Last week was an off-week on the RMISA circuit. The team was in Anchorage, getting reacquainted with the classroom and getting some training done on our home trails at Hillside and Kincaid Park. But not all of the Seawolves came back to Anchorage from Montana. A large proportion of the women’s team flew to Switzerland instead, to compete in the World Junior Championships. I'm talking about Hannah, Natalie and Hailey.
For Hailey, it was quite a week.
A couple weeks ago, I had one of the more exciting experiences of my past decade with the UAA ski team. Hailey, for the first time in her college career, was in the lead group of four in an RMISA race, and was ready to make an attempt at winning a college race. It was a 15km mass-start skate race, on soft, slow snow. The conditions were advantageous for Hailey, who’s at her best on this kind of snow, and she put herself into the breakaway group of six. Every time Hailey went to the front of the group, the pace quickened, another skier got dropped, and the group got smaller. Eventually, with a few kilometers left, it was down to four, with Petra Hyncicova, Guro Jordheim and Hailey looking relaxed, and Hedda Bangman clearly struggling to hang on.
I was pretty excited about the way things were coming together. It has been clear for a while that Hailey has the potential to win college races, though she hadn’t yet managed to put herself in position to do so. But here she was, nearing the finish line in what was clearly going to be a podium finish. It was only a question of which place on the podium she’d end up.
Petra and Guro are both experienced in mass-start finishes and they’ve both proven to be tough and fast in the last 400 meters; Petra won both races at last year’s NCAA Championships and had an outside chance of being on the Czech Olympic team this year. And Guro is no slouch either; she’s usually on the RMISA podium.
In any group finish, you have to try to manipulate the race and your competitors, to the extent that you can, so that the race plays to your strengths. You have to choose a strategy that you think will give you the best odds of success and then make a full, passionate commitment to that play, and let the cards fall as they may. In a 400-meter head to head sprint against proven finishers like Guro and Petra, you could be forgiven for betting against Hailey. Hailey herself has said that her finish-line sprint isn’t necessarily her strong suit. So I hustled myself out to a spot just within two kilometers of the finish and encouraged Hailey to forge ahead early and try to break the other two. If she could get a seven or eight second gap, surely she could hold them off and reach the finish line first. And even as I hollered my advice to Hailey, she immediately went into passing gear and committed herself to the attack.
All there was to do at this point was to listen to the radio because Andrew, Marine and Sara Studebaker were all spread out down the trail between me and the finish line. Soon enough, Andrew was on the radio, shouting that Hailey had opened a gap of around ten or fifteen meters over Petra and Guro. But he was in a position to see them twice, and a moment later, he came back on and announced that Petra was closing the gap. Eventually, Marine and Sara reported that Hailey had been caught, and that it was impossible to know who’d won the three-way sprint. As it turned out, Guro had come from the third position to win the race, with Petra second and Hailey third.
Regardless of how the final result came out, the race was a real breakthrough for Hailey; it was the first time she’s been in position to make a real attempt to win a college race. These RMISA races aren’t easy to win, by any means. Of course the first step is having the fitness and skills to be able to put yourself in a position to win. It’s pretty tough to win if you’re a couple minutes behind the lead pack. But the second part of the equation is just as hard. Once you’ve got the skills and fitness to be with the leaders, it’s another step completely to figure out how to win head-to-head matchups against skiers with the experience and mental toughness of Petra Hyncicova, or Martin Bergstrom, or Mads Strom.
And with that, coming off her first RMISA podium finish, Hailey was off to Switzerland for World Juniors. Things were looking promising. Hailey was clearly in good form. And she was coming off a bronze-medal performance last year in the World Juniors relay. So she should have been going into the week with confidence. In her first competition, an individual-start race, she finished second. Not too shabby. It was, in fact, the best-ever American result at World Juniors. The second and final individual-start race was the skiathlon, and Hailey’s recent results suggested she would have an opportunity to try for the win. As it turned out, Sweden’s Frida Karlsson simply outclassed everyone in the skating portion, but that left Hailey and Norway’s Lone Johansen in a head to head battle for the silver medal. Hailey knew that her best chance to win the battle for silver would be to try to break Johansen before the finish, avoiding a head-to-head sprint. She charged ahead on the final climb and managed to put a little space between herself and Johansen, but it wasn’t enough and the Norwegian was able to fight back and win the sprint. It was a courageous race by Hailey, though, and it established her position as the best-ever American skier at the World Junior Ski Championships.
Over the past few weeks, Hailey has put herself in position to win every mass-start race she’s started, and she’s only been racing against tough fields – RMISA and World Juniors. She hasn’t won one yet, but she’s made valiant attempts. Next time perhaps she’ll come out on top. Or the time after that. Just as you have to race a lot of races before you can get the experience and skills to become one of the best, it usually takes quite a few attempts at winning mass-start races before you figure out a strategy that works for you. Hailey’s in the process of figuring it out.