The race was on for the University of Utah ski team. At the National Collegiate Men’s and Women’s Skiing Championships last March, the Utes summoned all their fast-twitch muscles, endurance and brain power for a single purpose: scouring the NCAA rule book.
The COVID-19 virus had taken hold of the nation. Realizing that packing thousands of fans and athletes together in confined spaces as they yelled and sweated could lead to disaster, the NCAA announced in a terse statement that it would be canceling all its winter and spring championships.
In Bozeman, Mont., where not a single coronavirus case had been discovered and where fans had plenty of space to roam and fresh air to breathe, the NCAA ski championships were already underway. Two days into the four-day competition, Utah had narrowly pulled ahead of University of Denver with arguably the Utes’ strongest events yet to come. But the NCAA edict stopped the event cold.
As soon the initial shock wore off, the Utah skiers got to work trying to salvage what could be their second straight NCAA title and 13th overall.
“We finished the race, then we had about three hours of uncertainty not knowing what would happen,” recalled Sam Hendry, who had just placed second as a freshman in the 10-kilometer freestyle. “Then we found out it was canceled and then we found out that we had probably won based off of what would be the rules. So we were very excited, but also disappointed, obviously, that the second half of the competition had been canceled.
“And then it was a few hours later that we found out that [the Utes winning the title] might not be the case because just the circumstances were so crazy.”
The team left Montana without reassurances or a title, and it never got either. No 2020 champion would be declared.
That perceived slight has haunted the Utes all season, Hendry said. And it will be driving them as they go for their 2 ½ straight NCAA championship this week in New Hampshire.
“I think we all felt a little bit ripped off that last year we didn’t get to go all the way through,” Hendry said. “And so we’re all super excited to just get back to NCAAs and do what we do best and hopefully that’ll result in winning it.”
The odds certainly favor the Utes. They swept all four Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association meets and broke the 2014 record held by Denver for the most points in a season. They compiled the most men’s and women’s overall points and the most in both men’s and women’s Nordic discipline. In Alpine, they took second in men’s, women’s and overall to their neighbors at Westminster.
Utah also won the 2019 NCAA championship in Vermont, which has a low elevation and icy conditions that should be similar to what the team will experience this week.
Fredrik Landstedt, who took over as director of skiing in July 2018 and promptly led Utah to a national title, said he is proud of how his athletes have handled the adversity of this season.
“You could easily use this as an excuse for poor performance or for not training as hard. You can always say, ‘Well, they couldn’t do it because of COVID,’” Landstedt said. “But for us, really from the beginning, it was an opportunity for us to really work extra hard and make it work. And show they could be even stronger than in the past.”
Within days of returning to Salt Lake City from Montana, the skiers learned their classes were canceled. They scrambled to get to their far-flung homes, many in foreign countries. Hendry said he made it to his home in Canada just days before the border closed. He’d only packed a small duffle bag, thinking he wouldn’t be gone long, and spent the entire summer borrowing friends’ roller ski equipment.
Junior Nordic skier Julia Richter, the RMISA women’s Nordic MVP, said the team was fortunate that most of its training takes place outside, which limited athletes’ likelihood of catching the coronavirus. And when they returned to campus, they were perhaps more grateful than ever for training because they could do it together.
“We had team training and were able to finally see each other on the trails and tracks,” she said, “and finally socialize at least a little bit outside.”
Richter won the 5k freestyle at the 2019 national championships. She will be one of the three women representing Utah in the Nordic events again this year after missing the 2020 event while pursuing a spot on the national U-23 team in her home country of Germany.
Freshmen Novie McCabe and Sydney Palmer-Leger — a Park City native — will also race Nordic, along with Hendry, sophomore Luke Jager and senior Bjorn Riksaasen on the men’s side. In Alpine, the Utes will be represented by juniors Katie Vesterstein, Katie Parker and Sona Moravcikova in the women’s events and sophomore Gustav Vollo, freshman Wilhelm Normannseth and senior Joachim Lien.
Last year’s lost opportunity may be in the back of their minds. But their focus this week will be on their individual performances, which they hope will add up to — well what will they call it if they win? Technically it’s not a three-peat.
“Maybe a two-and-a-half-peat, maybe?” Hendry suggested.
He added, “I think right now the goal is just to get that done before we can figure out what might be called.”