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Hannah Halvorsen Changing the Perception of Americans-as-Underdogs

Charging up the final climb in the 5k freestyle in the Scandinavian Cup races in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Hannah Halvorsen, a 16-year-old from Sugar Bowl Academy, was surprised to find a Norwegian coach she’d never met running alongside her cheering at the top of his voice. “USA! You are in 2nd! Go, go, GO!

It was an interval start race, and Halvorsen had been getting splits from strangers from all over Scandinavia around the entire course, as she skied from 6th into 2nd place. “It was really cool to get that kind of support from people who weren’t my coach,” Halvorsen said. “But I know that they were just surprised to see an American doing so well.”

And therein lies the contradiction Halvorsen has begun to grapple with: Americans can’t remain underdogs forever on the Nordic scene. Eventually, they have to start skiing faster than Europeans at all age groups and levels if they want to find lasting success in the sport.

This realization began a year earlier, after Halvorsen used a strong performance in the freestyle sprint at US Nationals in Soldier Hollow to qualify for the 2014 Scandinavian Cup squad. A few weeks later, she traveled to Finland with five other girls and six boys to compete against the best U18 skiers in Northern Europe. Halvorsen acquitted herself admirably “for an American” and the experience was memorable and motivational. By the end of that season, Halvorsen had set the goal of qualifying for World Juniors in 2015, though in the back of her head, she knew she wanted to ski for the U18 squad again. This time, she believed, things would be different.

Five weeks ago, at US Nationals, Halvorsen turned more than a few heads by making the A-Finals in the classic sprint (finishing in 5th overall), finishing 5th in the junior girls 5k classic, and qualifying 6th overall for the freestyle sprint. These results were more than good enough to qualify her for the World Juniors trip, but she wasted little time in deciding to turn down the U20 races in Kazakhstan in favor of the U18 Scandi Cup races in Sweden.

Why not go to the more prestigious, competitive World Juniors? Many reasons, including her own Sugar Bowl Academy Coach, Martin Benes being part of the US Scandi Cup coaching delegation, but really it might have been that Halvorsen felt she had unfinished business. “I left Finland realizing that American skiers really could compete with the Europeans, we just had to believe in ourselves,” Halvorsen said.

One year later, she followed through in a big way.

In this year’s classic sprint, Halvorsen qualified in 8th, won her quarterfinal heat, and placed second in her semifinal. The day was the first warm one in some time, and the snow had transformed in during the brief sunlight hours, leaving the American coaches scrambling to find a good kick wax. In the A-Final, Halvorsen knew she didn’t have enough kick when she was consistently dropped on any climb, but she hung in and fought her way back to the lead pack in every flat or downhill section. She came into the stadium in 5th place, gaining on the 4th place Swedish racer, but didn’t quite have enough real estate to pass her before the finish.

Halvorsen said she was happy with her skiing in the sprint race, but that it also left her with an epiphany. “I realized that I was skiing strong enough to have won that race,” she said. “I knew that in the future I could win a race at this level.”

The confidence from the sprint carried over to the following day’s 5k freestyle race. After receiving so much encouragement and support from everyone on the course, knew she had to ski her hardest.

And she did.

Halvorsen crossed the finish in second place, and was later bumped to third by someone with a later start time. Still, this was likely the best result of any American skier ever to compete in the Scandinavian Cup races.

Halvorsen’s success against the top Scandinavian junior skiers may have helped instill confidence in her American teammates on the trip, as they continued to improve over the course of the Scandi Cup weekend. In the boys 10k freestyle, two Americans, Zak Ketterson (6th) and Max Donaldson (8th), cracked the top 10, and in the following day’s relay the top US boys and girls teams took 4th and 5th place, respectively. “I kept telling [my Scandi Cup teammates], ‘we’re as good as the Europeans, we can compete with them,’” Halvorsen said.

While the rest of the American Scandi Cup team returned home at the end of the week, Halvorsen and her coach Benes took a much shorter flight to Oslo, where they met up with four other Sugar Bowl Academy students. There they were hosted by IL Heming Ski Club and skied as guests at Norwegian Junior Nationals the following weekend.

Aside from the incredible cultural experience of staying with Norwegian families and taking public transit daily to meet her teammates at the extensive ski trails in Oslo (“It was so cool! Almost everyone on the subway had Nordic skis!”), Halvorsen was really excited to race against another group of the best junior Nordic skiers in Europe.

Unlike American Junior Nationals, or even Scandi Cup, there are so many fast skiers at Junior Nationals in Norway that they divide each gender up into single birth year groups. In the girls under-17 age group of the freestyle sprint, for instance, there were 77 competitors.

Halvorsen knew she wanted to do well in the qualifying round to give herself confidence for the heats. “I didn’t totally know what the competition level would be, so I had to push as hard as I could in the prelims,” she said. Evidently it was hard enough; none of the Norwegian 16-year-olds could match Halvorsen’s 2:31.90 qualifying time.

The result certainly caught the attention of the Norwegians, who do not often see foreign skiers sitting atop the qualifier of their Junior Nationals sprint. The Norwegian Nordic skiing website Langrenn.com posted the following the same day (rough translation via Google Translate): “Hannah Halvorsen from USA and Sugar Bowl Academy was strongest in both prologue and finale on NM-sprint. As Halvorsen not have Norwegian citizenship, goes medals to the next three on the result list.”

For Halvorsen, it was a confidence boosting opening, but just an opening all the same. She had her sights set on skiing the course three more times that day—as hard as she possibly could.

After battling to win her quarterfinal, Halvorsen experienced what she described as a “wakeup call” in the semis. “No one was planning to lose,” she said. At Norwegian JNs, she explained, every skier in every heat had the confidence and sense of purpose to move on. “Even at [US] Senior Nationals, there wasn’t the same desire to win among all the competitors,” she said. For instance, “In most sprints, the person wearing bib 28 doesn’t expect to win her heat.”

Fortunately Halvorsen was able to match the Norwegians in pace and confidence, placing second in her semifinal, and finding herself in the A-final, no longer unfamiliar territory, along with five of the fastest 16-year-olds in Norway.

In the end, it came down to a photo finish, with four skiers crossing the line within a half-second of one another. With a huge lunge, Halvorsen beat Mathilde Myhrvold, of team Vind IL/Gjøvik/Toten Langrenn to take first place in the race (though ultimately Myhrvold took gold as the first Norwegian across the line).

The following day Halvorsen entered her fifth high level race in 10 days, a 5k classic Norwegian Cup race. She didn’t know the course and by the time she got to the venue, it had closed to inspection. With very little to go on but the confidence gained from her recent Scandinavian races, Halvorsen decided to go out fast. “I went out at a harder pace than I have in the past,” she said. “I gave it what I had,” she added, almost apologetically.

But finishing 6th in a field consisting of 83 top Norwegians was nothing to be ashamed of. A day earlier, it might well have been the best result of any American in Norwegian Junior Nationals history.

If Halvorsen had come to Scandinavia searching for the confidence to compete with the best in the world, she could have done far worse than finishing in the top 6 in four individual races against some of the best juniors in Europe. For her, finding success against her international peer group can be motivation to continue to improve as a skier.

After the race, Halvorsen prepared for the long series of flights back to California, where she will have three weeks to prepare for another series of high-level races: US Junior Nationals, right in her back yard at Auburn Ski Club in Truckee, California.