The sports world began shutting down last week. But at venues around Lake Placid, N.Y., nearly 500 athletes from 71 colleges and universities competed in four (of five) days of racing at the 42nd annual USCSA Collegiate National Championships. In alpine, only the dual slalom on Saturday was canceled. In the USCSA’s other snowsport disciplines, freeski slopestyle, snowboard giant slalom, and the cross-country relay were canceled as well.
At Whiteface Mountain, the men’s and women’s GS and slalom were hotly contested this year. And while the usual cast of characters took podium honors, there were a few notable exceptions.
Those “usuals” included Rocky Mountain College and Sierra Nevada University adding to their vast collections of national titles. The RMC Bears won the men’s slalom and GS team titles, plus the overall, while SNU Eagles claimed the women’s GS and overall team titles.
“Feels great to be back on top, with a men’s team made up of four freshman and a sophomore,” said RMC head coach Jerry Wolf via email, after he successfully returned his team to Montana a day early.
It was Castleton University—led by sophomore Karoline Rettenbacher and Li Aunes in third and fourth places, respectively—who finally pushed “the usuals” off the top step of the podium, with the Spartans taking its first-ever national alpine title in women’s slalom. The three scoring skiers held off SNU by 0.02 seconds, and Rettenbacher’s third place was the first individual podium for a Castleton woman at USCSA nationals. Brown University rounded out the women’s slalom podium. (In USCSA racing, team placings are calculated by the top three skiers’ times instead of placement points.)
“I am having a hard time expressing how proud I am of them,” said Castleton coach Chris Eder. “It was not easy for them, as a couple of DNFs in the first run resulted in us only having three student-athletes going into the second run. All three stayed cool and handled the pressure well.”
With senior Kylie Mackie in second place, the Castleton Spartans finished second to SNU in GS, with RMC in third place. The silver medal wasn’t the only prize Mackie earned on Thursday. Her boyfriend greeted her in the finish coral after second run and proposed.
SNU freshman Sixtine Piccard won both the GS and slalom by sizeable margins—the two wins giving her the individual combined title as well, ahead of Ester Jakobsson, a freshman at RMC. Mackie rounded out the women’s alpine combined podium.
Babson’s Sarah Mangiacotti was one of the few skiers not from RMC, SNU, or Castleton to step on the podium in alpine. She finished third in women’s GS.
The men’s alpine competitions were equally as exciting. Castleton’s Robby Kelley skied away with both the slalom and GS individual titles. But not without a bit of adventure.
In slalom, Kelley became caught between two gates in a hairpin at the top of the course first run and broke his pole. But sitting in sixth, he was only 0.85 out of the hunt. Kelley, a veteran of two FIS alpine world championships and NCAA racing, charged second run, beating RMC freshman Ludwig Bye by 1.60 seconds and claiming his second collegiate national title by three-quarters of a second. SNU junior Adrian Rhomberg rounded out the slalom podium in third place.
Kelley is finishing his college career at Castleton and had hoped to lead the Spartans to their first national team win. But they fell less than a half-second short in slalom—and just over a second-and-a-half in GS after an unfortunate DNF handed RMC the team win.
The Spartans were leading the GS team standings after the first run—a scant 0.28 seconds ahead of SNU and almost a full second ahead of RMC, with Babson in there too. But Paul Rechberger fell second run, dropping the Spartans from the top three.
“It was a great day of racing at Whiteface, the snow and weather were great, and I was happy to come away with the win,” said Kelly after the GS. “Tough luck for us in the team race, Paul was absolutely hammering before falling, and unfortunately for us DNFs are part of ski racing.”
With teammates Rechberger and Vermont native Cameron Heald finishing in the top 13 in slalom, the Castleton Spartans fell to RMC by only 0.47 seconds, with SNU another 1.30 seconds behind in third place.
“We came with the goal of winning a USCSA national championship,” said Castleton coach Eder. “We fell short with the men, but I am extremely proud of their effort.”
It was the Rocky Mountain Bears, led by freshmen Bye in slalom and Alexander Sehlberg in GS, who successfully defended the men’s team GS title and reclaimed the overall and slalom titles that they lost to SNU last year.
In GS, RMC sophomore Oscar Dalmalm and freshman Filip Johansson finished in the top seven, within four seconds of Kelley’s winning time (2:04.14)—and less than two seconds behind SNU’s top skier, freshman Jordan Cashman from Squaw Valley, who finished both runs in 2:06.09.
“Sometimes the pressure of nationals can get the better of a young team, we didn’t dwell on it and tried to make light of it,” wrote RMC Coach Wolf. “With four teams within about half a second of the national title after the first run, it was going to be a dog fight. Who wants it the most? How much risk are you willing to take second run? Without going out?”
The Bears prevailed in slalom as well, with three freshmen (Bye, Sehlberg, and Johansson) scoring for the team. But not without a fight—and a bit of freaking out. If they lost the slalom, would they still win the overall team title? What about a tie?
“The guys were in a circle hashing it over, basically freaking out,” said Wolf. “After about 10 minutes, I slowly skied by making fun of all of them for freaking out and saying something sarcastic like, ‘It’s only nationals, what we have worked for all season long, we can all taste it, just don’t F it up!’ I just let them figure it out and go to work from there, together, and they got it done in style.”
On the stiff competition at USCSA nationals …
Wolf is happy to see USCSA competition become tighter and tighter.
There used to be one dominant team in USCSA—SNU, then two teams SNU and RMC,” he wrote. “Now there are at least four to six teams on top battling it out for the team combined. It’s great to see USCSA not only growing larger, but all the good competition and great skiers, schools, and talent the organization is attracting as of late.”
SNU coach Mihaela Kosi, who skied for the Eagles from 2014-2018 and won several USCSA national podiums, was also proud of her team, especially given the stiff competition.
“In the last three years, the level of skiing has risen drastically, and it’s nice to see that skiers start noticing that USCSA is a very competitive division,” she said. “To become a winner in USCSA, skiers must ski at a high level. SNU has been dominating for many years, and I am so impressed that we are still one of the top schools, ready to fight for a win every year.”
With coronavirus precautions sweeping the nation, the 2020 USCSA nationals came to a halt after Thursday’s races. The only alpine event left on the schedule was the dual slalom. But even prior to the event cancellations, organizers took precautions. During Thursday’s slalom, the teams learned that the awards presentation was canceled. Coaches and athletes were disappointed but understood and agreed with the cancellation.
“After 17 years of coaching at Castleton, I was really looking forward to seeing our women on the top of the podium and having their moment,” commented Coach Eder. “Unfortunately, it did not happen. It was disappointing, but we were able to pick up our awards and found a sport to take some team photos. They made the best of it.”
USCSA snowboard, freeski, and cross-country results
In the USCSA’s other snowsport disciplines, SNU and RMC took two other national titles: men’s freeski rail jam (SNU) and skiercross (RMC). But it was the University of Colorado-Boulder that took the men’s freeski combined team win.
The University of Vermont took the women’s freeski rail jam and team combined titles, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison claiming the skiercross team title.
Westminster College swept the 10 snowboard team titles on offer: men’s and women’s boardercross, rail jam, slopestyle, slalom, and the combined.
At Lake Placid’s Olympic Jumping Complex, the Castleton cross-country team won the men’s classic sprint, women’s 7.5km freestyle, and the 15km classic mass start races. St. Olaf College won the men’s 7.5km freestyle title, with Clarkson University taking the men’s 15km classic mass start. The University of Wyoming women on the classic sprint team title.
The cross-country team relay was canceled.