As four members of the Glacier Nordic Ski Team head to Alaska for the junior national championships, Larry Bruce can’t get enough praise in fast enough. As coaches for the team, he and his wife Molly prepped the kids for this chance. “It’s not a walk-on deal at all,” said Bruce. “You’ve really got to be on the program to get a slot.”
Their coaching paid off. Qualifying races placed Erik Anderson, 18, Marshall Opel, 17, Stella Holt, 14, and Jack Steele, 14, on the Intermountain Division team to go to Anchorage for the 2008 Junior Olympics on March 9-15. Bruce not only has high expectations for his team, but perhaps even a podium.
In preparation for nationals, the Bruces ran training as normal. “I tortured them a few more times,” Bruce said. “But when you get to this point in the season, the money is in the bank. You don’t want to take it out and hammer them too much.” Now that the four have qualified, they join other racers from Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana on the Intermountain Team bound for Alaska.
At the championships, the Whitefish skiers each enter four events. In classic sprints, they race a short 1.2-1.3 kilometers, depending on age group. Time trials break out the top 30 into heats for quarterfinals, then semis and finals. “They’re really epic,” Bruce said. “They take all day.” But Bruce predicts high results for both Anderson, who has won three this year, and Holt, who took first at the Soldier Hollow qualifier and second in two others.
In the mass start classic race, Anderson and Opel will race 15 km while Steele and Holt go for 5 km. “All are capable of making the top 10,” said Bruce, “but Erik is really a good classic skier. I’m expecting him to throw down a good race, and Stella’s classic is really coming around well.”
Skate skiing events begin with a freestyle interval start race followed by the freestyle relays. In the interval race, Holt and Steele will skate 5 km; Opel and Anderson double that to 10 km. Even though Anderson’s forte is classic, his skate technique improved this year. Holt skated more as a youngster, making freestyle her specialty. Bruce anticipates both to place well, with the potential for Opel and Steele also to finish in their age group top 10.
Based on individual skating results, the division assembles the Intermountain relay teams. “All four should make the A teams, but Stella and Erik are definite shoe-ins,” noted Bruce.
As Alaska will be Anderson’s fourth nationals, he knows what he’s up against. “It’s a really hard field this year for my age group,” he said. “One guy is a pro mountain biker who is super good and kills everyone. One other raced a World Cup, and another just won a race with several ex-Olympians.” Despite the stiff competition, Anderson aims for top results in both classic and skate events.
For the 14-year-old Holt, who raced up an age group last year at her first nationals, she finds that experience helpful in going to Alaska. “Last year, I was so excited just to go,” she said. “This year, I know a lot more of the Intermountain team, and I’m more focused on doing better than last year especially with a lot of the really good J2 skiers moving up this year.” Holt has battled Bozeman’s Katie Gill most of the year with the pair taking first and second at most races.
Results aside, the four Whitefish skiers have risen to top echelons to make nationals. “It’s a life accomplishment,” said Bruce.
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