Zach Hall, a Nikiski High School graduate currently in his sophomore year at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., put together a solid season competing as a member of the Big Green varsity cross-country ski team.
Hall said his early season competitions weren't his best, but he steadily improved. By the end of the season, he notched a top-10 finish at the season-ending Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association championships at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Hall also skied at the Junior Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., representing the New England region, and scored two more top-10 finishes in individual races as well as a gold medal for his leg of the winning relay.
"This season, I feel like, was my introduction to the college racing circuit. Being on the team was a huge learning experience," Hall said in a phone interview last week.
Just being on the team this season was an achievement in and of itself for Hall, who was first diagnosed with a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome in high school. Hall missed his freshman year of competition while recovering from surgery to correct the condition.
Hall described the condition as an extra node in his heart's electrical circuit, something he was born with, which would sometimes cause his heart rate to soar, particularly after intense exercise. According to the American Heart Association's Web site, other symptoms can include dizziness, chest palpitations, fainting or, on rare occasions, cardiac arrest.
"If I was doing a really hard workout, my heart rate would jump up to 210 or 220 (beats per minute)," Hall said. "Even if I was at rest, it would stay there. It's kind of like doing a two-hour interval workout."
Hall said his condition was first diagnosed during his freshman year of high school when he went out for the football team. At the time, doctors told him it wasn't anything to worry about.
However, when he arrived at Dartmouth, he was told the problem need to be corrected if he wanted to be on the ski team.
"In order to cure that, the only options are heart medication, which sometimes works but can have a lot of side effects, so either that or do nothing," Hall said.
The third option was a procedure called catheter ablation in which a catheter was inserted into Hall's heart and radiofrequency energy was used to destroy the extra node.
Hall said he opted for the surgery in part because he wanted to be on the ski team, but also because, had he opted not to do anything, he always would have wondered if he were pushing himself too hard every time he tackled a hard activity on his own.
The procedure took seven and a half hours, and Hall spent the first part of the 2002-03 winter staying off his feet.
Hall said he has noticed a difference, especially when he tackles a hard workout.
"I do notice it to a degree. Most of the time it's more mental, knowing that it's not there anymore," Hall said. "There's so much to be said for the psychological side of athletics."
Hall said it was tough being off skis, but the time spent recovering did have some benefits.
"It was kind of a blessing in disguise having to take the first part of the year off," Hall said. "It was hard not to be skiing because I had a really solid summer (training), but the step up in academics, it was a big step. Having to be off my feet really helped me. It gave me time to focus on academics."
Hall said he just declared his major psychology with a focus in child development and learning and is interested in the education field.
Hall said he was able to do some moderate spring skiing during his freshman year, then had a great summer of training in preparation for his sophomore season. Hall said he was anxious to get back with his teammates last fall, and said it was the first time he's trained with a full team. Nikiski never had a full varsity-caliber squad while he was a student there.
Hall said the athletic regimen also was a step up from what he was used to in high school.
"We definitely have a much higher number of hours that we train, and the workouts, some of them are longer. The intensity level is much higher, and there's a core group of guys that push each other," Hall said.
When it came time to qualify for the Junior Olympics, Hall said he had a choice between Team Alaska or New England. Because he wasn't able to ski any of the Besh Cup events, and the first races of the season, which would have qualified him for Team Alaska, didn't go so well, Hall said he ended up skiing in three qualifying races for the New England region. He skied all of the varsity races for Dartmouth and was able to substitute some of those results to make the squad.
Hall said his experience in Lake Placid was incredible.
"There's a lot of history surrounding the whole place. We had the awards ceremony on the ice where the Miracle on Ice happened, and we were racing on the Olympic trails," Hall said.
Hall said that his experience skiing in conditions similar to those in Lake Placid helped his performance and may have led to Team Alaska's distant second in the team standings.
"It's quite a bit different, especially when spring starts rolling around," Hall said. "There's a lot more melting conditions. In Alaska there's a lot more dry snow and there's generally more fresh snow. It changes your waxing. The Junior Olympic team from Alaska, and some of the western teams, were affected by the waxing conditions.
"We do ski on a lot less snow."
Hall plans to build on this year's success. He'll be staying at school for the summer term and is looking forward to training with the team. He has the fall term off and is planning to spend it in Anchorage, where he hopes to find an internship and continue his training with the Alaska Pacific University program or the Alaska Winter Stars before returning to Dartmouth for the winter and spring terms.
"It was a pretty solid progression throughout the season," Hall said. "... I was third on the team this year. Next year, I'm shooting at the NCAA's."
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