored for SuperTour points.
— Gavin Kentch