Stratton Mountain School and SMS T2 had a substantial presence at the 2015 World Junior and World U23 Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan over the past week. From SMS T2, we had Annie Hart, Ben Saxton and me joining Katharine Ogden, Paddy Caldwell, Cambria McDermott and Matt Boobar (all of whom SMS rightfully claims) for 12 days of training and racing.
After three days of travel, the US junior and U23 team posted up at the Hotel Kazakhstan, a landmark tourist destination for Almaty. The US contingency joined teams from Sweden, Romania, Slovenia, Canada, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the hotel, sharing dining space and bus rides from the hotel up to the venue.
The venue rests where the Himalayas meet the city, at a complex where jump towers rise up out of the smog to stand above the cross country courses, sliced into the mountain just a week before we arrived. The city atmosphere, air quality and all, mixed with the scenic views of mountains, rising 15,000 from the ground, created some interesting training for all of us. Most of us hadn’t been so far east in our lives and we had to find space to take in and appreciate the differences in culture while also saving enough energy to focus on racing.
The first races were five days after our arrival, just enough time to adjust to the 12-hour time difference and acclimate to the weather and air quality. On the first day, we had a classic sprint, which promised success to all three of our SMS T2 racers. That day, I didn’t have the race I wanted, finishing just outside of qualifying, but my disappointment quickly subsided when I got to watch Ben and Annie ski into, and through, the heats.
Annie qualified 21st, her highest international qualification ever, and finished 5th in her heat, top 25 in the world. Ben, who qualified 10th, made it even further, winning his heat and advancing all the way to the final, where a poorly placed pole landed him in sixth place. There was nothing but smiles at the finish that day, as Ben had accomplished a huge goal by making it into the final, something that will surely give him momentum as he goes forth in the season.
The next day was the junior individual start race, where KO battled with the best young women in the world to earn herself a Top 15 finish (11th) in her first ever World Junior competition. Despite taking the lap lane instead of the finish, she completely proved herself against the fastest girls in the world. We were incredibly proud.
The next day, I got to race the 10K U23 individual start, which went incredibly well…for the first 1.7K. From there, things took a dark turn, but with the cheers of my teammates and a pair of great skis, I got myself to the finish line proud of my effort and ready to cheer on the boys (I finished 36th). Later that day, Paddy contributed to one of the best US U23 days in history, where we had three guys in the Top 20. He (15), Kyle Bratrud (19) and Scott Patterson (13) all skied the kinds of races that totally fire people up.
The next day, KO matched history. Skiing to 6th place in the skiathlon, she tied the highest place a junior has ever gotten in a distance race at World Juniors. Most of the U23s were watching the live feed from the hotel, and I can tell you, things got rowdy. We felt so proud and excited for her, and can’t wait to see what happens for her in the future.
On Saturday, I got to play spectator for Annie and Ben’s 15/30K skiathlons. Annie had a great start, holding her own against her Olympic and World Cup competitors all the way through the classic leg. The skate leg didn’t go quite as well for her, but she maintained the same fight and heart (punny) out there, and when I met her at the finish line, she nodded at her 34th place finish and got ready to move on. After his efforts in the sprint, Ben did his best in a race 30 times as long, finishing 41st. Paddy had another brilliant day, finishing in the Top 20 behind our top finisher, Scott Patterson (15).
Today was our final day at the competition, where the U23s got the chance to put away our skis and go full fangirl for the junior relay. KO was the third in the US junior women’s relay, where a strong start from New England’s Julia Kern had the girls in contention for a top finish. When she got to go, KO skied alone for a while, catching up to the girls in front of her. The team finished 8th.
After a 12 days, many races and a couple podiums, the SMS/SMS T2 contingency is ready to get going with the rest of our season. We leave tomorrow for Slavic Cup races in Nove Mesto, CZE before then meeting up with Pat and Erika in Campra, SUI. From our racing here in KAZ, I walk away knowing where I want to be, inspired by the performances of my teammates to know that it’s possible.