Skiing has high potential to place athletes on podiums at NCAAs

by Evan Morgan | 3/6/18 2:20am

The Winter Olympics wrapped up a week ago, but the Olympics of collegiate skiing are on the horizon. The Dartmouth ski teams traveled to Steamboat Springs, Colorado this past weekend, where the NCAA Skiing Championships will begin on Wednesday. Here are eight questions you might be asking before you tune in to the live stream:

Who is Dartmouth racing against?

Although athletes from 23 teams will be at NCAAs, only a handful of schools are contenders for the national title. Eight schools will bring full contingents of 12 athletes to Steamboat Springs: the University of Vermont and Dartmouth from the east, and the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Colorado, Denver University, Montana State University, the University of New Mexico and the University of Utah from the west.

Western teams have dominated collegiate skiing since it began, attracting top talent from the United States and Europe. Utah won its 11th championship last season, but 19-time champion Colorado and 23-time champion Denver may be the teams to beat this year after finishing first and second Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association.

What matters at NCAAs, individual scores or team scores?

They both matter, but NCAAs is one of the few times during the season when the overall team score will be a priority for athletes.

During the carnival season, athletes are typically more focused on their individual results and on qualifying for the NCAA Championships than with overall performance in a given carnival. The national championship is different because the big prize is the overall title.

“It puts a lot more emphasis on consistency because everyone needs to finish,” men’s alpine skier and captain Thomas Woolson ’17 said. “The stakes are just higher.”

Skiers will also be gunning for team and individual titles. The top five finishers in each race are named first-team All-Americans, while the next five make the second team.

At NCAAs, Big Green Nordic skiers will be able to watch their teammates at the alpine hill, and alpine skiers will cheer on their teammates on the Nordic trails. This makes the championship a special event. During regular-season carnivals, the Nordic and alpine teams race on the same days but at different locations and typically learn about the results of the rest of the team only after racing is finished.

How does Dartmouth stack up?

The Big Green has been the top team in the east this season and has a shot at the overall title. But Dartmouth has historically been an underdog against stiff western competition. Colorado, Denver and Utah have top Nordic teams while Colorado, Denver and Montana State have been the best alpine teams in the west.

Dartmouth does not race against western teams during the regular season, but athletes and coaches have some sense of how the teams stack up. Collegiate skiers compete against one another on the North American Cup circuit and in International Ski Federation races throughout the season. Alexa Dlouhy ’19 estimates that she has already raced this season against 60 percent of the skiers she will face at the NCAA Championships.

“Competing with the western schools, we watch what they do from afar all season and you know those guys have a lot of pace and are really good skiers so going out and trying to go toe-to-toe with the … giants of Colorado, Denver, Utah is really fun,” Woolson said.

Who could end the week as an All-American?

Dartmouth has been so strong this year that any skier in Green and White has a good chance to crack the top 10 of any race.

Men’s Nordic skier and captain Luke Brown ’18 made the second team in freestyle last season, and teammates Callan DeLine ’18 and Gavin McEwen ’19 finished the carnival season among the top 10 freestyle skiers on the eastern circuit. Men’s freestyle looks to be a good bet for the Big Green. The team has been improving in classic skiing, head coach Brayton Osgood ’03 said, and Brown and DeLine finished fourth and sixth in the east, respectively.

Katharine Ogden ’21 of women’s Nordic has a serious chance to make the podium in both events. After recovering from illness, Ogden consistently beat UVM’s Alayna Sonnesyn — who made the podium in both Nordic races at the 2017 championship — to win the last five carnival races. Lauren Jortberg ’20 was a second-team All-American in the classic last season, while Lydia Blanchet ’19 will hope to rebound from a difficult outing at last year’s championship.

The women’s alpine team is seeking to improve upon its impressive 2017 showing in the slalom, which saw Peterson and Dlouhy each finish as All-Americans. Peterson failed to finish the giant slalom, her top event, at the 2017 championship. That’s unlikely to happen a second time. Steph Currie ’20, who raced at the World Junior Ski Championships and has been a consistent two-event threat all season, is racing at the national championships for the first time.

Dartmouth might be the favorite to take the men’s alpine title. Tanguy Nef ’20 and Brian McLaughlin ’18 have been two of the top skiers in North America this season as Nef has taken a step forward. Nef and Woolson were All-Americans in the slalom last season, and McLaughlin made the podium in the giant slalom. Expectations will be even higher this time around.

“We have three guys who should all be top 10,” men’s alpine coach Peter Dodge ’78 said.

What races will be run?

Alpine skiers will race a slalom and a giant slalom, as they do at every carnival. But this slalom has a twist: It will be raced at night, with races beginning at 4 p.m. and lit by floodlights.

“There’s a little hill, and you’re looking right over the town so it’s really cool,” Dodge said. “ It’s a little bit different skiing in the lights because you get different shadows.”

The night slalom also gives the skiers’ day a different rhythm.

“Usually you have your routine where you wake up, get a little breakfast, and you’re on the hill and you just get right into it,” Woolson said. “To wake up and realize, ‘Oh I have until 4 p.m.,’ it’s a very different feeling for us.”

The NCAA Championship will feature a typical lineup of Nordic races, according to Osgood. The teams will have individual start classic races on Thursday — 5 kilometers for the women and 10 kilometers for the men. The championship will conclude on Saturday with a 15-kilometer mass start women’s freestyle, while the men will race the same event on a 20-kilometer course.

How does the national championship differ from a normal carnival?

The NCAA Championship is the biggest race of the collegiate season, and the added size brings more noise for the skiers to tune out.

“It’s not at the scale of the Olympics, but the same thing where you go there and all of a sudden it’s not just a bigger race but things are done differently,” Dodge said.

For Dartmouth skiers who grew up on FIS races, which often have just a few parents watching and which Woolson describes as “very low-key,” the cameras, fans and banquets at the NCAA Championship can up the pressure.

The altitude is another difference. Steamboat sits at more than 6,000 feet above sea level, and the Nordic teams have to take the altitude into account during training. Dartmouth’s Nordic skiers traveled to Colorado on Thursday to begin the acclimation process. Come race time, McEwen said he does not expect the altitude to be much of a concern beyond the beginning of a race.

“It’s not really high,” McEwen said of Steamboat, “but it is definitely noticeable when you’re going hard, so I think it’s pretty key to not go out too hard.”

How do the athletes take final exams?

Finals don’t stop for national championships. Dodge said he is prepared to proctor several exams during his time in Colorado.

Woolson recalled taking a biology exam the morning before the night slalom at the 2016 NCAA Championships.

“I had to sit and take the three-hour exam and then get lunch, and I’m feeling after the exam like I’ve been stressed and your body kind of shuts down and then I realized I had to race in four hours,” Woolson said.

Where will Dartmouth stand when the dust clears?

Coaches and athletes were wary of making predictions, but the team agrees that there are high hopes.

“I’m pretty excited about this team,” women’s Nordic head coach Cami Thompson Graves said. “The chances are good, but I’m always going to be really cautious about my predictions.”

Dartmouth should expect to have athletes on the podium and in contention for event titles. And a national title, the first since 2007, is within reach.

“Expectations are quite high, very high, but I think they’re justified by our results this year and simply the way we’re skiing,” Dodge said.