For American Nordic (a.k.a. cross country) ski racers, U.S. Nationals is the one event each year that has the highest stakes and the fiercest competition. The weeklong, four-race event features the best American skiers vying for a rare chance to represent their country at the next level of ski racing.
For Sugar Bowl Academy student Hannah Halvorsen U.S. Nationals was her one opportunity to join an elite delegation of American junior skiers to race against the best of their peers from all across northern Europe. If she ranked as one of the top six girls in her age group (under 18) after the first three races, she would be qualified for the Scandinavian Cup competition in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden in February.
Even though Halvorsen had qualified for the Scandinavian Cup trip the previous year, she was by no means guaranteed to make the trip again in 2015. With three races in five days determining the team, there was little room for error.
To make the challenge even more daunting, qualifying for Scandinavian Cup wasn’t actually Halvorsen’s goal. “Last spring, I told my coaches that I wanted to qualify for World Juniors,” she says. World Juniors is the equivalent international competition to Scandinavian Cup for skiers under age 20. Obviously competing against older skiers for a spot on the World Juniors trip would make achieving her goal that much harder.
With big goals in the back of her head, Halvorsen found herself heading to U.S. Nationals in Houghton, on Michigan’s Upper Penninsula during what was an extraordinary cold snap even in that frigid section of the country. Temperatures were below zero each day, occasionally rising into the positive single digits.
Adjusting from balmy California weather might have made Halvorsen’s first race, a 10 kilometer freestyle particularly difficult. She finished in a respectable 34 minutes, 25 seconds, but this was only good enough for 12th on in the early Scandinavian Cup rankings and 21st in the World Junior rankings.
Rather than being discouraged by her first race at U.S. Nationals, Halvorsen focused on the second race of the week, a classic sprint. Sprints in Nordic skiing are actually several races rolled into one. In the first round each athlete skis a course of roughly 1.5 kilometers against the clock. Based on this preliminary round, athletes are ranked, and the 30 fastest advance to a second round, called quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals, six athletes race the same course simultaneously. Only the top two in each quarterfinal heat are guaranteed to move on to the semifinals, where they compete yet again to decide who will make the A Final, racing for the top six places, and who will compete for places seven through 12 in the B Final.
In the preliminary round, Halvorsen finished 23rd overall, one of just four girls under 18 to advance to the quarterfinals. If her day had ended in the quarterfinal, it would have been a great result, and would have gotten her close to her goal of qualifying for the World Juniors trip. However, Halvorsen wasn’t finished. Instead, she won her quarterfinal heat handily and moved on to a guaranteed top-12 finish, one of only three athletes under 20 still racing in the semifinals. Still, Halvorsen wasn’t finished. In her semifinal heat, she finished a close second to former US Ski Team member Rosie Brennan, thus advancing to the A Final. This time it was 16-year-old Hannah versus five women in their 20s, the second youngest a college senior. Never mind that this would be her fourth time racing around this course in the frigid air, like a true competitor, Halvorsen gave it everything she had, which was good enough for 5th place, heady results for a junior at U.S. Nationals.
“I definitely surprised myself by performing better than I believed I was capable of,” Halvorsen said afterward. “It was an exciting and somewhat surreal experience to ski right alongside some of the fastest girls in the country and make it to an A Final at the national level.”
Her coach, Martin Benes, who was with her in Houghton said, “Hannah’s results at Nationals this year showed an improved consistency in her skiing and, equally important, big gains tactically and technically.” He pointed to her performance in the sprint heats as the result of time spent practicing for exactly those situations. “She pushes herself all summer and fall for weeks like this,” he said.
Of course, even with one tremendous race under her belt, Halvorsen’s week was only halfway over. She still needed an adequate showing in the next event, the 5 kilometer classic to secure her spot on either the Scandinavian Cup or World Junior trip, and then there was one more sprint race—in freestyle technique this time—to cap off the week. Fortunately for Halvorsen, she was the 5th junior finisher in the 5 kilometer classic race, which not only earned her the first spot on the Scandinavian Cup trip, but also put her as the second qualifier for World Juniors.
Having achieved her big goal for the year, Halvorsen did two things that may appear surprising to many. First, she turned down the invitation to World Juniors, opting instead to return to the Scandinavian Cup trip for a second year. Halvorsen explained that she chose these races because she believes they’ll give her the opportunity to become a better skier: “I hope that having a feel for these races will help guide me on how to ski at this level,” she said. Factoring into her decision to turn down a trip to World Juniors was the fact that two familiar Truckee-area coaches would be accompanying the American delegation to the Scandinavian Cup races: SBA Head Coach Martin Benes and former Truckee junior skier and current Alaska Pacific University Assistant Coach Sam Sterling.
The second surprising thing Halvorsen did was to enter the final race at U.S. Nationals in spite of having competed in three intense races already that week. In the freestyle sprint she again acquitted herself admirably, qualifying in 6th place overall, and eventually skiing into the semifinals, where she earned 9th place. Again she was the only junior skier to make it that far in the heats, and again she battled head-to-head with some of the best adult skiers in the country. Halvorsen loved it: “I believe that competing at high levels is a great opportunity for every athlete,” she said, “because there is so much to learn from people who are faster, stronger, and more experienced than you.”
Hannah Halvorsen’s on snow success at U.S. Nationals has turned heads all across the country, but especially in the Truckee/Tahoe region where she lives, skis, and studies. Former Olympian Nordic skier, Marcus Nash, also a Truckee local, said she “has proven that she has what it takes to be a top skier.” When asked about precedents for Halvorsen’s results on the national stage at age 16, he threw out a couple of names of American female skiers who had similar success at a young age: Nina Kemppel and Kikkan Randall, two of the most competitive Nordic skiers ever to hail from the United States.
Of course, competing in a sport in which athletes usually don’t start to peak until their mid-20s, Halvorsen has plenty of time to learn just how far she can go in Nordic skiing. She appears to be taking the one-step-at-a-time approach. Sugar Bowl Academy head coach Benes called her results “just another piece of the process,” alluding to Halvorsen’s decidedly long-view perspective on her racing career. In other words, Scandinavian Cup might not be the most competitive races she qualified for in 2015, but right now they’re where she needs to go to improve as a skier.
As for next year’s big goals, Halvorsen isn’t saying yet, but expect them to be audacious and expect them to motivate this young skier to ski faster, smarter, and more aggressively than ever before.