A masterclass in heartbreak: Denver at the 2017 NCAA Ski Championships

Photo courtesy of fasterskier.com. Utah celebrates their 2017 NCAA National Team Championship

Tim Healy is a special guest columnist to LetsGoDU. Tim studied Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism Management at DU and follows the ski team closely. As the 4-day championships are concluded, here are Tim’s final thoughts on this season’s NCAA ski championships. 

Well……what a finish to the 2017 NCAA Skiing Championships. I’m still in shock about what happened Saturday (but a big thank you to the Hockey and Lacrosse teams for helping me get out of my shock by winning their games in spectacular fashion), so please forgive me if this piece is a little “incoherent”.  I’ll do my very best to explain what happened this weekend.

Let’s start with Friday’s Slalom races. The Pioneers sure did put the hammer down and bring the heat in the final alpine races. For the men, Senior Erik Read finished 3rd on the day to earn double All-American honors for the week. His teammates Senior Alex Leever finished 12th and Freshman Tanner Farrow came in right behind him in 13th. This was followed by the women continuing the strong performances with two top-5 finishes. Freshman Andrea Komsic came in 2nd on the day after leading for a bit, only to be beaten by a skier from the University of Vermont. Senior Monica Huebner finished close behind in 4th in her final collegiate race. Sophomore Tuva Norbe finished in 16th to complete the dominance of the Pioneers on the day. Following Friday’s alpine races, DU was in the lead over Utah by 35 points and Colorado by 50 points.

Now on to talk about what happened on Saturday. First came the men’s 20k Freestyle race. The race was consistently led by skiers from all three of the top schools (DU, Utah, & Colorado). The race was won by Utah’s freshman standout Martin Bergstorm, who completed the sweep of both Nordic races at Nationals. Colorado’s Mads Stroem and DU’s  senior Moritz Madlener were right on his tail and had a photo finish for 2nd, which Stroem took over Madlener. DU’s next finisher was freshman Dag Frode Trolleboe in 7th and sophomore Lars Hannah in 11th. After the men’s race the team standings were unchanged, however Utah had notched 5 points into DU’s lead.

O.K. so I know the next part is why you are reading this column!

In the hour and a half between the end of the men’s race and the start of the women’s 15k Freestyle race, the temperature dropped to 0 degrees and the winds picked up. Once the race started, the downward slide for the Pioneers began. The Utah and Colorado skiers went out fast and hard. DU was caught off guard and just could not recover. Colorado’s Petra Hyncicova, a junior, was out front the entire race and went on to win and sweep the Nordic events. DU’s senior Sylvia Nordskar was doing her best to climb to the front pack of skiers, but just could not close the gap and finished 11th on the day. DU’s other two skiers, sophomore Taeler McCrerey and junior Linn Eriksen finished 27th and 29th, respectively. Unfortunately the damage was already done with Utah finishing all their skiers in the top 15 of the race. DU would finish 3rd in the team competition due to the fact of a Colorado skier finishing between McCrerey and Eriksen. Utah would finish 17.5 points ahead of DU to take the title, their first title since 2003.

Was it wax? Was it a skier dropping back to pull a struggling teammate? Was it a pacing or tactical decisions that went awry? Was it the pressure of defending a title and high expectations?

As someone who follows skiing very closely, I have no explanation for what happened to the women’s Nordic team on Saturday. This is the same team that clinched DU’s 23rd skiing title just a year ago. Now I have not talked directly to Nordic coach Dave Stewart since Saturday, so I cannot even attempt to tell you you what exactly happened, except that everyone has bad days in skiing. From the world cup skiers competing at the top levels of the sport, to the youngest ski racers, everyone has off days. Look, I am not going to make excuses for what happened but I can tell you from following both the Nordic team and the Alpine teams that they train hard, take great pride in what they do and, of course, they always give it their all. Unfortunately their bad day came at the worst time. I’m not trying to avoid assigning blame, just as a former ski racer and cross country runner myself, there is a totally differently dynamic to these types of sports where it is the individual competing and not a team sport (like hockey or lacrosse). 

As a ski team supporter I can only feel badly for the DU women’s Nordic side who donned the Crimson and Gold with such high expectations and can only think that they are absolutely devastated. I am lucky to know most of the team personally and proud to have them wear our colors. You would be impressed with them, too. Remember, they are college students. The ski team sponsored an event this year when anyone could sign up to spend the day in the mountains skiing and getting to know the team members. It’s now an annual event. I hope many of you will consider going next year because it gives you the full insight into the team from their personalities, as students, and as members of our community. They are awesome representatives for DU and they will make excellent alums. They are damn talented and want to win every event – and so do our competitors.

Now is not the time to go “head hunting” and assigning blame for what happened. We need to celebrate these athletes who put in a absolutely outstanding overall performance this week in New Hampshire and we should be proud to have a consistently top of the nation program and celebrate our newest All-Americans Lars Hannah, Dag Frode Trolleboe, Moritz Madlener, Erik Read, Monica Hubner, Andrea Komsic, and Tuva Norbye. But, I do think that this opportunity to talk about the team on LetsGoDU revealed that there is a lot of untapped interest and passion around DU skiing – and that is a great thing. Who thought that we could all be so disappointed in the final results for skiing! Indirectly, that is a credit to a team that leads DU sports with national championships (23) and leads their collegiate sport of skiing as well.

And, there is a lot to be excited about in the future.

You may have noticed that I put in the years of all of our athletes and might have noticed something. Out of the 12 Pioneers who competed, only 5 were seniors and only 1 was a junior. We have a lot of talent coming back next year. This doesn’t even include the amount of talent that is on our team but didn’t compete in Nationals. The future looks very bright for the Pioneer ski program. I for one am extremely proud of the Pioneers who represented us this week and can only look towards the bright future that is to come.

O.K., so I did not reveal the mystery(s) that took down the ski team and we will probably never know. Great teams never pass blame – they accept personal responsibility, learn from their mistakes, keep it in house and move on.