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Bender and Newcomer Bolger Top Fields in Classic Sprints at 2017 L.L.Bean US XC Ski Nationals

by Lex Treinen

January 09, 2017 (Heber City, Utah) – Kevin Bolger of University of Utah and Jennie Bender of BSF claimed the 1.5km Classic Sprint senior titles at Soldier Hollow on Sunday, day two of the 2017 L.L.Bean US Cross Country Nationals. While Bender has won at numerous championships it was NCAA athlete, Bolger’s first national title as he took advantage of changing conditions that saw many race favorites eliminated in the qualification round.

Jennie Bender wins Classic Sprint at L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships [P] Tom Kelly/USSA

Moritz Madlener of the University of Denver, another NCAA athlete, finished second in the men’s race as Jesse Cockney of the Canadian NST landed third on the podium, the top male Canuck of the day.

Senior Men's podium (l-r) Madlener 2nd, Bolger 1st, Cockney 3rd [P] Tom Kelly/USSA
Following Bender, a pre-race favourite, was a late-charging Becca Rorabaugh of APU Nordic Ski Center. Women’s qualification winner, Kaitlynn Miller of Craftsbury Green Racing Project, took home third. Dahria Beatty of Alberta World Cup Academy was the top Canadian female in 4th.

Kaitlynn Miller [P] Ian Harvey
A steady cold rain became a major factor for both the men and women. “Each time [between heats] we stripped down to spandex, we would get soaked from the snow/rain,” women’s winner Bender told SkiTrax, “After each finish we only had 20 minutes or so until the next heat. It was definitely a “focus only on what you can control” kind of day.”

Snow was falling steadily before and during the men’s qualifier, making for slow conditions and tricky kick wax decisions. As the first starters finished, the snow switched to rain, glazing the course and speeding it up drastically. While usually the first starters are the highest seeded according to FIS rankings, only seven of the top 30 starters advanced to the quarter finals.

Reese Hanneman [P] Ian Harvey
Among the victims were pre-race favorite Reese Hanneman of APU Nordic Ski Center, who won the most recent North American Sprint at the NorAm/Supertour in Silverstar in December. He called the race “a nightmare,” after finishing in 57th. His teammate Tyler Kornfield, also a former National Champion in the distance, who finished 34th explained that the wax techs were not to blame. “The skis were good, if the whole field had skied in the same conditions,” he commented post race.

Ben Saxton [P] Ian Harvey
Despite his apparently difficult start position in 10th, Ben Saxton (Stratton) managed to take a decisive qualification win by 1.27 seconds, attributing the success to fantastic skis by his techs. In 2nd place was the 139th starter, Ettiene Hebert of Montereski and the 142nd starter Reed Godfrey.

Kevin Bolger wins Classic Sprint at L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships [P] Tom Kelly/USSA
In the final, Bolger, a relative unknown 23-year-old originally from Wisconsin, said he had a rollercoaster day dealing with good and bad results. “After qualifying 7th I had high spirits and I knew that I was in for all long day but I wasn’t sure how long. I knew I had chance to make the A final absolutely; but winning it really wasn’t on my mind,” he confided.

Anne Hart [P] Ian Harvey
“During my semi-final I was in second and in my head I told myself that I was going to win today, until I crossed the finish line in 4th, I thought my day was over until I snuck in as a Lucky Loser. After that the top of the podium was all I wanted and I wouldn’t settle for anything less. Going into the last hill I went all in and committed to my attack and it paid off,” commented the winner.

Bolger’s previous best finish at a Nationals race was 23rd in 2014 in a 15km race at Soldier Hollow. “Honestly I feel like I have a lot more in me so I am excited to see where this season will go,” he added.

Chelsea Holmes [P] Ian Harvey
Both Bolger and second-place finisher Madlener are NCAA athletes who attributed both their coaching support and team with their success. “I think my success the last two days is really the accumulation of hard and smart work throughout the year,” wrote Madlener, who finished a surprise third place in Saturday’s 15km skate as well, “As student-athletes, we don’t always have that much time, so it is very important to be focused during every session and think through everything we do,” he explained.

The women’s race was slightly more predictable but no less exciting, as Becca Rorabough blasted from 6th to 2nd on the final downhill and challenged Bender for the win. Rorabaugh said that she was used to the sloppy conditions, “I thought the conditions were very much like Eagle Glacier to tell the truth. The rain during the heats never solidified enough to really slow things down,” she said. “I was pretty comfortable with the weather and my skis were good so it worked out.”

Rorabaugh, a traditionally fast sprinter and high-speed racer, said she used her strengths to her advantage. “I came from behind because it was my best card to play, given the terrain,” she added.

Jennie Bender [P] Ian Harvey
For Bender, meanwhile, the victory was a statement of a comeback after some rough years. “Critics have judged me harshly over the past five years: ‘she can’t ski distance’, ‘she only does well in heats,’ etc.,” she told Trax by email. “I’ve changed both of those this year, and maybe I’ve said too much already, but when I hear this nay-saying, I’m tempted to answer back, ‘Well why don’t you get Mono, Lyme disease, and herniate a disc in your back all in less than a year and a half, and let me know how you come back from that!’”

Bender, a definite contender for a World Championships berth said that she hoped her case was made. “If I was a coach truly looking at me as an athlete, I hope I’d see the drive, tenacity, experience, and growth potential, [in me] that comes from someone who has fought for every inch of her career,” she shared.

Bolger, meanwhile, was definitely not a contender until today. “I’m not sure what this means [in terms of qualification for Worlds]. For now all I can do is keep racing and hope everything will take care of itself. I’m feeling fit, and strong I can only hope for the best,” he told SkiTrax.

Junior Men's podium (l-r) McKenny 2nd, Jackson 1st, Beaulieu 3rd [P] Tom Kelly/USSA

Canadian Ryan Jackson (Team Hardwood) topped the Junior Men’s field with Lance McKenney (Mountain Endurance) in second followed by another Canuck, Nicolas Beaulieu (Orford) in third. Northern Michigan’s Nicole Schneider won the Junior Women’s CL Sprint race with Taeler McCrerey (University of Denver) in second and Hailey Swirbul (University of Alaska) in 3rd.

Commenting on the unique conditions, US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told Trax that the selection process would still be fair. “As you know, changing weather is a part of outdoor sport and something that happens frequently,” he said, “We have built the selection criteria for the Lahti World Championships to accommodate the potential for a tough waxing day.”

With only a skate sprint qualifier left to compete in, and with double points offered for US Nationals podiums in the  selection criteria, many of the strongest contenders lost a serious chance at gathering points in their best two out of four performances per discipline.

Junior Women’s Brackets here.
Junior Men’s Brackets here.

Senior Women’s Brackets here.
Senior Men’s Brackets here.

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