Domestic Teams Preview 2023: Stratton Mountain School


What is the official name of this ski team? SMS T2 Team (aka SMS or Stratton)

Where is it located? Stratton, Vermont

Who’s on the coaching staff? Perry Thomas is the head coach. Maria Stuber joins the team this year as Program Director. Jason Cork continues his longstanding coaching work with Jessie Diggins.

Who’s on the roster this season? Jessie Diggins, Ben Ogden, Julia Kern, Will Koch, Alayna Sonnesyn, Adam Witkowski, Lauren Jortberg, Fin Bailey, Sydney Palmer-Leger, Lina Sutro, Ava Thurston, and Jack Lange. Diggins, Ogden, and Kern are on the U.S. Ski Team A-Team; Palmer-Leger is on the B-Team; Koch is on the D-Team.

What’s different now from when I did this last year? No one has left the team. Here’s head coach Perry Thomas on some of the team’s new strengths:

“New additions this year: Adam Witkowski, Fin Bailey, Ava Thurston, and Jack Lange. Adam is a full-time member of the team having recently graduated from Michigan Tech this past spring. Fin is taking a [post-graduate] year with us after graduating from SMS this past spring — he’s slotted to join University of Vermont next fall. Ava and Jack join the team as college athletes (both ski for Dartmouth). Ava is actually taking the Fall semester off at Dartmouth to spend some more time with us! Jack spent all summer with us and will resume school at Dartmouth this week.”

In addition to the four new athletes, Maria Stuber joins the team as program director. Here’s Thomas once more: “Maria is also new to the program. She comes to us with a lot of knowledge and experience, and has been immensely helpful for me as well as the program as a whole.”

You may have seen this photo before: Jessie Diggins, world champion (photo: Leann Bentley)

What were some results highlights of last season? Oof, this section takes longer to write for SMS every year. Good problem to have, amirite. Strap in for my most concise treatment possible of a lot of highlights.

Jessie Diggins… had a pretty good season. Coming into a year in which she had not a single thing left to prove — she was already in possession of a full set of Olympic medals and an overall crystal globe, among dozens of other accomplishments — all she did was stand up to the pressure and go ahead and win a historic American world championships gold medal in an individual event, the 10km interval-start skate. 

Two days earlier, Diggins had partnered with Julia Kern to take bronze in the skate team sprint in Planica. Kern was 25 years old at the time, and Diggins 31; the two had already trained together at Stratton for most of the last decade. It is impossible to avoid reading the teammates’ joint medal as signs of Diggins helping to set the stage for the next generation, the 2023 version of “Kikkan begat Jessie” in their world champs team sprint gold a decade (!) before.

There’s more. Diggins was second in the overall World Cup standings, for the second year in a row, marking her fourth top-two overall finish there in the past six seasons. She was also second in the Distance Cup, her third top-three finish there in the past six years. She was first, second, and third in three World Cup 10km skate races over the course of the season (in addition to the, you know, World Champs gold in this event). She stood on seven individual World Cup podiums for the season, two in sprints and five in distance races. She all but called her shot when she said before the season that she found it “total crap” that women never got to race the “iconic distance” of 50 kilometers, then showed up and finished third in the inaugural World Cup women’s 50km at Holmenkollen four months later.

“Imagine, we didn’t need to be carted off in an ambulance,” a deeply sarcastic Diggins told one Nat Herz for the New York Times after the race.

On any other team, meanwhile, Ben Ogden would be the headliner. The now-23-year-old Vermont kid turned heads and reached new heights all season, while flashing newfound strength in distance races alongside his already established prowess in the sprints. The results are deeply impressive; they include the green bib for the top U23 World Cup athlete (first American to ever do this), eighth in the World Cup overall standings (highest finish here for an American man since Bill Koch in the early 1980s), sixth in a World Cup distance race (best by an American man since Kris Freeman), and 13th in the Tour de Ski (best by an American man ever).

But, and turning to process goals, likely Ogden’s single most memorable race was one in which he finished “only” ninth, the classic sprint in Val di Fiemme where he went out in L7 in attempts to shake up a discipline in which Klæbo has for years been virtually unbeatable.

Ogden leads Klæbo. Yeah that’s right. (photo: broadcast screenshot)

Any excuse to run this post-race quote from Ogden: “They were kind of slow in the beginning and I was just like, ‘Alright, I’m just going to do it, I’m going to try’… and I tried. And I went as hard as I could, got to the top of the hill and looked back and it was just me and the king, and I was like, ‘maybe this can work.’”

It did not, in fact, work, in the sense of winning the heat or placing top-four to advance to the final, but there were some delicious moments where it looked like it just might, and the American drew praise from across the ski world for his cojones.

On any other team, etc., Julia Kern’s season would get top billing. In what is somehow already her seventh season on the World Cup (fifth of full-time World Cup racing) for someone who didn’t turn 26 until last week, Kern notched a seventh place in the Sprint Cup standings to show for it. Relatedly, she made the heats in every single World Cup sprint last season, a feat previously accomplished for the Americans by Andy Newell, and I would suspect no one else. She took home her first career world champs medal, the team sprint bronze with Diggins. She notched seven individual top-10 World Cup finishes, most in sprint but one in a distance race, too, showing broadening range as she gains experience.

Alayna Sonnesyn completed every single World Cup race from the start of the season through the Toblach relay in early February, one of few athletes from any country and I believe the only American to do so. She qualified for her first World Champs as an alternate, made her first two career World Cup sprint heats, and had four top-30 finishes on the World Cup. Back home, she took her fourth win at the American Birkebeiner, a race that the product of suburban Minneapolis has never lost. Other domestic highlights included a win in the Spring Series skate sprint for her first national championship.

Sydney Palmer-Leger finished 20th in the skiathlon at world champs in Planica, in, hilariously, the first-ever skiathlon of her life at any level. She took her first career national championship in the 40km classic at Spring Series. She had three top-four finishes in Houghton, and had six podiums in seven SuperTour/NorAm races in Period 1. She was eighth and ninth at World Juniors in Whistler, and was fifth at NCAAs. Palmer-Leger did not turn 21 until midway through the season, and is going into her senior year at Utah; the future is bright.

Lauren Jortberg races at U.S. Nationals in Houghton, January 2023 (photo: @untraceableg)

Lauren Jortberg made her first career World Cup sprint heats, finishing 29th in Livigno. Her 39th in the 20km skate in Davos was her best World Cup distance race to date. She ultimately made a healthy 15 World Cup starts last season. Domestically, she won her first career SuperTour, and was a podium threat in every domestic sprint.

Will Koch made his World Cup debut, starting five races in Period 3 after a strong showing at U.S. Nationals. He was the second American in the national championship classic sprint in Houghton. Lina Sutro was eighth in one SuperTour sprint, 13th in another, and 15th in the Birkie.

What does the coach have to say? Here’s Perry Thomas, unedited except that I spelled out some acronyms for school names to aid readers who aren’t massive ski dorks like me:

“Really great spring and summer of training! We kicked off the year with our annual trip to Bend, Oregon, to get on some late-season snow. I really like this camp as it’s a great way to rip through the first few weeks of the new training year when some of us might be a little hesitant to hop on the rollerskis, and while others are maybe chomping at the bit to get back into a routine again. This camp sets the tone for the rest of the summer, and gives us a nice starting block of on-snow time before we start grinding roll workouts. Shortly before this trip we hired Maria Stuber as our new Program Director. We’re all fired up to be working with Maria, and she’s made a hugely positive impact already!

Part of the 2023 SMS summer training squad: from left, Weronika Kaleta, Sydney Palmer-Leger, Julia Kern, Alayna Sonnesyn, Lauren Jortberg, Kendall Kramer (photo: courtesy SMS)

“We had a large training group in Stratton for June and July. In addition to the 12 athletes on the team, we also had four others join us for the summer: Kendall Kramer (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Weronika Kaleta (Colorado), Logan Moore (Middlebury), and Skylar Patten (Michigan Tech). These four fit into the group really well physically, mentally, emotionally — I’m super excited to see their progress this fall and winter.

“The weather here in the East this summer was wild! We had catastrophic floods all over the state. Fortunately, the flooding spared most of our training routes, and domiciles, but there’s been lots of clean up in the surrounding area. Mix in some wildfire smoke before and after flood events, and you’ve got a nice recipe for some modified training. But through it all, we truly had some productive workouts. We really didn’t have to change much of what we normally do, and our team is much stronger because of it. We’ve been working on our resiliency this year ;)!

#wholesome (photo: courtesy SMS)

“Our team really loves to connect with the local community, and we had some incredible events and open workouts for the locals to partake in. The West River BKL kids got to go head to head against the team on snow in June at Magic Mountain, and again at our uphill running race at Stratton Mountain in early August. Mixed in between those two events we were able to open a few workouts for the local community to participate in and cheer us on.

“Most of us just returned back to the states from on-snow camps in Sweden, Germany, and New Zealand. These camps were extremely productive. Ben and Will traveled to Sweden with the U.S. Ski Team and had a good seven days on snow in the Torsby ski tunnel. Towards the second half of their camp they also jumped into some rollerski races, which was super productive in terms of seeing how they stack up against some of the best Europeans on rollerskis at this time of year. It was also great to practice simulating race starts, put on a bib, and see what needs to be worked on for the next few months.

“Jessie, Julia, and Sydney traveled to New Zealand for a three-week on-snow camp. Though logistics seemed somewhat difficult, the time on snow was really productive, and the scenery looked beautiful. As it’s actually winter down there, there was lots of kilometers skied, and all three were able to hop into the Merino Muster ski race with Jessie and Julia finishing 1st and 2nd in the 33km, and Sydney finishing 1st in the 21km race.

“The rest of us traveled to Oberhof, Germany, to spend two weeks in their skihalle and on the adjacent rollerski tracks. I can speak more to this camp as I was actually there, but we designed it to include a lot of back and forth from the skihalle to the rollerski track. I felt like this was super beneficial in translating skiing on snow onto rollerskis, and vice versa. The last two summers that I’ve been to Oberhof in August have been incredible — nearly sunny every day, the town and surrounding area is beautiful, the skihalle has windows (!), there’s approximately 15 kilometers of dedicated rollerski loops right next to the skihalle, and there’s running trails for days.

“From here, the college folks head back to school while the rest of us regroup in Stratton. Fall training seems to go by very quick! Most of us will be heading out to Park City in early October, and then from there, there’s really only a few weeks before the World Cup crew heads over to Europe, and the rest of us start hunting for early snow and racing.

“I’m super fired up for what winter will bring for our team. We’ve got a really experienced group heading over for Period 1 World Cup — Jessie, Julia, Alayna, Lauren, and Ben. They all had some huge positives from last winter on the World Cup, and this year they’ve really picked apart some of the things they need to work on and focus on to continue to improve on the world stage. Domestically, we’ll have a solid contingent racing on the Supertour — Lina, Adam, and Fin. These three have also had a really productive summer, and their eyes are set on strong performances in December and January to set them up for potential bids to Canmore and Minneapolis World Cups.

Jack Lange in the leader’s chair, 2023 World Juniors, Whistler (photo: Gavin Kentch)

“Keep an eye out for our college athletes: Will (Colorado), Sydney (Utah), Ava (Dartmouth), and Jack (Dartmouth)! I think we’re going to see some really cool things from them this winter. We’ve all been training hard and putting in some good hours, but I’ve more so been impressed with how smart everyone has been training. It’s not just more, faster, harder. They’ve all been quite keen on applying the right pressure at the right time, and in the right ways. It takes a mature athlete to know when to press the gas pedal, and when to apply the brake, and they are all crushing it in that regard.”

How can you get more information or follow the team? website | Instagram | blog | newsletter

— Gavin Kentch

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