Even while Utah Nordic skier Sophia Laukli reveled in the opportunity to represent her country at the Beijing Olympics last month, she yearned for one of her favorite aspects of cross-country skiing: racing.
“I only ended up doing (one race) the 30K there, so it was like a month, month and a half of no racing,” she said, adding that lack of competition made her wonder how well she’d compete in the 15K race at Soldier Hollow Saturday morning in the final race of the NCAA Ski Championships.
“I knew (winning) was definitely possible on a good day, but I haven’t been racing a lot, so I had no idea the shape I was in.”
Turns out, the junior had a national championship in her.
Laukli led or was in the lead pack the entire race at Soldier Hollow, earning the top spot on the podium, while her teammate Novie McCabe — who won the Classic event on Thursday — earned silver.
Their success, along with teammate Sam Hendry, who took second in the men’s 20K championship a couple of hours earlier, helped the Utes claim their third straight NCAA title.
Olympian Ben Ogden, competing for the University of Vermont, blew the men’s field away on the last climb to claim gold in the men’s race with a time of 43:00.5. The Catamounts ended up finishing second to Utah.
Over the four-day competition, the Ute’s earned 578 points, while second-place Vermont finished with 511.5. Denver finished third with 436.5 points.
Laukli, who transferred to Utah from Middlebury College after last season and finished Saturday with a time of 36:35.7, said it’s been a different experience to be competing as an individual and to be in contention for a national team title.
“This is my first year at Utah, and it’s pretty cool. … It’s not just about the individual,” she said.
“It’s really fun to have a lot more on the line, I guess.”
Ogden said he made a move on the fourth lap of the men’s race, but failed to put distance between him and the pack.
“I tried (to make a move) on the fourth lap, and I couldn’t do it,” Ogden said. “I got chewed up right here, and I thought that was game over. …I was lucky out there, but it was a fun race.”
He said when his move failed on the fourth lap, he knew he had two laps to go and a narrow window to try to break away from the pack.
“I had the whole like, self-doubt going in my head,” he said. “I was like, ‘Today isn’t my day and I’ll just fight for third.’ And then, you know, there is about 150 people up on that hill, and my best friend from growing up is up there with a chainsaw making all kinds of noise, and I just had a second wind.”
Hendry said he knew Ogden would make another move in the race, he just hoped to hang on and stay with him.
“We hit the big climb right at the end,” Hendry said, “and Ben went, and it was crazy. He just blasted off.
“That’s a long climb, so I just tried to pace myself and save a little bit. … I knew I had a little bit left for that last climb.”
He gave the last kilometer everything he had and sailed across the finish line in second place with a time of 43:07.9.
“I wish I could have given Ben a bigger fight,” he said, “but he was just too strong.”
JC Schoonmaker of Alaska Anchorage placed third with a time of 43.13.9.
Hendry said his strategy was just to save as much energy as possible until the final couple of laps, but when Ogden made his move, he knew he had to take it seriously.
“Every time Ben comes to the front, it’s a real threat,” he said. “He’s coming off the World Cup and the Olympics, so he’s definitely the biggest guy out there.”
McCabe, who finished with a time of 37:09.5 (New Hampshire’s Jasmine Lyons took third with a time of 38:05.0) said the Utah women planned to set a quick pace and share the work, but Laukli was on fire.
“(Sophia) was feeling good and skiing well, so I think it was the right move,” McCabe said. “I tried to stay with her, but I didn’t quite have it today.”
McCabe and the others said the fan support really made the event more emotional.
“It’s still just ski racing,” she said when asked how it compared to competing at the Olympics, “but I think the cheering today was really fun to have that.
“There haven’t been many spectators around, like on World Cup and Olympics, so it was fun to have that.”
McCabe said the entire team worked for the goal of hoisting that team championship trophy just as they did last year.
“I think we all worked hard for it,” she said. “It feels good.”
Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.