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Skier takes the money, but not the title

US Distance Championships

Thu, Mar  26, 2009 - By Matias Saari

FAIRBANKS — Perhaps it’s fitting that a Swedish skier won the first event of what local organizers are calling the biggest races in Fairbanks in a quarter century.

That’s because Swedish legend Gunde Svan claimed the 1984 World Cup classic-technique race at Birch Hill Recreation Area in March 1984, then anchored the winning relay team the next day.

The dominating winner of Tuesday’s 5K classic that kicked off the Wedgewood Resort U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships was Kristina Strandberg, and she and Svan even have a connection.

“When I grew up, Gunde Svan was my big hero and every now and then we’d see him at a ski race,” Strandberg said.

Just weeks ago, Strandberg finally got the opportunity to meet Svan at a World Cup race in Lahti, Finland.

“He is a very inspiring person. He’s back with the Swedish ski team now and he brings so much energy and so much experience,” said Strandberg, who did not know until Tuesday that Svan was a champion in Fairbanks.

Strandberg has experienced living in the U.S. for a decade, first at the University of New Mexico and the last six years as a member of the Saab Salomon Factory Team. She and partner Lars Flora, an Olympian, now call Anchorage and Bend, Ore., home.

“Sometimes I almost forget myself that I’m not American, you know, because I’ve been here for so long and I definitely feel like a part of the ski community,” she said.

Tuesday marked Strandberg’s first win at U.S. Nationals, but it comes with a hitch. She’s gets to keep the $1,200 first prize, but because she’s not American she isn’t the U.S. national champion.

“That’s just the way it is, I’m Swedish,” Strandberg said. “At least I get the honor of winning.”

The U.S. titlist distinction went to race runner-up Morgan Smyth of the U.S. Ski Team, who finished 31 seconds behind Strandberg in 16 minutes, 32 seconds.

Strandberg’s entry may have cost Smyth $600 in prize money, but she hardly resented the foreign competition.

“Having people from other countries just helps the U.S. become better as a (ski) country, so I really appreciate other skiers being here to push us,” Smyth said.

And Smyth still gets paid, a rarity in Nordic skiing.

“I’m a professional cross-country skier for the first time this year,” said Smyth, a Vermonter who twice was on the NCAA podium for Northern Michigan University two years ago. “I’m definitely not rolling in the cash but this is a good start.”

Smyth said skiing in other countries’ nationals is fair game, as earlier this month she was fourth in the classic at the Canadian National Championships.

Smyth had no complaints about Tuesday’s sunny but windy weather with temperatures in the teens. The conditions were good for racing but chilly for spectators.

“This is by far the nicest skiing I’ve ever experienced in Alaska,” Smyth said. “I was here for Junior Nationals in 2003 when it was freezing, and I was in Anchorage (in January, when cold canceled races four times).”

In the men’s 10K, James Southam of Anchorage won the title, and may have dodged a bullet because race favorite Ivan Babikov was stuck in Seattle because of airline fallout from the Mount Redoubt volcano eruption.

Canadian Stefan Kuhn and Graham Nishikawa represented Canada well with second- and third-place finishes, respectively. Babikov was expected to arrive in Fairbanks late Tuesday and participate in longer races Friday and Sunday.