FAIRBANKS — First there was the World Cup finale on Sunday. Then the blow-out bash in Sweden. Next came a flight across the pond only to be stranded in Seattle for 36 hours due to the Mount Redoubt eruption.
So after finally arriving in Fairbanks at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, it’s no wonder that Torin Koos — the second-ranked sprinter in the country — had heavy legs in the semifinal round of the Wedgewood Resort U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships team sprint on Wednesday night at Birch Hill Recreation Area.
“In the semifinal, Leif (Zimmermann) started and he was going quite fast and I did not have a good feeling on my skis at all,” Koos said. “And I was like ‘Oh man, I’m in for a long day.’”
The 10-team final was another story, however, as Koos put a hurting on the competition in the last leg after taking the tag from U.S. Ski Team teammate Chris Cook with three other skiers in contention. The event — with two skiers alternating for three circuits each on a 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint course — combines the explosiveness of sprinting with the endurance necessary to hang on for more than 20 minutes total.
“It felt really easy in the final,” said Koos, who in 2008 in Houghton, Mich., won the same event with Andy Newell.
The team sprint was originally scheduled for Anchorage in January but canceled due to cold weather. Koos did not make that trip and only got a chance to defend his title after the event was tacked on to the Distance Nationals in Fairbanks.
Zimmermann, also of USST, factored into the dynamics of Wednesday’s final under ideal race and spectating conditions, as he took a tag from Garrott Kuzzy a half-second ahead of Koos.
Then, Zimmermann and Koos — with Anchorage’s Lars Flora and Canadian Graham Nishikawa in hot pursuit — conversed briefly and decided to collaborate.
“Leif said ‘Let’s go for it. I’ll take (the lead) to the first corner and then you take it,’” Koos said.
Despite the team tactics, Flora of Saab Salomon Factory Team wasn’t going away easily.
“Obviously, those guys behind us were going maximum effort to try to catch back on and Lars was able to, so I was a little concerned,” Koos said.
On the final climb, Koos, a two-time Olympian, ratcheted the pace further with a high-tempo V1-technique and gapped his three pursuers.
“I skied the last hill pretty hard. I had maybe 15 meters over the top, and I felt very comfortable with that then,” said Koos, of Leavenworth, Wash.
Koos had envisioned trying to outsprint the competition, not grab a lead with half a lap to go.
“It’s hard to get away. There’s a lot of gradual (terrain),” he said. “My plan was not to lead ... (but) if you’re going to lead, you better have a good enough gap, so it worked out.”
On the homestretch, Koos glanced behind him, saw his margin was comfortable and coasted to the win in 20 minutes, 17.5 seconds. A hard-charging Zimmermann arrived a half-second later.
Zimmermann, known more for his distance skiing, tried gamely to hang with Koos, who at 6-foot-2 is at least 5 inches taller than him.
“When he went around me, I just couldn’t quite match the pace,” he said. “Going up that last hill, Torin put the burners on.”
His only hope was that Koos would fade after his big push.
“I knew he went really hard, so I knew there was a chance to catch him, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of real estate to do it,” Zimmermann said.
Flora, teamed with Anders Haugen of Alaska Pacific University, was third in 20:19.1, edging Nishikawa, who was teamed with Stefan Kuhn (20:19.5).
Locals Tyson Flaharty and Reese Hanneman of Team FAST were just 1.5 seconds off the lead two-thirds of the way through before finishing seventh.
Hanneman, 19 and a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was psyched to hold his own against a batch of America’s best skiers.
“It’s definitely exciting to be able to ski with them,” he said. “A couple years ago for sure I would have been getting dropped.”
Both Flaharty and Hanneman fell off the pace a bit on their final exhausting trip around the rolling course.
“The pace just keeps getting turned up, so any sort of little gap usually turns into being pretty significant,” Hanneman said.
Still, the race was one to remember, as nine of the 10 teams stayed close most of the way.
“It’s good to be in there and throw down with them,” Hanneman said.
In the four-team junior men’s finals, locals Jordan Buetow and Kelsey Boyer of FXC won in 22:08.