Pursuing the Pinnacle of Ski Racing with Hannah Halvorsen
To anyone deeply involved in the American nordic racing world, Hannah Halvorsen (’16) is a familiar name. She’s still fondly remembered at Sugar Bowl Academy, too. From her earliest days at SBA, she made a strong, positive impression on those around her and left her indelible mark on just about every race she entered. And while her success as a racer was, perhaps, most obvious, Hannah applied her tremendous work ethic, discipline, and curiosity to solving problems spanning the athletic, academic, and social realms. Two-time SBA Student-athlete of the Year, she demonstrated that excellence in skiing could go hand in hand with compassion for all and brilliance in one’s studies, a path that many current SBA student-athletes attempt to follow.
So what has Hannah been up to recently? Spending the last two years training and racing with the Alaska Pacific University (APU) nordic team and, simultaneously, the US Ski and Snowboard development team, Hannah has chosen to invest in her upward trajectory as a skier. While she continues to take college classes at APU, her main focus is on training and racing. This year, Hannah’s primary athletic goal was to qualify for and excel at Under 23 World Championships, taking place this week in Lahti, Finland. True to form, she had a tremendous series of races at US Nationals in early January to qualify for Lahti, and is now ready to test her mettle against the best young racers in the world, several of whom are already regulars on the World Cup. Speaking of the World Cup, Hannah and two of her fellow American U23 competitors and US D-team compatriots, Julia Kern and Hailey Swirbul, spent last weekend racing the Dresden City Sprints, a World Cup stop, before flying to Finland. It was Hannah’s first World Cup experience. To mark these momentous occasions, I talked to Hannah to find out how her season came together, what she’s learned along the way, and what she hopes to get out of the rest of it.
Note: The following interview is abridged and slightly re-organized for ease of reading.
Ambrose Tuscano: So, it seemed like you had your best US Nationals ever. To what do you attribute this success?
Hannah Halvorsen: I’ve had two really great years of training at APU. Every girl on my team is incredibly fit, so it gives me an opportunity to improve that aspect of my racing. Also, I’ve learned to be more relaxed mentally before races, which has helped. Where, in the past, I would have spent time before a big race worrying about whether or not I’d be able to ski my fastest when I needed to, now I trust that I’m prepared, properly warmed up, and that when the time comes, I’ll either have the fight or not.
AT: How are you feeling about your results from US Nationals [podiums in both sprint races, top 10 in distance]?
HH: I’m really happy with my performance at US Nationals. I think it’s the best thing that’s come together for me [race-wise] in the last couple of years.
AT: In both sprint races (classic and skate), you finished behind Julia Kern by mere inches.
HH: Yeah, but I’m not bummed to be beat. The way I look at it, you don’t always have the chance to be there in the first place. So much has to go right to be in position to be lunging for the podium. I feel really fortunate that I was able to use all my training in those races.
AT: It isn’t just your sprint racing that’s improving. It seems like you have been making big gains in your distance skiing recently.
HH: I’m really happy with how my distance skiing is progressing. I’m excited to continue to test that out and give it my best shot. I remember my sophomore year [when she first attended US Nationals] I was 15th in the sprint qualifier, but 104th in the distance race [this year, she finished 8th in the 10k classic at US Nationals]. So, yes, I’m really trying to bring my distance skiing up to the level of my sprinting.
Dresden World Cup
AT: So you got your first World Cup starts last weekend in Dresden, Germany. What was the biggest difference you noticed, coming from US Nationals?
HH: For me, I’ve gotten so comfortable racing at the national and even world junior level, but Dresden was a little scary. At every level there’s a different system—everything from where you get your bib to how you test skis—and I had to learn that again on the World Cup.
AT: In the individual freestyle sprint, you finished 35th, just 1.5 seconds out of qualifying for the heats on a 1.6 kilometer course. Was that difficult?
HH: No, I was just happy to accomplish my goal: to avoid making mistakes that would inhibit me from giving my best. Everything went smoothly: I didn’t forget my bib, I didn’t miss my start, I raced well, I was healthy.
AT: In the past, you’ve competed in US Junior Nationals, US Nationals, the Nations Cup, Norwegian Junior Nationals, the Youth Olympic Games, and World Juniors. What did you observe that sets the World Cup apart from previous races you’ve taken part in?
HH: Everything matters. It’s so tight. It felt like every transition, every corner I was losing a place to another skier. They ski very aggressively. It was really humbling for me. I haven’t not qualified for the heats in a sprint race since my first SuperTour [the top level domestic US tour], when I was 14.
AT: I’m interested in hearing more about Sunday’s race, the Team Sprint.
HH: It was really cool. I’d never done a team sprint before. I didn’t know how it worked until the team meeting the night before.
AT: What was it like teaming up with World Cup veteran Ida Sargent for that race?
HH: Ida was really awesome and welcoming. I asked her for some advice about sprint racing, like how hard I needed to go at this level. I think I just confused her. She said, “don’t you always just ski as fast as you can in a sprint?” I guess it’s a little like asking someone to explain how to ride a bike.
AT: Do you have any take-aways from the team sprint?
HH: It was great. We didn’t overcomplicate it—too much of a permanent plan causes gridlock—we just tried to stay in contact and out of trouble. It wasn’t physically the hardest race I’ve ever done, but there were lots of tactics. I definitely learned a ton.
U23 World Championships
AT: So now you’re in Lahti with the top 20-22 year-old skiers in the world, about to start another big event.
HH: Yes, my main goal this season is racing well at U23s. The top 12 skiers in each race prequalify for World Championships [in Seefeld, Austria, Feb. 19-Mar. 3]. This is a big jump in competition from World Juniors [international event for top skiers under 20; where Hannah and her American teammates Hailey Swirbul, Julia Kern, and Katharine Ogden won bronze in the relay in 2017], so I’m nervous.
AT: Well, good luck in Lahti; we’ll be watching and cheering for you from California!