FAIRBANKS — Liz Stephen is 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds. Sprinting is not what has turned her into one of America’s best Nordic skiers.
But on the homestretch of the freestyle team sprint Wednesday night at Birch Hill Recreation Area, the Vermont native and U.S. Ski Team member outdueled Maria Stuber while sprinting ace Kikkan Randall of Anchorage could only watch in the distance.
“To be totally honest, I think it’s the first sprint-out I’ve ever won,” said Stephen, who teamed with Morgan Smyth to take the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships title by a half-second over Stuber and Caitlin Compton of CXC Elite. “I don’t know how I held her off.”
Stuber offered some insight by describing what it was like trying to follow Stephen on the sixth and final 1.5-kilometer lap.
“Every second behind her I was sprinting like it was the last 100 meters,” Stuber said.
Stephen and Smyth (5-foot-4 and 120 pounds) strategized to turn Wednesday’s team sprint into more of an endurance race than dash to the finish line. So Stephen made the first big move on the race’s fourth lap.
“I tried to go out really hard on my second lap because I thought everyone was going to take it out on the last lap,” Stephen said. “It seemed like it was the right thing to do to try to make a little gap and break some more people.”
That effort got Smyth/Stephen a slight lead over Compton/Stuber and the Saab Salomon squad of Kristina Strandberg and Kristina Trygstad-Saari. Just as importantly, it forced Randall (teamed with Katie Ronsse of Alaska Pacific University) to expend valuable energy to stay close.
“I knew Kikkan’s the best skier here, so I didn’t want her catching us,” Stephen said. “She was able to on the second lap, but I think since it was faster it was harder for her to come back on the third lap, too.”
Strandberg actually put her teammate Trygstad-Saari into a slight lead heading into the final round before Stephen moved to the front and pushed the pace again. Trygstad-Saari then fell off the back, creating the showdown between Stephen and Stuber.
Stuber was still ecstatic with second place.
“She’s tough, man,” Stuber said of Stephen. “That was everything I had, and it was close. ... Liz was just at the World Cup and had an awesome relay, so being anywhere near her is incredible.”
Randall, who finished the World Cup season on Sunday in Sweden, said she was still feeling fatigue from the overseas racing and travel.
“It was kind of fun for me to have the challenge of chasing after people. I definitely made a big move on the second lap and that hurt me a little bit for the third lap,” Randall said.
Randall got the final tag from Ronsse 10 seconds off the lead and finished fourth 16 seconds back in 23 minutes, 35.6 seconds. Strandberg/Trygstad-Saari were third, 5 seconds behind the winners.
“I tried to make it up over the first half (of the final lap) but my legs were pretty toast,” Randall said.
Fairbanks natives Kate (Pearson) Arduser and Becca Rorabaugh of APU were fifth while Alaska Nanooks Julia Pierson and Anna Coulter placed seventh.
The local team of Heather Edic and Marisa Rorabaugh of FXC won the junior women’s final by 20 seconds in 26:26.
Today will be a rest/training day and the championships will resume at 5 p.m. Friday with pursuit races of 15K for women and 30K for men.