It was a wild day of racing in Utah today and Denver responded with a solid day to open the 2022 NCAA Championships.
It was 18 degrees and partly sunny at Park City mountain resorts today with 10 to 15 mph winds. Ideal weather, if a bit breezy, for day one. The teams had four events scheduled on the day with men’s and women’s classical as well as giant slalom (GS) events for both the men and women. The home team, Utah, used a dominant women’s 5K classical result to take the overall lead on the day.
The women’s 5k classical began the day and Utah women skiers dusted the field with three finishers in the top six and 102.5 points. Denver’s Hannah Ray was a top 10 finisher (9th) and Vera Norli scored points in 12th and contributed to DU’s 41 points, a disappointing gap from the team leader in points, Utah.
Denver made up ground in the afternoon’s men’s 10k Classical with two Top-10 finishes. Andreas Kirkeng finished 2nd and Bernhard Flashberger finished 10th while Ole Marius Kirkeng finished 13th, all providing DU with a total of 76 points, two more than CU and 30 more points than Utah! So, DU was able to close the gap on Utah’s lead and take an overall first in this discipline.
The giant slalom event, both men’s and women’s, included two runs and a cumulative two-run time. In the first run of the women’s GS, Utah’s Sona Moravcikova was a DNF so that opened the door for DU to close the gap further against Utah while trying to keep pace with the University of Colorado – now coached by former Denver head coach Andy LeRoy who always seems to field excellent Alpine racers. You have to wonder how it felt for DU skiers to look over and see Andy in silver, black, and gold coaching another team.
DU Olympian Katie Hensien nailed her second GS run to finish in second place, leading DU to a nice 69 points in the event. Galena Wardle finished 7th for the Pios and Eleri Smart finished out of the money in 24th. Utah averted the first-run DNF disaster by placing two skiers in the top five to finish with 63 points. CU finished with 62 points.
Denver’s final chance to narrow the Utah gap was in the men’s Giant Slalom event. After the first run, DU’s Tobias Kogler was in 3rd, Cooper Cornelius in 13th, and Simon Fournier in 27th place. Both CU and Utah had two skiers in the Top 10 so DU had to go for it. After their second run, Kogler dropped to 4th, Cornelius held the 13th spot while Fournier jumped to 14th place. Still, Utah responded with two top 10 finishes – a second and a sixth while CU secured a 1st, a 12th, and a DNF.
Denver remains in contact but we may look back at a single event, the women’s classical 5k, when Utah built a huge 61.5 point lead. Denver will have to hold Utah and CU even in women’s freestyle and gain on men’s freestyle and men’s and women’s slalom over the next several days. Imagine, if DU could have cut that 61.5 points earned by Utah in women’s classical in half and picked up more points of their own, they would be leading tonight. But give the Utes credit, they struck a powerful first punch.
Next up are the men’s and women’s slalom events tomorrow. DU needs to make some big progress on Friday because the NCAA Championships conclude with men’s and women’s freestyle,
As a side note regarding cross country events, in this day and age, women are fully capable of competing at the same distances as men – the 5k women’s distance is essentially a sprint event while 10k men’s is more of an endurance and team strategy event. In my view, there is no need in 2022 and beyond to have different distances for men and women at the NCAA Championships. Change isn’t necessarily on the horizon but it’s well past time to make the distances the same.
Top photo of Andreas Kirkeng courtesy of Denver Athletics