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ON THE SCENE: Mother Nature challenges cross-country skiers
March 9, 2017

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Mother Nature has made hosting the 2017 XC Junior National Championships a bit of a challenge for local organizers - and, for that matter, hosting the Iditarod for its organizers in Alaska.

In both cases, they moved the venue because of inclement weather, and the athletes have had to make adjustments.

In Lake Placid, the athletes spent the weekend training in near-zero conditions while knowing that, mid-week at least, klister wax and waxless skis would be the tools of choice.

Further, any hopes to ski on the 1980 Olympic course at Mount Van Hoevenberg, which features diverse terrain, had to be set aside for the far more challenging course at Intervale. There, much of the time the athletes will be either scaling or ripping down steep hills - not a course for the faint of heart or those out of shape.

Intervale has one huge advantage over Hoevenberg: snowmaking, which the Olympic Regional Development Authority crews cranked out and groomed in record time.

Another advantage: Intervale is spectator friendly as much of the course can be viewed from just a few spots - which is good news for coaches and family.

"This venue is so athlete friendly, viewer friendly and coach friendly, it creates a festive atmosphere that includes the parking lot, with the trailers and the team vans all lined up," Art Lussi said. "Plus, when you're close to the community, people will come watch. Hoevenberg is clearly a world-class Olympic facility, but this represents the future of skiing. European events are 2.5K loops set in the city center. They bring in the snow, create the course, race for four days, and then it's over. The problem with Hoevenberg is it doesn't have water for snowmaking; Intervale does. Plus, parents love watching their kids. Here they can."

"We are very fortunate to have a crew that was willing to put in extra hours," said Kris Cheney-Seymour of the course at Intervale. "We have groomers who have worked 36 of the last 48 hours making and pushing snow. ORDA put in a lot of energy, resources and time making sure we have a world-class event for the best skiers in our country."

Back when I was racing, we had maybe one-fifth the number of competitors at today's Junior National Championships, we used wooden skis, and Harry Fife certainly didn't offer to wax my skis. Getting the right wax, then as now, really mattered, but Harry, a high school science teacher by day, viewed learning how to wax one's skis as no less important than learning how to read the course and master double-poling.

Today the courses are highly groomed, a critical component for the skate skiers, but when I raced, one had to memorize every bump and tree along the course, just as slalom skiers have to remember every gate. Each bump or dip represented an opportunity to push off its backside to get a bit more speed, and then, of course, passing on a tight trail presented its set of challenges and protocols. What remains true is the fun of being out on the snow, being a member of a team, giving your best effort and, once in a while, placing or winning.

What the kids today miss, as do the parents and staff who wash their uniforms, is being handed blabarssopp during the distance races - warm cups of a purple goo made from blueberries, sugar and a touch of starch. Talk about a sugar energy rush and the bonding experience of developing a purple "beard" similar to everyone else in the race. In Lake Placid's race, the athletes will have many bonding experiences beyond their tales about surviving a course, which will sound as if they scaled Gothics multiple times by the time they get home.

Organizers shifted the opening ceremony from the jumps to the 1980 Olympic Center and put on a simple but effective opening ceremony in a venue where, as town Supervisor Roby Politi said, "Miracles happen!" The 400-plus athletes marched onto the ice led by a small child carrying the region's sign. Once they were all lined up, Jeff Prime took the oath for the volunteers, Margaret Maher for the coaches and Joey Caterinichio for the officials. Local dignitaries gave welcoming remarks, and Lisa Whalley Smith gave a stirring rendition of the national anthems of Canada and the United States.

Then four-time Olympian Andrea Henkel-Burke - winner of two golds, a silver and a bronze Olympic medal, and 16 World Championship medals - addressed the athletes. She shared how her most meaningful experience was not her first gold medal but digging out of a slump that nearly knocked her off her team and getting back to winning on a world-class level, enabling her to leave competitive racing knowing she gave her best. Her husband, Olympian Tim Burke, brought in the torch that was passed down from one youth delegate to another, finally handing it to Lucy Hochschartner of Lake Placid, who lit the cauldron.

"I've seen the torch, but I never lit it before. It was exciting," said Lucy, who will race all distances over the course of the championships. "It's cool to be a part of that tradition! I'm also excited to be in the national championships. It's pretty crazy and pretty special to be a part of a club like NYSEF, where people you used to ski with now are competing at the World Cup and in the Olympics. It's great!"

The real test, though, was Monday morning, when the athletes hit the course. The sun was out, and the temperatures slowly climbed through the day, as did the shouts of encouragement from family, friends and coaches.

"Given the conditions, you couldn't ask for a better course," said Nolan Herzog, an athlete from Vail, Colorado, visiting Lake Placid for the first time. "This is a national-ranked course, and it's the backup course. It's awesome! The opening ceremonies were the best I have ever seen!"

"This is a great course," said Gus Schumacher from Anchorage, Alaska, who said he has been skiing since he could walk. Noting that organizers of both the Iditarod and this event had to shift venues because of the warm weather, he said, "It's scary to me that not everyone acknowledges that the cause of climate change is true. We skiers see the effect."

"I like that this is a hard sport," said Ben Ogden of Stratton, Vermont. "This is my kind of course."

"I love the speed and strategy that goes into cross-country skiing," said Karl Schultz of Lake Placid. "Being on skis is almost more natural than walking. I love every aspect of it. Shifting the course from Hoevenberg to the jumps was the right decision. They got Hoevenberg rock-solid, but with the warming weather, they made the right choice. They did an amazing job get the course prepared. The snow cover is great! It's a tough course. It's a great course. As it's my home course, I gave it everything I had."

Karl's everything was enough to win his division.

"Cross-country skiing is such fun," Henkel-Burke said. "You can go out in the woods, do loops, and it helps get your head free. I still love it. I will never stop skiing. My older sister got me into cross-country skiing; I was in gymnastics. She had a ski pole over her bed with lots of medals hanging from it. I decided I wanted to have the same decorations, so I took up cross-country skiing."

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