How good is the University of Utah’s ski team? Being an Olympian isn’t enough to make the cut

Only four of the seven current Utes who competed in Beijing will race this week at the NCAA Championships in Park City and Soldier Hollow

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) USA’s Novie McCabe, right, competes in the cross-country skiing women’s 4 x 5km relay at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. McCabe is part of a University of Utah ski team looking to repeat as national champs this week.

Before seven University of Utah ski team athletes left for the Olympics in late January — making up more than half of a school-record 12 current and former Utes selected to compete in Beijing — coach Fredrik Landstedt gave them strict orders.

“The Olympians, I told them they have to ski regionals,” he said then. “They have to come back and ski for us there because otherwise we don’t have anybody there.”

Landstedt didn’t mean Utah couldn’t win without them. He meant, literally, that he needed them as place fillers. Without them, he wouldn’t have enough athletes to field a complete team since much of the rest of his squad would be off competing for various junior world and national titles.

Such is life on this year’s Utah ski team, where an athlete may have enough talent to compete in the Olympics — arguably the sport’s biggest showcase on the world stage — but still may not make the cut for the NCAA Skiing Championships. In fact, when the Utes host the competitions this week at Park City Mountain Resort and at Soldier Hollow, only four of those seven Olympians will be in the starting gates for the defending champions.

Utah is among five teams who will field a full roster, which includes three men and three women in alpine racing and three each in Nordic. The others include: Denver University, the University of Colorado, Dartmouth and the University of Vermont.

(Clarkson Creative Photography | University of Utah) Sydney Palmer-Leger of Park City races in the women's 15-kilometer freestyle Nordic event for Utah at the NCAA Ski Championships on Saturday, March 13, 2021 in New Hampshire. Palmer-Leger won the race as well as Thursday's 5K classic to lead the Utes to the national title.

Landstedt said almost his entire team qualified to compete, so some difficult decisions had to be made.

“About half the team is left out. A few of those were Olympians,” Landstedt said. “So it’s definitely very tough. That’s what’s different about the championship compared to the regular season.”

Those who have thawed enough from after frigid Beijing Games to represent Utah include Nordic skiers Novie McCabe and Sophia Laukli, who will compete in both the 5-kilometer classic interval start and the 15k freestyle mass start, and Luke Jager, who will race the same events but at 10k and 20k distances. On the alpine side, Katie Parker, who raced for Australia in Beijing, will compete in the giant slalom and slalom.

McCabe said she was looking forward to warmer temperatures. Compared to the single-digit temperatures they encountered at the National Cross Country Skiing Center in Zhangjiakou, north of Beijing, even Thursday’s forecast high of 23 degrees Fahrenheit should feel fairly comfortable. Plus, fresh snow from a storm Wednesday is expected to cover the course, another pleasant change from the Olympics.

“It was cold for sure,” McCabe said. “We’ve skied in conditions that cold but not that windy, I don’t think. So that kind of added a whole other level of discomfort at times.”

(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.

The women’s Nordic team will also include Sydney Palmer-Leger. The Park City native swept both her races in last year’s NCAA championships as a freshman to earn the title of the 2021 National Nordic Skier of the Year. The rest of the men’s team consists of junior Samuel Hendry, who made the podium in both his championship races in 2021, and Norway native Bjørn Riksaasen, who climbed the podium at the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association championships late last month.

Neither Tomas Birkner, who raced for Argentina at the Olympics, nor Katie Vesterstein, who wore Estonia’s colors, nor Canadian Olympian Remme will be on the hill for Utah. Instead, the alpine team will put senior Sona Moravcikova of Slovakia to the test along with Norweigans Kaja Norbye, Joachim Lien, Wilhelm Normannseth and Gustav Vøllo.

Perhaps most noticeably missing from the team isn’t an Olympian at all but collegiate Nordic skiing standout Julia Richter. She won an NCAA championship race in 2019 and was a runner-up last season. This year, she was ranked among RMISA’s top 10 in both styles, including top three in classic.

“We had to leave her out,” Landstedt said, “because we have three women that are even better.”

With all this skiing talent under its tent, Utah must be a sure bet to win its 15th title and fourth in six years (not counting 2020, when the Utes were leading the NCAA championships when they were cut short because of the COVID-19 outbreak) — right? At least one opposing coach doesn’t think it’s that cut and dried.

The structure of the championships, Westminster College coach Chris Hendrickson said, allows for some intrigue. Pointing to Mikaela Shiffrin at the Olympics, he noted that even the best skiers in the world sometimes have bad days. With just three racers scoring for a team, and no padding, an off day at the NCAA Championships can cause everything to crumble.

Westminster won’t be vying for the overall title since it only fields an alpine team. Still, it will bring the top-ranked men’s qualifier from the West in Gori Francesco and the returning the defending men’s GS champion in Mikkel Solbakken, as well as three women ranked Nos. 3-5 in the West, to Park City with the glimmer of winning NCAA titles in those disciplines.

“You just want to go there and dance with the partners that we got,” Hendrickson said, “and compete to the best of our abilities and see how we stack up.”

All that isn’t to say the skiers who competed in the Olympics won’t have any advantages this week. Utah’s Jager, a junior who helped Team USA to ninth as part of the 4x10k relay in China, said he’s bringing a new bag of tricks.

“Being in that environment and surrounded by the best skiers in the world, there’s just a lot of little habits and things you pick up on,” said Jager, who was named the Nordic Skier of the Meet for the RMISA championships upon his return from China. “And when you’re competing at a level where very small margins make a very big difference in your result, like at the Olympics or World Cup, you sort of learn the process of what it feels like to get the most out of yourself and what you have to do to be the most prepared every single time.

“I think sometimes on the college circuit I’ll feel like maybe I don’t need to prepare the same way because the distance that I can lose in maybe 10 seconds is not as much on that circuit. But I’m excited to kind of dial that in and use the warmups and all the different mental techniques I’ve been focusing on in sprinting at the elite level and bring it down to the college level in my distance racing.”

Correction: March 10, 11:19 a.m. >> An earlier version of this story misspelled Westminster coach Chris Hendrickson’s name.

NCAA Ski Championships


Wednesday (updated): Giant slalom, PPD

Thursday (updated): Women’s 5k classical, 10 a.m.; men’s 10k classical, noon, Soldier Hollow

Giant slalom, 9 a.m., at Park City Mountain Resort

Friday: Slalom, 9 a.m., Park City Mountain Resort

Saturday: Men’s 20k freestyle, 9:30 a.m.; women’s 15k freestyle, 11:30 a.m., Soldier Hollow