The weather was cold but the skiing was hot this past week at the 2003 Junior Olympics National Cross-Country Ski Championships in Fairbanks. Team Alaska handily beat out the other nine regions to retain the trophy for the fifth straight year.
Six athletes from the Kenai Peninsula held slots on the 53-member Alaska Division team. All six hailed from the Soldotna area.
Andy Liebner, a 2001 Soldotna High School graduate now in the United States Coast Guard, proved the standout. His solo finishes plus his part on the first-place relay team in the boys' Older Junior competition brought him a complete set of medals: gold, silver and bronze.
"Nothing but the podium," he said with a grin after the last race Saturday. "This has been a good year."
And that was despite a fall that nearly wrecked his plans.
First out for the three-person team in the Older Junior Boys
3-by-5-kilometer relay, his intent was to open up space ahead of the pack. He passed the other racers going up the steep hill near the start and built up about a 5-second lead.
Then he hit an ice patch and crashed. He watched the other skiers whiz past as he regained his footing.
"I spent the rest of the race trying to catch up so the rest of my team could win the gold," he said. "I came in fifth or sixth or something."
Despite that setback and strong competition, his team eked out a 4.9-second win over the runner-up team from the Intermountain-Northern Division.
He placed second Wednesday in the 15-kilometer freestyle, third Friday in the 10-kilometer classic and 15th Monday in the sprint elimination heats.
Liebner said he has been working hard on his skiing all winter. Given the odd weather patterns, he's had somewhat of a training advantage over the other Alaskans because he's been on trails in places such as Vermont, which was inundated in snow.
His military career and skiing have taken him all over the country, and many of the Junior Olympic competitors were familiar faces to him. Although he retains his Alaska residency, he is stationed now in Marquette, Mich. In an ironic twist, his ski coach there was coaching the Great Lakes Division Team against the Alaskans in Fairbanks. This was his last year of eligibility as he turned 20 after the January cutoff. But he is moving on. Next month he will compete on the U.S. team at the World Military Olympics in Finland.
The other Soldotna alumnus on Team Alaska was Brent Knight, now a freshman at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Knight finished ninth in the 15-kilometer freestyle, 17th in the 10-kilometer classic and was on the relay team that finished fourth.
Four high school students also competed: Skyview junior Stephanie Lambe and SoHi seniors Rachel Goldstein, Daniel Harro and David Hernandez. They had been at the same venue, the Birch Hill Recreation Area, two weeks ago for the high school championships.
The weather then was amazingly balmy, eliciting much favorable comment. But the stormy weather that rattled the Kenai Peninsula this past week manifested itself in Fairbanks in frigid wind-chill conditions. The skiers suffered. Many took to covering exposed parts of their faces with duct tape to keep the wind off.
Goldstein said the athletes from other parts of the country had a harder time with the zero temperatures and 20-mph winds.
"I think the Alaskans have been fine," she said. "It's been cold but we haven't had any medical issues."
Hernandez, however, said he underdressed for one race and ended up afterwards in the warming shed with numb fingers.
Knight noted that the cold can take a toll on performance. Blood flow to extremities decreases and cramps can follow.
"Having your legs get cold can make a huge difference," he said. "But after 10 minutes you don't feel your face."
Despite the inclement weather, the Soldotna skiers praised and their parents who attended spoke enthusiastically about the event.
They were glad to be on the same team as the other Alaskans, who had been their rivals earlier in the season. They also admired the high caliber of the competition.
About 350 young athletes from around the nation took part. They competed in four days of races divided into three age groups.
Race winners from outside Alaska included promising young stars, such as Lindsey Weier of Minnesota, who was on the 2002 Winter Olympics team, and Lief Zimmerman of Montana, who was the fastest in every race he entered during the meet.
But when all the points were tallied, none of the other teams even came close to the Alaskans. Given that the entire state has fewer people than most cities in other parts of the country, the accomplishment shows that Alaska has something special for cross-country ski talent.
Liebner said he has been all over the country and found few skiers who can compete on the level considered the norm in Alaska. He said it was an honor to get one more chance to be part of Team Alaska.
"They are the best team in the nation," he said.
Junior Olympics Cross-Country Skiing 2003 National Championships
at Birch Hill, Fairbanks
Final Alaska Cup Rankings -- 1. Alaska, 1,516 points; 2. New England, 1,118; 3. Intermountain North, 1,059; 4. Midwest, 821; 5. Rocky Mountain, 585; 6. Far West, 383; 7. Great Lakes, 293; 8. Pacific Northwest, 204; 9. Mid-Atlantic, 181.
J2 (3-by-3 kilometers) -- 1. New England-1, 29:32.5; 2. Alaska-1, 30:29.9; 3. Rocky Mountain-1, 31:01.4; 4. Intermountain North-1, 31:08.3.
J1 (3-by-5 kilometers) -- 1. Alaska-1, 48:07.2; 2. Great Lakes-1, 48:07.3; 3. New England-1, 48:22.6; 4. Midwest-1, 48:49.7. Peninsula finishers -- 13. Alaska-3 (Lambe, Rader, Lohr), 51:24.4; 14. Alaska-4 (Vincent-Lang, Kornfield, Goldstein), 52:50.2.
OJ (3-by-5 kilometers) -- 1. Midwest-1, 46:08.0; 2. Alaska-1, 47:31.7; 3. New England-1, 48:52.1; 4. Midwest-2, 49:03.3.
J2 (3-by-3 kilometers) -- 1. Alaska-1, 25:41.4; 2. New England-1, 25:42.1; 3. Rocky Mountain-1, 26:22.8; 4. Alaska-2, 26:34.3.
J1 (3-by-5 kilometers) -- 1. Alaska-1, 40:34.6; 2. Intermountain North-1, 41:05.3; 3. New England-1, 41:14.7; 4. Alaska-2, 41:21.8.
OJ (3-by-5 kilometers) -- 1. Alaska-1 (Liebner, Quinn-Hurst, Lowen), 40:49.1; 2. Intermountain North-1, 40:54.0; 3. New England-1, 41:08.4; 4. Alaska-2 (Knight, Coe, Walsh), 41:27.5. Other peninsula finishers -- 15. Alaska-3 (Harro, Hernandez, Dengel), 45:08.3.
J2 (5 kilometers) -- 1. Ida Sargent, New England, 17:32.1; 2. Elizabeth Stephen, New England, 17:39.5; 3. Maisha Goodpaster, Far West, 17:56.1; 4. Elizabeth Quinley, Alaska, 18:01.5.
J1 (5 kilometers) -- 1. Cassidy Edwards, Great Lakes, 17:04.1; 2. Katie Ronsse, Alaska, 17:12.3; 3. Sally Johnson, Alaska, 17:16.1; 4. Morgan Smyth, New England, 17:27.7. Peninsula finishers -- 34. Stephanie Lambe, Alaska, 19:02.5; 47. Rachel Goldstein, Alaska, 19:28.8.
OJ (5 kilometer) -- Lindsey Weier, Midwest, 16:27.8; 2. Kristina Trygstad-Saari, Intermountain North, 16:45.6; 3. Sarah Hansen, Alaska, 17:08.2; 4. Lindsay Williams, Midwest, 17:09.0.
J2 (5 kilometers) -- 1. Brett Boda, Alaska, 14:59.6; 2. Simi Hamilton, Rocky Mountain, 15:08.1; 3. Matt Gelso, Far West, 15:14.5; 4. Cameron Mackugler, New England, 15:28.8.
J1 (10 kilometers) -- 1. Bret Bedard, New England, 28:57.7; 2. Mike Sinnott, Intermountain North, 29:24.0; 3. Garrett Heath, Midwest, 29:34.7; 4. Tyson Flaharty, 29:37.4.
OJ (10 kilometers) -- 1. Leif Zimmerman, Intermountain North, 27:59.9; 2. Matt Decarufel, Intermountain North, 29:13.3; 3. Andy Liebner, Alaska, 29:32.4; 4. Donovan Dums, New England, 29:40.7. Other peninsula finishers -- 17. Brent Knight, Alaska, 30:50.2; 36. Daniel Harro, Alaska, 32:29.4; 42. David Hernandez, Alaska, 33:37.4.
J2 (5 kilometers) -- 1. Elizabeth Stephen, New England, 15:24.8; 2. Alexa Turzian, Intermountain/Northern, 15:57.3; 3. Laura Spector, New England, 16:05.9; 4. Christina Gillis, Alaska, 16:06.9;.
J1 (10 kilometers) -- 1. Courtney Dauwalter, midwest, 31:21.6; 2. Anna Coulter, Great Lakes, 32:10.2; 3. Julia Coulter, Great Lakes, 32:13.8; 4. Nicole Olson, Midwest, 32:33.5. Peninsula finishers -- 51. Stepanie Lambe, Alaska, 37:06.6; 52. Rachel Goldstein, Alaksa, 37:09.4.
OJ (10 kilometers) -- 1. Lindsey Weier, Midwest, 31:14.7; 2. Kristina Trygstad-Saari, Intermountain North, 31:24.8; 3. Carina Hamel, New England, 31:40.3.
J2 (5 kilometers) -- 1. Simi Hamilton, Rocky Mountain, 13:10.0; 2. Brett Boda, Alaska, 13:31.1; 3. Cameron MacKugler, New England, 13:46.0; 4. Matt Gelso, Far West, 13:51.4.
J1 (15 kilometers) -- 1. Casey Simons, Intermountain North, 41:27.5; 2. Tyson Flaharty, Alaska, 41:46.7; 3. Justin Singleton, Alaska, 42:25.6; 4. Travis Hansen, Intermountain North, 42:35.4.
OJ (15 kilometers) -- 1. Lief Zimmerman, Intermountain North, 39:14.8; 2. Andy Liebner, Alaska, 41:01.8; 3. Bryan Cook, Midwest, 41:04.3; 4. Brent Lowen, Alaska, 42:03.3. Other peninsula finishers -- 9. Brent Knight, Alaska, 43:10.3; 23. Daniel Harro, Alaska, 45:33.6; 33. David Hernandez, Alaska, 46:58.2.
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