Summit Nordic’s Ezra Smith, 15, earns invite for U.S. national team | SummitDaily.com

Summit Nordic’s Ezra Smith, 15, earns invite for U.S. national team

It's safe to say that Ezra Smith was on top of the world when driving through chilly Wisconsin.

This past week, the 15-year-old Summit Nordic Ski Club athlete traveled to Houghton, Michigan with her head coach, Olof Hedberg, to go head-to-head with the nation's best Nordic skiers at the U.S. Cross Country Championships. It's a selection series for the U.S. Cross Country Ski team, which means top finishers earn an invite to represent the American squad at other events across the globe. This isn't quite an invite to join the World Cup, but it's the first step.

And Smith was up to the challenge. After three events — a 10K classic on Jan. 3, a freestyle sprint on Jan. 4 and a 5K skate on Jan. 7 — the reigning U-16 Junior National champion placed well enough to earn her invite. Come February she'll head to Estonia with Hedberg for the Scandinavian Cup and her first international race.

"It's fantastic to have her make it," Hedberg said as he and Smith were driving through the Midwest to head home after the championships. "She has improved all season and she worked very hard in the summer, in the fall."

Smith is the first SNSC member to make the U.S. national team since Taeler McCrerey, another Summit native who now competes for the University of Denver Nordic team. Oddly enough, both phenoms are also intensely competitive mountain bikers: Just a few months ago Smith won the Colorado High School Mountain Bike League title, beating nearly 18 varsity (and nearly 200 JV) riders at the state championships in Eagle on Oct. 23.

Smith now enters the international Nordic scene nearly a year before McCrerey did — she doesn't turn 16 until April — but no one is keeping tabs on the teens. For Hedberg, performing well at major U.S. races is the best way for his athletes to continue moving up, and he says that Smith easily had "the best classic race of her life." She can perform and excel under pressure, and with any luck, international events like the Scandinavian Cup will later pave the way for invites to the World Cup — and the Olympics.

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"This is the best learning experience someone can get in the U.S.," Hedberg said of the selection race. "It brings all the best skiers from the country to the same venue. Every second here matters — you're skiing against very high-quality athletes. She showed she can perform in that arena and that is why she'll go to Europe now."

Work to be done

Ever the taskmaster, Hedberg is already busy planning a training regimen for Smith. She has about two or three weeks of skiing in Summit before heading to Europe. Before the trip, she also has three races, including one at Soldier Hallow in Utah.

"(This season) the transition from biking to skiing went much quicker than before," Hedberg said about Smith's performance. "She's improved technique, she's improved downhill, she's improved speed — everything."

Smith has also been in similar positions before. Last season she was the U.S. Junior National Champion for U-16s and the Colorado state high school champ, thanks in large part to a well-rounded Nordic skill set. Still, she and Hedberg both admit that she can always continue to improve.

"I'm super excited to go on my first international trip, see how it goes, see what it's like," Smith said. "It's going to be a lot higher level of competition, so this year I'll just head out and see, feel it out."

Hedberg agrees. Even though he's pushing his athlete to be as prepared as possible, he also admits that simply skating up to an international start line is a valuable experience.

"She's shown that she's capable of performing at this level and can handle herself against the Norwegians and the Swedes, those big powerhouse countries," Hedberg said. "It's her first year, she's 15 years old, and this will be a great experience for her. She'll be racing against people who are more competitive than what she finds in the U.S. In a couple of years she'll be used to it and perform at a higher level."

Until then, Smith is just looking forward to her first taste of the big leagues.

"This has been my dream to go on a Euro trip," Smith said after losing reception for a beat. "I'm so excited to be going this year, so it's definitely a highlight. I hope it's the first of a lot."

Ezra at the U.S. Championships

Ezra Smith needed at least top-30 finishes in each of the three disciplines to make the U.S. Cross Country team and head to the Scandinavian Cup. She did that and more.

10K classic (150 total) — First place U-16s, third place U-18s, 33rd place overall

Freestyle sprint (149 total) — Second place U-16s, 12th place U-18s, 66th place overall

5K skate (77 total) — Second place U-16s, 8th place U-18s, 20th place overall

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