ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Part one of this article on NordicX, Reese Hanneman’s labor of love cross-country ski cross event at Hilltop Ski Area last Saturday, set the scene: a riotous atmosphere and one of the deepest fields assembled for any sprint in the entire country in the 2022/2023 race season. So who actually won these highly competitive races, and what did they think about it? Read on for more.
The junior women’s final featured six athletes total. Finalists heading up to the top of Hilltop on their final chairlift ride of the day included Quinzee Elsberg, Merridy Littell, Amelia Parker, Zoe Rodgers, and Parker Stephens.
Roughly three minutes later, Parker Stephens emerged victorious, followed by first Rodgers and then Littell.
Stephens, a U16 athlete, attends West High School and skis for Alaska Pacific University, or APU. (Disclosure, I have trained with APU Masters for nearly a decade now. Additional disclosure, Littell’s parents contributed to my GoFundMe for travel expenses earlier this winter.) Stephens declared the race to be “awesome.”
The race “went a lot better than expected,” Stephens said. “Usually I’m very nervous on the downhills. So it was cool to, like, just throw away all that my mind was telling me, and just send it.”
Stephens — who, again, won the race, taking home a brand new pair of high-end Oakleys for her efforts — was candid about her approach to the course’s final climb.
“It got me every time,” she said. “I tried to like skate it up. But then I just resorted to a frantic duck walk, and that worked pretty well. And turning around that corner to go into the jump, it was just a relief, like, Yes, I finally made it up the hardest part. And then it was just trying to make it to the finish without falling at that point.”
The race was “so much fun,” Stephens said. “Probably the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
The junior men’s final sent I think six athletes to the starting line (bear with me here on the specifics; formal results are a little lacunose. Saturday wasn’t really about the results at some level tbh.)
Owen Young (17 years old; South Anchorage High School; Alaska Winter Stars) was the first across the finish line, following a fall by Oskar Flora (16; Service High School; APU). Cole Flowers was second, Murphy Kimball third, Jayden Rice fourth, and Flora fifth.
“I got a little lucky with Oskar falling over the top,” Young candidly said following his repeat victory. “And my skis were not very fast. But Jayden fell in the last uphill, and I was able to just get around and sprint into the finish.
“I love this event,” continued a deeply chill Young. “It’s just so fun to be in like the spring and like offseason chillin’ and just having fun with the boys.”
“Big ups to Reese for putting this on,” Young said, extending his compliments to the race organizer. “It’s such a sick event. I’m just glad that everyone can come out here and have fun.”
I have a lot more to say here about the senior races. This does not reflect the fact that I value the junior skiers less than the seniors, nor think that they are less impressive athletes. (Indeed, here are race results from this January showing that I was handily beaten by just about the entire junior men’s final, if you are curious where I stack up relative to these kids. In the bottom third of a local JNQ, is where.) It rather reflects the fact that the older athletes have more of a backstory, not to mention more results to build a narrative around.
For example, one Kikkan Randall, before reaching the deeply prestigious 2023 NordicX final, previously acquired an Olympic gold medal, a World Championships gold medal, two more world champs medals, three sprint globes, thirteen individual World Cup wins, and by the way near single-handedly dragged American nordic skiing from the dark ages up to its current level of professionalism. Hailey Swirbul has a World Cup podium, ten Olympic or world champs starts, and three World Juniors medals to her name. The athletes’ palmarès were as redoubtable as Saturday’s competition was low-key.
Two minutes into Saturday’s women’s final, the two skiers marked as favorites all day were working hard to add one more win to their ledger.
Swirbul led Randall as the athletes dropped down into view above the lodge, but it was close. Randall took an aggressive line around the final downhill curve to significantly close the gap, reflecting a childhood spent on alpine skis that once saw her set the Alaska women’s speed skiing record. At age 12. Swirbul held the inside line going up to the final climb, but Randall was right on her skis. Or on her rainbow tutu, as the case may be.
Kikkan Randall competed in hundreds of sprints across her career; it seems unfair to distill her nearly two decades as a professional athlete to just one pitch. But if you have a single image of Kikkan Randall ascending a hill in your mind’s eye, it probably involves her going up the Klæbobakken in Pyeongchang in the 2018 Olympics. It was lap five of the team sprint; a then-35-year-old Randall kept pace with a surging Marit Bjørgen of Norway and Charlotte Kalla of Sweden as the gap back to fourth grew to 80 meters by the final exchange. Randall’s efforts ensured that, if leg-six skier Jessie Diggins could stay on her feet and keep pace, the Americans would take home a medal of some color.
Five years later, Randall was once more digging deep to stay with the athlete ahead of her up a ferociously steep pitch. The stakes were lower this time (although there may have been more fans present at Hilltop Ski Area on Saturday than at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre on February 21, 2018, oh snap); Randall also now has a seven-year-old son, and trains a fraction of what she did at her peak. She is 40 years old. Her last race this season may have been four full months ago. She was wearing a garishly loud custom race suit, and was trailing an athlete wearing a tutu and a swimsuit. The Olympics it was not.
All that said, Randall was the only athlete all day, any heat, any gender, to make up ground on this final climb. She adroitly moved to the far outside where the snow was firmer and charged up the pitch to come from behind and surge just even with Swirbul as the crowd below roared its approval.
Swirbul had hit the climb first, and claimed and held the inside line over the top. The two women came around the curve together, tucked down the final hill side by side, went over the jump in tandem, and lunged for the line. Swirbul took the win by less than a ski length.
It must also be noted that Randall threw a far bigger air than Swirbul over the final jump, arguably costing her the win. If you really cared about this. Which Randall likely did not.
Randall has a history of going downhill fast, hearkening back to alpine racing in elementary school and the mid-90s Stowe Derby–esque Flattop Flier in high school. (The race, in the Chugach foothills, was ultimately canceled after an athlete, let’s call her “Kikkan Randall,” took a hard fall and sustained a spinal compression fracture. Randall was famously seen out training again, now while wearing a back brace, a ludicrously short time later.) “My motivation early was, the more you go up the hill, the more you get to come down,” Randall said.
Even for Randall, even with the lengthy career accomplishments outlined above, race day is not without its nerves.
“I’m not gonna lie, there were some butterflies,” Randall said. “I haven’t done any hard max efforts like this. And visibility is a little tough. But man, I’ve been looking forward to this the past few weeks, and it was so fun. Great crowd, great music.”
Turning to the crux of the race, Randall addressed her strategy going up the final climb: “That used to be my strength, and that was the one shot that I had. … And it’s actually firmer snow on the outside, but just, then you’re taking the wider line. And it’s like, Get there get there get there! I’m glad we could make it close.”
While Randall has been retired from pro skiing for half a decade now, Swirbul has been retired for about half a month.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for me so far,” Swirbul said. “But I think that this is why I love racing, this community and this energy and coming out here and going toe to toe. ‘A peaceful way to do battle’ is what my coach has always thought of it as, and I think that’s super appropriate.”
Swirbul did not go into battle without nerves.
“I was more nervous standing at the top of this course than I have been for any World Cup race this season, so maybe getting rid of that stress by not doing World Cups anymore isn’t a real thing,” she said.
Finally, what’s it like to be closing out a sprint course and to know that you’re holding off Kikkan Randall? In Anchorage?
“She has been my idol since I started nordic skiing the very first time,” Swirbul enthused as the gentle strains of “All Star,” by Smash Mouth, wafted through the finish area. “So it’s so special to have a relationship with her outside of sport and looking at her on a poster on my wall. She’s such a great inspiration and just a great person. And a great skier. It was pretty cool to have someone absolutely smoke by me up that hill — but I had the inside line. So it was really fun to go off the last jump together, and hopefully there’ll be some good photos.”
It’s clear from Swirbul’s sentiments here that racing Kikkan Randall in Anchorage is A Big Deal, even if you are literally a pro skier who was Randall’s teammate at APU for the 2017/2018 season and who subsequently made 60+ World Cup starts alongside the best athletes in the world. My bias here is apparent, and massive — I first raced against Randall in the early 1990s, and have had a hero worship view of her for roughly as long as Swirbul has been alive — but it is impossible to overstate Randall’s role in Alaskan skiing, a fact that comes through in Swirbul’s quotes. Or in my prose, for that matter.
Now imagine being a local high school senior and standing on that start line alongside of Kikkan Randall. That’s the position that Robyn Miller found herself in on Saturday afternoon after advancing through the heats to the final. Miller would finish third in the final, followed by Caroline Brisbois (APU, ret.) and Aila Berrigan (UAF).
Miller, 18, is a senior at South Anchorage High School, and skis with Alaska Winter Stars. She is poised, well-spoken, and an accomplished athlete. And she, much like this reporter, was fangirling simply at the prospect of racing alongside these luminaries.
“It’s absolutely crazy” to be racing these two women, Miller said. “I finished and I was like, holy bleep [Miller decorously self-censored here], this is amazing. I was out here with Olympians, and I was just so stoked to be in their mere presence. And to be up on the podium with them was amazing. I was so happy.”
“Kikkan is absolutely amazing,” continued Miller. “She is SO nice, SO supportive. I mean, like, I got hugs and fist bumps after the race. I tried — all of us tried our best to follow her line skiing because she’s just so experienced. We’re like, we have to go the way she went, that’s the smartest route. And it was just really cool to get to compete with her.”
Saturday’s race was poignant for Miller. It was both a chance to bring some redemption to an underwhelming senior year of skiing — Miller suffered through a case of mono during race season — but also Miller’s last opportunity to race at home for some time to come. Luke Jager, now an Olympian and a member of the U.S. Ski Team but once just a Cook Inlet Conference high school skier like Miller, earlier this winter declined a World Champs start in part so that he could race in Anchorage, then said, as between Planica and Kincaid, “There’s no place I’d rather be.” This is a big deal for local kids.
Miller, meanwhile, is a few years back on this curve, about to leave home for college next school year but still unsure of where. She flew out at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night to visit her final three schools and make a choice. Skiing is a lifelong sport, but it found Randall, Swirbul, and Miller at very different points in their life vis-à-vis skiing and Anchorage. You can go home again, as Randall has shown, but it may take some time.
(Back to more quotidian concerns, had Miller ever won anything in a ski race before? “No,” she said. “I mean, maybe a little ribbon, but that’s about it. This is absolutely insane. That’s a lot of money for an 18-year-old.” So what will Miller do with her $400 in prize money for third? “College stuff, definitely,” Miller said. “You know, the logical answer.” Finally, congrats to Miller for winning more money in a ski race while still in high school than many pro athletes win in an entire season on the SuperTour.)
The men’s race, which went off moments after the women had finished, featured an even more impressive lineup. Gus Schumacher has four World Juniors medals, and is one of two American men this century, alongside Kris Freeman, with two top-10 finishes in World Cup distance races. JC Schoonmaker had two top-10 World Cup sprint finishes last season alone. Hunter Wonders was 11th and 16th in World Cup distance races last season. Michael Earnhart has a World Juniors medal and a SuperTour win to his name, before he is old enough to legally drink in this country. Not bad for a race where Wonders was clad in a garish all-pink Fischer suit and several athletes raced wearing the 80s-tastic pink fanny packs they picked up at registration (see Hunter Wonders, above, far left).
I live in Anchorage, along with over one-third of the U.S. Ski Team; I’ve seen fast skiers in person on my local trails for years now, in addition to seeing many other fast skiers on many other trails in my formal race reporting this winter.
But still, nothing brings home just how strong these men really are like seeing Schoonmaker lead Schumacher into the base of the final climb, approaching the end of the men’s final, then start V2ing up a literal alpine run with grace and fury. The two men V2ed far higher up the climb than logic would suggest possible, before finally switching to a jumpskate. They were still not moving slowly. They were closely trailed by most of the rest of the heat, multiple men jumpskating with alacrity.
Over the crest of the climb, the grade was 41 percent. A half-dozen of Schoonmaker’s former teammates on the UAA ski team, and Schumacher’s de facto current teammates (he attends the school part time and often trains with the Skiwolves in the spring and summer), were standing inside the curve at the climb’s apex. Each waved a smoke bomb of a different hue.
The sky was apocalyptic, so dark from the falling snow that the ski area lights had come on even though the 3:09 p.m. senior men’s final occurred six hours before the April sunset. Colored smoke unfurled against the pewter sky as a chainsaw whined. Schoonmaker kept his inside line around the curve. At the base of the climb, 20 meters below, hundreds of people were going crazy. For one rare moment, nordic ski racing in this country was objectively cool.
Schoonmaker managed to stay upright across the final jump on exhausted legs, and raised a fist in triumph as he crossed the line, immediately snowplowing to a stop before he launched into the fire pit and beer garden. Schumacher was right behind him, followed closely by Michael Earnhart in third, Hunter Wonders in fourth, and UAA skier Ari Endestad in fifth. It may have been the only race on the continent this year where athletes on the U.S. Ski Team took the top four spots.
Seconds later, skis shed, all the men were joyfully tackling one another and throwing each other to the ground in a show of faux aggression. The scene was a curious combination of world-class athleticism and tussling puppies. More photographers than were present at either U.S. Nationals or World Juniors crowded around the finish area to get the shot. The snow continued to fall.
“I think this is probably the best moment in my season so far” said JC Schoonmaker, a man who was literally ninth in the World Championships classic sprint earlier this season. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs and I’m pretty hyped to secure the back to back [wins] here. So that’s really nice.”
“We went out hot,” Schoonmaker said when asked to narrate the final. “I didn’t see them, but I guess all the other guys went off the course; it was getting so icy up there. Gus kind of caught me; we had a little battle; he went ahead; I passed him again. And then right into the last hill, he came up beside me and I just was barely able to block him out and secure the W and stay on my feet. So yeah, it was sweet.”
Compared to night sprinting in Tallinn on the World Cup last month, Schoonmaker stated that the crowd in Anchorage was smaller than the thousands present in the Estonian capital, but that “everyone’s way more hyped here.”
And speaking of the World Cup… “In two or three years, this is going to be a well-known event,” Schoonmaker said. “I think we can get World Cup skiers to come do this, get people from all over the U.S. I think it’ll be huge.”
Fellow World Cup skier Gus Schumacher was pleased with second, but also observed, “Today is not about the result — I mean, it’s nice to win a little cash, I guess. Today I was just happy to race the whole day; it was kind of my goal to get into the final, so I could do the course as many times as possible.”
Schumacher felt flush with community support more so than with cash. “It just fills you up,” he said of the experience of racing at home at the end of a long season. “I just feel like, you know, every day is very comfortable. And I’m like, I’m in my place. That’s the best way to describe it.”
* * *
In conclusion, the racing on Saturday occurred at a high level, but was also deeply enjoyable. Some expected athletes were on the podium, but some unexpected names were there, too. Hundreds of people showed up. Skills were developed. Beer was drunk. Fun was had. And still the snow fell.
What does it all mean, and how much of a debt of thanks do participants owe the race organizer? Here’s Greta Anderson, Development Team Coach for the U.S. Ski Team, with the final word:
“Reese Hanneman has been for many years and continues to be a shining star and a huge asset for American skiing. Whether that’s through national team and World Cup accomplishments, Olympic starts, or what he brings to the community, the fun he brings to skiing, the promotion that for a couple of decades he’s brought to skiing through his presence online and his ability to connect with others — you’re seeing that here. I think there’s four parking lots that are full and several fire lanes that are full today because of the excitement and joy of skiing that Reese Hanneman brings to the sport.
“I also look at the format of this event and it screams ‘Reese Hanneman,’ right? Everything about this is the fun of ski racing that kept Reese in it. I believe events like this engage athletes like that and challenge them. It’s going to bring more of them to the sport. And in that way, Reese’s contribution to U.S. skiing is much more than he’s taken from it, and we will all benefit from that.”
— Gavin Kentch