Seven young Summit athletes will race across the Alaskan snowscape next week to represent Rocky Mountain Nordic and the Summit Nordic Ski Club at the 2013 USSA Marriott Junior National Cross Country Ski Championships.
"It's cool to be going to Alaska," said Henry Trowbridge, a sophomore at Summit High School. "Everybody's psyched to go up, we're super excited."
The championship, which changes location every year, will take place in Fairbanks, Alaska. Around 250 young athletes from all around the United States will compete in the event.
Last year, seven members of the Summit Nordic Ski Club qualified for the junior national championships, which were held at Soldier Hollow in Utah. The team did well, with athletes placing within the top 20 in each of the four races. Tucker McCrerey, who was a senior at Summit High School at the time, won the gold medal for the relay.
The team last year consisted of six boys and one girl. This year, the four boys are accompanied by three girls, "which is awesome," said head coach Joe Howdyshell.
Returning from last year are senior Jackson Hill and sophomores Trowbridge and Cameron Bobb. They are joined by teammate Liam McDonald, a junior. Tucker McCrerey, a freshman in college, is joining the team for his last eligible year of the junior national championships. Taeler McCrerey, who was the only girl with the team last year, returns, accompanied by Ruthie Boyd and Claire Van Der Yacht.
"We're coming in with more girls and also a lot of potential for some very good performances," Howdyshell said. "I would say we have a stronger team this year. I think we probably have four athletes with chances of top five or top three finishes, so we're looking pretty good there."
Excitement is the main emotion running through the athletes, with perhaps a small tinge of nervousness. Most of them have never been to Alaska before, so not only will they be dealing with the pressure of national competition, but they will be doing so in a completely different environment than they're used to. This doesn't seem to faze them much, however.
"It should be a good experience," Van Der Yacht said, adding that she and the rest of the team were feeling good. "We're pretty confident, I think. We've all been skiing pretty strong this year."
Van Der Yacht especially has stepped up her game lately, Howdyshell said. Though she wasn't on the list to qualify for the championships for most of the year, she made up for it on the very last weekend, skiing fast enough for a qualifying time.
"I just started figuring out the best way to race toward the end of the season, so I was able to go a little faster," she said. As for her goals for this competition, "Just to have fun while I'm there and take away experience from it."
Hill said he is looking forward to seeing Alaska as well as the opportunity to make some waves among the competition.
"It's a cool spot, Alaska. I've never been there before - that alone is going to be a good experience," he said. As for the event, "The cool part is any person can take it. There's a couple forerunners, (but) aside from that, any person can take any position, that's how tight the competition is."
Taeler McCrerey has her sights set high as well. "I'm hoping to place, at least top five would be really nice, that's one of my goals, in any of the races," she said. Most of the preparation work has already been done. "I think you can only prepare yourself, train hard all year, to accomplish your goals or get there," she said. "There's a lot of fast people out here, a lot of competition. Only you can prepare yourself for the best."
According to both coach and athletes, the team attitude is positive, mixed with high levels of energy.
"They're all really excited," Howdyshell said. "We've got a very focused and, for their age, incredibly professional group of athletes that we're taking up here. Many of the kids have been training since May 1st of last year, simply with the goal of winning junior nationals."
Coaches and athletes aren't the only ones gearing up for the nationals - several Summit County parents are also planning to travel to Alaska to cheer on their skiers. While it's the coach's job to prepare the athletes for the competition aspect, the parents are eager to show their support in other ways.
"Our job as a parent is just to deliver our kids rested, prepared, equipped," said Dan McCrerey, Summit Nordic Ski Club president and father of Taeler and Tucker. "We try to be there when they finish, give them a big hug."
While he wouldn't dream of interfering with them right before a big race, Dan McCrerey said sometimes he'll perform a cool down with them, if they're not involved in speaking with other athletes.
Dan McCrerey, who is passionate about the sport of Nordic skiing, said he's happy to see his children getting involved with it. A trip to Alaska, a place that he's never visited before, is an additional bonus.
Emily Boyd, mother of Ruthie, agrees. "That's why it was extra exciting this year," she said, adding, "I'm going to go up there and cheer all the kids on and have an Alaskan winter adventure."
The athletes also said they appreciate the effort on behalf of their parents.
"It will be good to have him there," Trowbridge said, of his father's plans to come up to Alaska.
Taeler McCrerey said she's pleased to experience the event with both her father and brother Tucker around. "It should be good to have him around. I look up to him for big events like this," she said of her brother. As for her dad, "We just know that he's there and he's cheering for us."
One of the main challenges the Summit athletes will face in Fairbanks is the difference in altitude. While in Summit County they ski around 9,000 feet, Fairbanks is much closer to sea level.
"The biggest problem with going down in elevation is that we weren't able to train quite as fast at 9,000 feet," Howdyshell said.
Skiing at a lower altitude tends to be faster, he explained. However, temperature could help them out, if it hits around 4 or 5 degrees, although the forecast is showing it isn't that likely.
Temperature and snow quality are other challenges that the young athletes will face. While Colorado is generally a dry and arid state, Alaska will have 50-60 percent humidity.
"That is a lot different than just dry, cold Rocky Mountain snow," McCrerey said.
Additionally, the course will be unfamiliar. This is something that can be more easily remedied, however. The team arrives in Fairbanks Saturday, giving them two days before the first race day (Monday) to check out the various courses and get used to the weather, temperature and snow quality.
The races will take place Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.