FAIRBANKS — Becca Rorabaugh used a little home-course advantage to land on the podium for the 5-kilometer classic race that opened the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships Tuesday night at Birch Hill Recreation Area.
“Striding at Birch Hill I think will always be something that I enjoy,” said Rorabaugh, a 2007 graduate of West Valley High School who now trains and races year-round with the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center in Anchorage.
The Jim Whisenhant Trails are practically ingrained for Rorabaugh, now 19.
“I believe I was probably (age) 3, or 2 perhaps,” she said when asked when she first strode at Birch Hill.
So when faced with the grinding Tower Direct uphill at the 2-kilometer mark, Rorabaugh was hardly intimidated. She ate it up.
“Ever since they put in Tower Direct, it’s been definitely one of my favorites,” she said. “I very clearly remember skiing it in high school relays.”
In 16 minutes, 37 seconds, Rorabaugh took third behind race winner Kristina Strandberg (16:01) and runner-up Morgan Smyth (16:32). Because Strandberg is Swedish, Rorabaugh won the silver medal for U.S. skiers.
Given the home course, Rorabaugh said she thought Tuesday might be an opportunity to place in the top five, but wasn’t sure she’d done so afterward.
“I thought it was solid. It didn’t feel amazing,” she said.
Rorabaugh has taken her skiing to another level after deferring her enrollment at Dartmouth 18 months ago to ski for APU.
“Just focusing on skiing all the time, it’s been a huge difference between how I used to ski,” she said.
As for long-term skiing goals, Rorabaugh said “every kid wants to win the Olympics. ... But realistically, I’ll try to make the Olympics next year, (but) I might be on the edge.”
Aurelia Korthauer, a redshirt for the Alaska Nanooks, placed 15th, while Lathrop High School graduate Kate (Pearson) Arduser was 19th among 42 starters.
In the men’s 10K race, James Southam of APU had four skiers within nine seconds at the midway point, then held on to win in 28:56. The U.S. title was his third, but first in classic.
Canadians Stefan Kuhn (29:04) and Graham Nishikawa (29:08) of Whitehorse, Yukon, followed Southam, while Chris Cook (29:14) of the U.S. Ski Team and Brent Knight (29:22) of APU rounded out the U.S. podium among 57 starters.
“I just started conservatively, because those hills get bigger the second time around,” said Southam, an Olympian who gained confidence last month in the Czech Republic with his best-ever results at the World Championships.
Southam was the fourth starter in the A-seeded group, meaning it was difficult to get reliable splits on the fast racers behind him.
“When you’re starting early like that, you’ve gotta just put your head down and go,” he said.
Southam said he had no idea that Canadian Ivan Babikov, who won both distance national championship races in Fairbanks a year ago and has dominated the domestic SuperTour in the past, was stranded in Seattle due to the Mount Redoubt volcano eruption. Babikov was expected to reach Fairbanks late Tuesday and participate in longer races later this week.
“I didn’t know if he was here or not. I saw him on the start list. I raced like I thought he was starting behind me. If he’s here, great. If not, I’ll take the money, too,” said Southam, who won $1,200, with a laugh.
Twelve-time U.S. champion Kris Freeman was also absent as he recovers from lower-leg surgery.
The U.S. Championships are a “whole different ballgame” to racing on the World Cup circuit, Southam said.
“You can have an off day (in America) and you can still be in the top five,” he said. “If you have an off day in the World Cup, you’re top 50, maybe.”
While Tuesday’s course was slightly easier than the average World Cup, the courses for Friday’s 30K pursuit and Sunday’s 50K classic are World Cup comparable, Southam said.
“In the U.S., we really don’t get to race many courses that are World Cup quality outside of Soldier Hollow (Utah), so coming up here is great,” he said.
David Norris, age 18, had the top local result in 16th, while Tyson Flaharty was 21st and Reese Hanneman placed 25th. All are members of Team FAST.
“It’s all right, I guess,” Norris said. “My goal is top 10.”
Norris will skip tonight’s 5 p.m. freestyle team sprint in favor of extra rest in advance of Thursday’s pursuit.
“Hopefully the 30K is my day. I’ve been really excited for that since January,” he said.
Norris seeks to use the home hill to his advantage. “I know how hard I can push and where I can recover,” he said.
He also appreciated the friends and family out cheering on the sunny but windy day with temperatures in the teens.
“It wasn’t real spectator-friendly today with that wind, but the people out there were having fun,” he said.