In a sport that celebrates its rich history to such a degree that it sometimes seems stuck in the past, a new generation of American cross-country skier is emerging, forging a path forward that is at once super-charged with momentum and pragmatic about the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead.
From climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, the obstacles for Nordic ski racers loom large, but they are tempered by the sport’s revival in the U.S., which after years of stumbles has begun to find its stride, producing athletes like Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan and Kikkan Randall, who have become household names on the international scene since mining gold at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
In Whitefish, the Glacier Nordic Club represents a microcosm of the sport’s growth and evolution, with two racers qualifying for the Junior National Championships and competing last month at the top-level under-20 competition in Minneapolis, Minn. The Junior Nationals took place at the Loppet Foundation Adventure Center at Theodore Wirth Park, which has only hosted the 57-year-old competition twice, and not since 2011, when Diggins, then an emerging star skier, swept the races.
Leading up to this year’s Junior Nationals, the first since 2020’s event was canceled mid-competition during the early days of the pandemic, Whitefish sophomore Maeve Ingelfinger and senior Jacob Henson both qualified to represent Glacier Nordic Club as part of the Intermountain Division for a full week of four races — a skate distance, classic sprint, classic distance, and a mixed 4×3-kilometer relay.
Ingelfinger scripted a textbook week of racing, delivering a clinic in grace-under-pressure competition as she repeatedly demonstrated her patience and prowess. With fire in her eyes, Ingelfinger attacked heat after heat on the sprint day and, through elimination rounds, lunged to secure second place nationally for the U16 girls. On the day of the classic mass start, Ingelfinger skied powerfully to stay ahead of the 5k mob to place third for yet another podium.
This year marked Henson’s second time qualifying for Junior Nationals. As one of Glacier Nordic Club’s top skiers, he was sick for much of the season, but qualified by skiing fast when it counted at a few key qualifiers, hosted in West Yellowstone, Jackson, Wyo., and Sun Valley, Idaho. Among all of the top U18s in the country, Henson raced to 22nd place in the skate 10k in the Junior Nationals.
The young racers traveled to the competition at Theodore Wirth Park, which is set right in the middle of America’s most Nordic-centric city, accompanied by Jennie Bender, who helped coach the Intermountain Division to third place overall, attending as regional support coach.
“These athletes worked extremely hard this season and it was very exciting to see Maeve experience a huge breakthrough moment in her ski career,” Bender said. “You have not heard the last from Maeve, this is just the beginning.”
Upon Bender’s return, Glacier Nordic Club Executive Director Cameron Blake announced that Bender would take over the club’s leadership role to become the club’s first full-time director.
According to Blake, who has been involved with Glacier Nordic for more than two decades, starting out as a volunteer coach, the transition is testament to the club’s growth in the Flathead Valley and the sport’s continued evolution in the U.S. This winter, Blake said the club’s ski team program served a record-setting 250 youth from the Flathead Valley.
“I have had the pleasure of being a part-time ED for the past six years,” Blake said. “During this time the [Glacier Nordic] Club has more than doubled in size as we purchased the Glacier Nordic Shop, added trails, bought our first snowcat, and substantially grew our ski-education programs. The Big Mountain Nordic Trails have evolved into a season-long, 26-kilometer, snowcat-groomed trail system with two public trailheads that can measure up against any Nordic ski area in the West.”
Originally from Vermont, Bender ski raced professionally for a dozen years, including while living in Bozeman, and recently spent two years coaching at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks before returning to Montana and finding a community in Whitefish.
“I’ve been looking for a way to get back to Montana and come to Whitefish, and when I came on last fall as assistant director to the Glacier Nordic Club and competition coach for the high school crew, it was with the understanding that I would take over for Cameron,” Bender said. “As she passes on the torch, I want to recognize the foundation that she and the other leaders of this Nordic ski community have laid, without which none of our growth and success would have been possible.”
In her outgoing remarks, Blake acknowledged the humble beginnings as well as the outsized reservoir of support that has buoyed the Glacier Nordic Club along the way.
“I send out a huge thank you to all who have made our Club possible and continue to support us,” Blake said. “From our start with those who first groomed the golf course more than 40 years ago with a snowmobile and bedsprings, we built the foundation for a future, nationally competitive ski team supported by all the members, coaches, volunteers, landowners, partners, and donors.”
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