Six cross-country skiers with Kenai Peninsula connections will try and help Alaska continue a string of success when the 2003 Junior Olympics begin today at Birch Hill in Fairbanks.
The Junior Olympics is a series of races for the best skiers in the country aged about 14 to 20. Ten U.S. regions will send a total of about 350 competitors to Fairbanks.
"All of our athletes who competed the last few Olympics have gone through JOs," Luke Bodensteiner, the Nordic director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "This is an event that helps to drive the growth in our sport."
Team Alaska has traditionally been the strongest region in the state, despite its population disadvantage. Team Alaska will be seeking its fifth straight crown, and 14th in the last 18 years.
The peninsula skiers that will be a part of the effort are 2001 Soldotna High School graduate Andy Liebner, 2002 Soldotna High School graduate Brent Knight, Soldotna seniors Daniel Harro, David Hernandez and Rachel Goldstein and Skyview junior Stephanie Lambe.
Harro, Hernandez, Goldstein and Lambe competed in the Alaska state high school championships, which finished up March 1.
Knight has been keeping himself sharp by skiing for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Liebner, meanwhile, has been training while attending to his duties as a member of the United States Coast Guard. Liebner is part of a search and rescue unit based in Marquette, Mich. He is currently on leave. He will compete for the United States in skiing at the World Military Olympics in April in Finland.
Liebner arrived in Alaska in late February to help coach Soldotna's team at the state cross-country meet. It's the first time he's been back in Alaska in 1 1/2 years.
Liebner is able to compete for the Alaska team because of a top-20 finish at the Junior World Championships Trials, and because he has been able to maintain residency in Alaska because he is in the military.
Last year, Liebner didn't qualify at the Junior World Championships. Instead, he qualified for Junior Nationals through regional qualifying in the Great Lakes region. Thus, he skied for Great Lakes last year and got two fifth-place finishes.
"It's great to be back on the Alaska team," Liebner said. "It's a really nice team. Everybody is together and focused. I've been looking forward to it for a long time. Alaska has the toughest high school division in the United States.
"They've got the best skiers. Why would I want to ski for anybody else?"
Birch Hill is no stranger to big meets. The area hosted the 1977 and 1995 Junior Olympics, the Arctic Winter Games twice and a 1994 men's World Cup race.
The races start with sprints today. That will be followed up by freestyle racing Wednesday, classic racing Friday and relay races Saturday.
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