ANCHORAGE, Alaska — What did Saturday’s NordicX, the second annual cross-country ski cross competition at Hilltop Ski Area, mean for its participants?
For Hailey Swirbul, it was a chance to discover that retiring from World Cup competition does not necessarily mean retiring from World Cup–level nerves. For Kikkan Randall, it was a chance to pit experience against youth in what is now a rare race effort, and to hearken back to some long-buried roots as an alpine racer. For Robyn Miller, a well-spoken but also wide-eyed 18-year-old, it was a chance to gain some redemption for what had been an underwhelming senior year of high school skiing, while also toeing the line against two longtime idols.
And that was just the women’s podium. For JC Schoonmaker, it was the high point of an up-and-down race season. For Gus Schumacher, it was a chance to develop the skills needed for modern World Cup racing. For USST coach Greta Anderson, it was development at its best, and a tribute to race organizer Reese Hanneman’s love for skiing and commitment to his community. And for Hanneman, it was the second year of a lifelong dream made real. Lots going on for a low-stakes competition near the end (?) of the ski season.
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Let me back up a little here. The second annual NordicX competition was held on Saturday at Hilltop Ski Area. JC Schoonmaker and Owen Young defended their titles in the senior and junior men’s races, respectively. Hailey Swirbul and Parker Stephens were first-time winners for the senior and junior women.
The course began with a ride up the main chairlift at Hilltop, an urban ski hill at the base of the Chugach front range on the eastern edge of town with a vertical rise of 294 feet. Athletes skied downhill for roughly 450m to start the 1.2-kilometer course, negotiating jumps, rollers, and banked corners as they did so. There followed a traverse across and up an alpine run, with a vertical gain of roughly 12 meters, then another series of turning descents.
Finally, on tired legs, came the steepest descent of all, a drop over the final crest of a hill into view of spectators assembled at the bottom. A roller and a sharp turn gave way to the crux of the course, a 15-meter climb straight up an alpine slope topping out at a 41 percent grade.
Here is the Strava segment for the course if you are curious.
This year’s races were held amidst decidedly non-vernal conditions: temps in the 20s and oft-heavy snowfall, the opening salvo of an Easter-week storm that would ultimately add another foot or so to what was already a record late-season snowpack. This was the last event on the Anchorage race calendar for this season, but you could hold a high-level race here on race skis this weekend if you wanted and not think twice about it. Next weekend, April 22nd, would also be a very safe bet. #summersucks
In addition to the fresh snow, there was a fire pit. There was a beer garden. There was a food truck. There were vendors. There were copious door prizes, culminating in two pairs of high-end Fischer alpine skis. There was a free terrain park for kids and kids at heart. “There’s more fun stuff for kids to do here than at other ski races,” my elementary school children observed after I finally pried them and their fishscale skis away from the terrain park and before they ran off to penguin slide down their bellies on a closed alpine run.
The whole experience was, it must be said, a great deal more fun than the average cross-country ski race in this country.
That’s by design.
“The course skis really well this year,” said Reese Hanneman, who retired from pro skiing following the 2018 Olympics and currently runs a marketing, PR, and content firm in Anchorage for his day job.
“There’s much more of the course that’s visible from the bottom. So compared to last year, you can see a lot more of the action. We’ve also got the livestream,” he added, gesturing to a ten-foot tall screen at the edge of the finish area that showed live, drone-shot footage of the entirety of each heat.
“Last year, we had a heat going every five minutes,” Hanneman noted when asked about changes from year one of NordicX to year two. (You can read about the genesis of this event in this fine article by Rachel Bachman Perkins from last spring.) “And that created basically four minutes of dead time in between each. So this year, we packed the heats together.”
“And we’ve also got the Jumbotron,” Hanneman continued. “This is the first ski race that’s ever had a Jumbotron in Alaska. … We got that so you can watch everything. You can walk closer to the jump this year. We got a way bigger jump. More action down low [on course]. We just tried to make it an even better experience for the spectators and the families.”
I asked Hanneman to finish the following sentence: Today will be a success for Anchorage skiing if…
“If everybody has tons of fun, goes huge, and doesn’t get too hurt,” Hanneman said.
The air was big and no ambulances were observed, leaving only the first part of this triad. So did people have fun on Saturday? Judge for yourself:
“This is awesome,” said JC Schoonmaker.
“It was so much fun,” said Gus Schumacher.
“It was SO fun,” said Robyn Miller. “I loved it. It was really fun.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this the last few weeks,” said Kikkan Randall, “and it was so fun.”
“This is fun,” said Hailey Swirbul. “This is what skiing is all about for me, so I’m really glad to be able to be a part of this event this year.”
“More important than [skills development] is the fun factor,” said Greta Anderson. “It’s pretty fun to go down a downhill that’s tricky and make it through a turn that is a little dicey.”
Standing and cheering “is highly entertaining,” said Sadie Bjornsen Maubet. “It makes it more fun when you’re racing, too.”
Is it fun? “It is EPIC,” said Oliver Wright.
This is “tons of fun,” said Michael Earnhart. “There’s money on the line, but it’s more fun than scary.”
Today was “so much fun,” said Parker Stephens. “Probably the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
“It’s really fun,” said Owen Young. “I love this event.”
I could go on, but you get the gist.
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So was the event just a great deal of fun, or was it actually top-tier development in disguise? Why not both.
“There’s a lot of multifaceted effects for development with this kind of thing” said Greta Anderson, Development Team Coach for the U.S. Ski Team. “I think this is part race, part celebration in this format, and the way that this race is done with the multiple rounds, we have a lot of younger athletes seeing a lot of older, more developed athletes mixing it up in something that certainly complements our strengths, but changes the strengths that are suited to each person.”
Anderson continued, “You’re seeing athletes with different sets of strengths and seeing different parts of skiing that they might need to work on or might be really good at: cornering, downhill jumps, air awareness, tactics. It’s maybe a bit less fitness-based than a bit more tricks- and tactically based. That’s a huge part of what we are trying to develop in our schemes all the time. And so an event like this really puts out on the forefront.”
She added, in a nod to the athletes on the starting list, “Having several Junior World Championships medals among the field and quite a few U.S. Ski Team members, and then quite a few kids that are maybe in their first year of club ski racing together on the start line, in any format, is amazing. A real tribute to skiing being one small town in the U.S.”
JC Schoonmaker had a similar view: The event is doing “so much” for youth skiing abilities, he said.
“These kids, you see them hucking backflips, front flips, everything. Like, I couldn’t even do that when I was younger. So I’m just pretty stoked to see what they can do in a few years, and I think as long as they’re out here having a fun time, that’s all that really matters.”
I asked Gus Schumacher much the same thing, a relevant but also admittedly softball question about what an event like this could do to develop the skills of the junior athletes in attendance who were racing the course or just sessioning the terrain park for an hour straight.
“Forget the kids,” Schumacher said; “it’s making us better. I mean, the World Cup is kind of in this sort of condition; you’ve got to ski the corners.”
“But for the kids, it’s great,” Schumacher continued. “And you hope they do this every day, right? Just skiing through the woods and doing whatever they can. Because a huge part of speed and the World Cup is being comfortable on your skis, and this helps so much.”
Schumacher added, “The whole event just shows that — I guess, our World Cup [athletes] being here at the event shows that you can be a ski racer and still have a ton of fun doing it. And a lot of kids here get into like free skiing and stuff, which is kind of obvious because that’s cool. People do that and it’s cool, but, like, nordic doesn’t have to be the grindy spandex thing that everyone paints it as. Sometimes it’s like this. People are drinking beers and in costumes, scrapping at the finish line, that sort of deal.”
* * *
A race that featured at least five World Cup athletes in the field had some World Cup–level spectating, too. I caught up with a notorious handful of fans at the top of the course’s final climb, a short but grueling slog up an alpine run in full view of the throngs of spectators at the base.
Installed in the apex of the curve, Jo Maubet was wearing a plaid shirt under Carhartt overalls, a hat with a (possibly faux) dead animal on it, and an impish smirk. In one hand he held an operational but bladeless chainsaw, with all of the noise but none of the danger. In the other he held smoke bombs in a plethora of colors, recently purchased by a friend outside of city limits.
“It’s an idea we had last night,” Maubet explained. “We’re going to be out here all day, [with smoke bombs of] every color. And there’s gonna be plenty more. Lots of sound, too; chainsaws here, and all kinds of things. I have some other surprises, too.”
Maubet, very enthusiastically but not unkindly, revved up his chainsaw at this point in the interview, thereby drowning out the end of my audio file.
I carefully moved a few feet down the hill and talked with Sadie Bjornsen Maubet, last year’s winner of this event and Jo’s wife. Is Jo crazy, I inquired, gesturing to the hat and the chainsaw and the sheer exuberant European excess of it all.
“He’s not crazy,” Sadie said. “He’s just French.”
* * *
Okay, on to the actual racing. Every athlete got as many course preview runs as they wanted and then two timed runs, roughly an hour apart. Slower time was thrown out, faster time was counted. Top twelve times moved on to the semis; top three from each semi moved on to the final; top six athletes raced in the final.
At least in theory. In practice, while Saturday’s event boasted a deeper field than most FIS races in the country this year (more on that below), it was not exactly a humorless World Cup production, nor did it exhibit a slavish adherence to the FIS International Ski Competition Rules.
Nine athletes featured in the junior girls final, because, so far as I can tell, organizers just wanted to include more. There were more than six in another final as well. And one semifinal heat for the senior men featured two athletes coming in well back of the rest of the field, only to thrill the crowd by attempting, and landing, inverted aerials off the final jump. On nordic race skis.
“Throw a backie, make the final!” exuberantly boomed one of the stadium announcers (title on bib: “STOKE MASTER”) while the crowd roared, voicing a sentiment rather foreign to the FIS rulebook. (If you want to be pedantic about it, effecting a mid-competition backflip in a FIS race, while objectively awesome, would also likely lead to some sort of reprimand under ICR 343.1, failure to exercise due care on the race course.)
This was not a FIS race, but it was, by any standard, high-end competition. Before the heats got underway I had asked Hanneman about the strength of field in this race.
“You’ve got to be top-15 at the Olympics if you want to win here,” Hanneman had told me. At the time I had admittedly thought that this was just puffery, but three hours later, one JC Schoonmaker would take a repeat win in the senior men’s final. Schoonmaker was… 15th in the skate sprint in Beijing in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Reese Hanneman, who has five national titles to his name in this event (sprinting, that is, not nordic cross), knows a thing or two about fast sprinters.
Put another way, first place in the qual for this season’s men’s national championship skate sprint, at Craftsbury last month, gave the winner 71.91 FIS points. First in the national championship classic sprint in Houghton in January was 63.93 points. I calculate Schoonmaker’s win here on Saturday as good for, unofficially, 62.51 FIS points. (Lower points are better.) That is, NordicX featured literally a more competitive field than either of this year’s domestic national championship sprints.
(Deep fields at a February RMISA sprint in Anchorage and a SuperTour sprint at Wirth (both 57ish points) mean that NordicX was, by my math, the third most competitive sprint in the U.S. this year per FIS points. Per fun, or stoke, or smoke bombs per minute, NordicX clearly came out far ahead of the field. Finally, this year’s race at Cochran’s Nordic Cross, for those keeping score at home, came in at 140.99 FIS sprint points for the men’s winner and 171.71 points for the women’s winner, per my calculations. I have so far been unable to find results for “2023 Nordic Cross World Championships” in Duluth from late March, which is tbh a little underwhelming for an event that bills itself as the world championship. If you know anything about this, drop me a line.)
So who actually won these competitive races? Come back tomorrow for part two of this race writeup, featuring quotes from all of the winners and play-by-play of the men’s and women’s finals. This is nearly 2,500 very enthusiastic words already, so that feels like plenty for one article. Here’s a video highlight of Saturday from the USST to tide you over till then:
— Gavin Kentch