That was the term many athletes used to describe the snow surface on Baron’s Run, where the 2021 NCAA Ski Finals kicked off Wednesday. The term also describes how athletes and coaches felt to be back at the championships, under bluebird skies in perfect spring weather, exactly one year after Covid halted all skiing and NCAA competitions.
This slope, on the Mittersill side of Cannon Mountain, is the first site for NCAA finals of any sport since then. The prevailing mood among everyone on the hill was one of gratitude to be back at the races.
Getting here, amid the many Covid complications, was no easy feat. For starters, this year’s championships were supposed to be hosted by Middlebury College. When the NESCAC and Ivy Leagues canceled all winter sports, it took Middlebury out of the picture, along with Dartmouth, Colby, Bates, Williams and Harvard. St. Michaels soon bailed out as well. Quickly, UNH stepped in to host this year’s championships, with alpine events at Mittersill and Nordic events at Jackson. The remaining EISA schools staged an abbreviated four-carnival season, while western RMISA schools were able to hold five meets including a regional championships.
Gathering the teams, under state, local, school and NCAA Covid protocols was an event unto itself. Mark Bedics, director of the ski championships for the NCAA, explained that the athletes were all tested before leaving home, then again before the first practice and will be tested every other day throughout the competition. He admits it is disappointing from a fan standpoint, because no spectators are allowed at what is usually a festive and packed event. But, as Bedics points out, “the number one thing is that the athletes stay healthy and can compete.”
Compete they did, in conditions that were as close to perfect as it gets for ski racing. A silky top layer quickly got down to a rock-hard surface that barely showed a few chatters after running the entire men’s and women’s fields through two fast-paced runs.
Baron’s features a consistently steep pitch at the top, a long rolling flat at the bottom, and two major trail turns that separate the two. Regardless of set, the trail necessitates an inevitable big fast left-footer off the steep and a critical right-footer onto the flat. In perfect conditions, like Wednesday, the trail is fair, challenging and exceedingly fun.
For the women, CU had a stellar day, with Canadians Cassidy Gray and Stef Fleckenstein finishing 1-2. Fleckenstein, a junior at CU, who missed the first half of her season due to injury, took the lead in the first run. She was motivated by her freshman teammate Gray, in third, who has spent the season racing on the World Cup as a member of the Canadian National Team. “Cass was the reason I was pushing so hard,” said Fleckenstein. “I was watching her video on our training day and she was ripping!” The 19-year-old Gray returned to the States in February to pick up a Uni win in Utah, and secure her spot in the NCAA Championships, then trekked back to Europe to compete in the World Championships. She landed back in the states just two nights before this competition, and shook off any jet lag to win the second run and the race. Gray and Fleckenstein both thrive on the team element of college skiing. “It’s so cool to have such a close team, and people cheering for you and supporting you,” said Gray. “Today I felt that so much. It makes the results so much better.”
UVM’s Francesca English, sixth on the first run, had what she called a “wild ride” on the second run, to land herself on the podium in third. The senior will continue her graduate studies at UVM and enjoy two more years racing for the Cats. Westminster sophomore Julia Toiviainen finished in fourth, leading all three of her teammates who finished in the top 10. PSU junior Mathilde Nelles rounded out the top five, who earn First Team All American honors.
On the men’s side, Westminster’s Mikkel Solbakken built on his five podiums this season and came up with the win, his first on the tour since his first college race ever, last season. “It was good to pull myself out of the mix and be on top,” said the sophomore who enjoys the laid-back attitude of his team. “That style helps me focus on my skiing and having fun.” DU senior Tobias Kogler earned first team All American honors for the fourth straight year, clocking the third fastest time each run to finish in second place overall, .12 ahead of Utah sophomore Gustav Vollo in third. MSU Senior Aage Solheim, after waiting over 30 minutes at the top of the course during a race delay, put the distraction aside and scorched the fastest second run to move all the way from 12th place to fourth. All three Bobcat men finished in the top 8. Utah senior Joachim Lein landed in fifth giving the Ute men two first team All Americans.
In the team standings, MSU and Westminster ended Day 1 tied for first place, with 137 points. Westminster does not field a Nordic team, so will not be in contention for the overall crown. CU and Utah, each suffering two DNFs, are in third and fourth respectively. Denver is in fifth and UVM sixth. UNH and Plymouth State are tied for seventh, followed by UA Anchorage, Boston College and St. Lawrence.
This year’s championships is noticeably different in many ways. For example, you don’t typically see Dartmouth’s men’s and women’s team coaches completely chilled out enjoying race day on the side of the hill. The lack of spectators, limited team mixing, and fewer total teams represented lend it a decidedly low key vibe. That said, the schools represented have full teams of three men and three women, a privilege usually reserved for only the strongest teams. Everyone, from every team is more grateful than ever to be able to come together and compete.
MSU coach Kevin Francis summed up the sentiments expressed by so many coaches and athletes: “As soon as you are out on the hill it feels normal and that normalcy is an amazing thing these days. It’s been a gift of a year for us.”
The NCAA Championships resume Thursday with the Nordic classic competition in Jackson, N.H., then return to Mittersill Friday, for the Slalom.
First Team All Americans
1.Cassidy Gray CU
2.Stephanie Fleckenstien CU
3.Francesca English UVM
4.Julia Tolviainen WMC
5.Mathilde Nelles PSU
1.Mikkel Solbakken WMC
2.Tobias Kogler DU
3.Gustav Vollo Utah
4.Aage Solheim MSU
5.Joachim Lien Utah
Second Team All Americans
6.Hannah Saethereng, Westminster
7.Josephine Selvaag, Vermont
8.Katie Parker, Utah
9.Nellie Talbot, Montana State
10.Lana Zbasnik, Westminster
6.Riley Seger, Montana State
7.Filip Forejtek, Colorado
8.Louis Muhlen-Schulte, Montana St.
9.Wilhelm Normannseth, Utah
10.Mathias Tefre, Vermont