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Friday, November 02, 2001 - 5:15:56 AM MST
Top cross country skiers come to town
By ANDY STERNS
They say Alaska has only two seasons: winter and road construction. But this early-winter weekend will feature a hybrid of the two. For the fastest cross country skiers in the U.S., the road to selection for the 2002 Olympic team begins in Fairbanks, with Nor/Am races Saturday and Sunday hosted by the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks at the Birch Hill Recreation Area.
With nearly every top U.S. skier entered in addition to the best Canadian skiers, these races will have, "as good a field as any races in the country other than the Olympics," according to Chief of Race and former U.S. Ski Team coach John Estle. The top seven men and women will not only enhance their chance to go for the gold in Salt Lake City, but will share the $1,200 purse up for grabs in each race.
Saturday's race will feature the newest addition to Olympic and World Cup racing, the sprint format. Interval-start qualifying on the 1-kilometer spectator-friendly course begins at 11 a.m., with the top 16 men and women qualifiers advancing to the four-skier, head-to-head and elbow-to-elbow quarterfinal, semifinal and superfinal rounds, scheduled to get under way at 2 p.m.
Estle said the start format for Sunday's classical races was still up in the air as of Thursday morning. A mass start was planned for the 5K junior race, 10K women's race and 15K men's race, but interval starts may be used if there isn't any significant snowfall before race day. The junior race will start at 11 a.m., the women at 11:15 and the men at 11:45.
Even though this weekend's races are an important first step in Olympic qualification, U.S. Development Team coach Miles Minson said he wants his skiers to be at their best during the Olympics in February. "Even though these are Olympic selection races they are still warm-up races for the highest level of competition," said Minson. He said he wants his skiers to "ease into the racing, work on technique and work the bugs out."
And Fairbanks, said Minson, is the place to be to get that important early season work accomplished. "This is my fifth year here," he said. "And the reason we come here to train is because it's the best skiing, the most reliable conditions this time of the year, possibly in the world."
Carl Swenson, a 1994 Olympian, 2001 U.S. sprint national champion and defending men's Nor/Am champion, is taking the approach to the first races of the season that his coach recommends. "I'm looking at these races as a good, hard workout," said Swenson. "I'm not too worried about the results. With a year-long qualifying period we'll have a good idea of where we stand and what we need to do."
Fairbanks skier Aelin Peterson said what she needs to do to have her best shot at making the Olympic team is to get a solid start to the season in Saturday's sprint race. Peterson finished third in the sprint at the 2001 U.S. national championships and is focusing on the sprint to qualify her for the Olympic team. "Only three of the qualifying races are sprints," said Peterson. "And I need to do well in each of them."
On Saturday Peterson will have the added advantage of skiing in front of a hometown crowd. "I'm very excited these races are here," said Peterson. "All summer while I was training I was looking forward to racing at home. I feel really ready to race. I can't wait for the season to start."