Utah ski team wins NCAA championship, redemption

Park City’s Sydney Palmer-Leger wins both women’s Nordic races as Utes make up for 2020 race cut short by COVID-19.

The University of Utah ski team had plenty of drive to win the 2021 NCAA title. It found its motor in Park City freshman Sydney Palmer-Leger.

Palmer-Leger won both women’s Nordic events this week at the NCAA Ski Championships in New Hampshire, leading the Utes to another national title. Utah won the title in 2019 and was leading halfway through the 2020 event when it was canceled because of the threat of COVID-19. Despite a clause in the rulebook that indicated Utah should have won, no champion was declared.

Partly for that reason and partly because Colorado was hot on the Utes’ heels, Utah Nordic coach Miles Havlick said he didn’t feel as though the team had the “two-and-a-half-peat” secured until the official results were announced 10 minutes after the final race.

“The championships are their own beast. And as we have seen, it can change dramatically from day to day or even from the men’s and women’s races. Yeah, it’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “And yeah, I’m just really proud of everyone on the team that really threw it all out there and clawed their way to the finish today.”

Utah defeated runner-up Colorado by 31.5 points, and third-place Denver was another 112 points back. Westminster, which raced only Alpine events, placed eighth of 17 teams.

Palmer-Leger led a Utah sweep of the women’s 5-kilometer classic Thursday that helped bump the Utes from fourth to first in the team standings. She helped seal the victory Saturday by winning the 15k freestyle.

Palmer-Leger was the only individual champion for the Utes.

“I didn’t know if it was possible of getting both the skate and classic,” said the graduate of Sun Valley (Idaho) Community School. “This season I’ve been pretty strong in classic 5Ks, so I really wanted to do well. But that was two days ago. And then today was kind of just like, I don’t know, pushing as hard as I could and just seeing where I can be.

“So when Miles and some other coaches on the course were giving me splits that I was ahead, it was a real shocker. I was like, ‘OK, I can do it and try to just push through the pain. Like, I only have another lap or two left.’ ”

Fellow freshman Novie McCabe placed third in both the women’s Nordic races and junior Julia Richter, the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association MVP, took second in the 5K.

(Photo courtesy of Clarkson Creative Photography/University of Utah) The Utah women's Nordic team swept the podium of the 5-kilometer classic at the NCAA Ski Championships on Thursday, March 11, 2021 in New Hampshire. Palmer-Leger won the race, while Julia Richter took second and Novie McCabe finished third.

Sophomore Sam Hendry wound up on the podium in both the men’s 10K classic Thursday, when he took third, and the 20K freestyle Saturday, when he placed second. Luke Jager finished second in the 10K, which was held in slow conditions as temperatures neared 60 degrees.

“It was a pretty incredible race,” said Palmer-Leger, who had similar conditions in her race Thursday before temperatures cooled over the weekend. “It was really hot and I was worried about overheating because we were just in a T-shirt.

“Conditions were kind of slow,” she added, “so I had to make sure my mindset was just keep going, keep going, because there’s not a lot of rest.”

On the Alpine side, Utah’s lone podium appearance came from Gustav Vollo in Wednesday’s men’s giant slalom. He placed third and the Utes tallied the highest team score in that event. Vollo was also in position to earn a top-10 finish in Friday’s slalom, but he was disqualified after self-reporting that he had straddled a gate during his second run.

“That would have been his best result of his life ’til then,” Utah Alpine coach J.J. Johnson said Saturday. “But ... he said it best yesterday. He said, ‘I don’t want to stand on top of any podium or be on any placing if I know I did something wrong.’”

(Photo courtesy of Clarkson Creative Photography/University of Utah) Utah's Gustav Vollo bends around a gate during the giant slalom at the NCAA Ski Championships in New Hampshire on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Vollo placed third in the event and the Utes later won the NCAA title.

Johnson said the skiers were feeling the pressure of holding up their end as the Utes fought for the team title. In total, four of the Utah’s six Alpine racers did not finish one of the two events, and Vollo’s disqualification cut Utah’s lead in half, from 50 points to 24.5. They made up for it, however, on the final day by filling the stands along the Nordic loop, at least according to Palmer-Leger.

“Definitely,” said Palmer-Leger, who won by a mere 24 seconds, “having the Alpiners cheer us today really helped.”

Utah celebrated its 13th official NCAA ski title and third in the past four completed championships. The Utes had nine athletes climb onto the podium during the week and will wrap up their undefeated season with 16 All-Americans.

Westminster’s Alpine team, which won the RMISA championship, will bring back two medals. Mikkel Solbakken won the men’s giant slalom and Julia Toiviainen placed third in women’s slalom.

NCAA Skiing Championships

Top-10 Results

Women’s Giant Slalom: 1. Cassidy Gray, CU, 2:07.18; 2. Stef Fleckenstein, CU, 2:07.66; 3. Francesca English, UVM, 2:08.58; Also, 4. Julia Toiviainen, WMC, 2:08.67; 6. Hannah Saethereng, WMC, 2:09.05; 8. Katie Parker, Utah, 2:09.49; 10. Lana Zbasnik, WMC, 2:10.07.

Men’s Giant Slalom: 1. Mikkel Solbakken, WMC, 2:01.57; 2. Tobias Kogler, DU, 2:02.16; 3. Gustav Vollo, Utah, 2:02.28; Also, 5. Joachim Lein, Utah, 2:03.16; 9. Wilhelm Normannseth Utah, 2:04.16.

Women’s 5K Classic: 1. Sydney Palmer-Leger, Utah, 15:50.7; 2. Julia Richter, Utah, 15:55.9; 3. Novie McCabe, Utah, 16:12.0.

Men’s 10K Classic: 1. Magnus Boee, CU, 26:17.7; 2. Luke Jager, Utah, 26:30; 3. Sam Hendry, Utah, 26:43.0; Also, 5. Bjorn Riksaasen, Utah, 26:48.0.

Women’s Slalom: 1. Amelia Smart, DU, 1:38.90; 2. Justine Clement, UVM, 1:40.91; 3. Julia Toiviainen, WMC, 1:41.16; Also, 10. Katie Vesterstein, Utah, 1:42.59.

Men’s Slalom: 1. Mathias Tefre, UVM, 1:29.09; 2. Filip Forejtek, CU, 1:29.15; 3. Simon Fournier, DU, 1:29.90; Also, 4. Joachim Lein, Utah, 1:29.99.

Women’s 15K Freestyle: 1. Sydney Palmer-Leger, Utah, 38:31.0; 2. Astrid Stav, UAA, 38:55.2; 3. Novie McCabe, Utah, 39:16.1.

Men’s 20K Freestyle: 1. Magnus Boee, CU, 48:02.4; 2. Sam Hendry, Utah, 48:18.3; 3. Kjetil Baanerud, NMU, 48:49.4; Also, 10. Bjorn Riksaasen, Utah, 49:30.2.