Utah Ute skiers begin defense of NCAA championship this week on home snow
The Utes won national titles in both 2019 and 2021 and were in command in 2020 before COVID-19 shut the championship down
MIDWAY — Just how good is the University of Utah women’s nordic ski team?
Well, two of the three skiers competing at this week’s NCAA championships competed at the Beijing Olympics, while the third is the defending NCAA champion.
Junior Sophia Laukli and sophomore Novie McCabe both competed for the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics last month, while Park City native Sydney Palmer-Leger looks to defend the national titles she won in both nordic events in the 2021 NCAA championships.
If that’s not impressive enough, McCabe won both races at the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association Championships two weeks ago.
It’s the second time in her college career that she’s won both disciplines at a meet.
Utah qualified the maximum number of athletes for this week’s NCAA championships, which begin Wednesday with alpine events at Park City Mountain Resort.
A full schedule can be found here.
The Utes are favorites to earn their 15th national championship, and a large part of their success has been the women’s nordic program.
“On any given day, any one of the women could be the fastest,” said Utah head nordic coach Miles Havlick.
“They push each other throughout the summer, fall and winter. … They love training as a group. They have a lot of fun together. They don’t dread those workouts, they look forward to them.”
Havlick said that while skiing may be an individual sport, there is a “team energy” associated with collegiate skiing that is unique.
Palmer-Leger said that until recently, skiers couldn’t really pursue both college careers and international or Olympic skiing at the same time.
“It was kind of choose one or the other,” Palmer-Leger said, “but now most younger athletes are doing both.”
Havlick, who also competed at Utah as a nordic skier, said, “Traditionally, it’s been pretty separate. But recently, the national team has seen the value of college skiing, and there have been a lot more athletes competing in both. … Our partnership has definitely improved.”
Havlick said of the 12 Utah athletes skiing at this week’s championships, four of them are Olympians.
In addition to Laukli and McCabe, nordic skier Luke Jager competed for Team USA, while alpine skier Katie Parker competed in the 2022 Olympics for Australia.
“It’s absolutely incredible to have current team members representing the U.S. or their respective countries at the Olympics,” Havlick said.
“It could create some tension on the team, but this team has been super excited to watch those athletes race over in Beijing.”
That does not mean it was easy for individual athletes or the team to juggle international competition schedules with the demands of the collegiate season.
“It was tough not having them here,” Havlick said. “It was hard not having them on trips with us or training with us, but we’re extremely excited to get them back.”
McCabe talked about her experiences on the “Utes Insider Podcast” with Mike Lageschulte this week, where she said she hasn’t been home more than a few days at a time as she skied in some of the world’s toughest competitions.
“That was a crazy experience,” McCabe said. “That was my first time being on the World Cup circuit, and the competition level was insane. I spent a lot of time being destroyed, but I learned a lot from it.”
“I didn’t think it would happen for me this year,” said McCabe, who skied on the 4x5 relay team that took sixth place in Beijing, and while she said there were parts of it that were “really stressful,” she said it was an incredible opportunity.
“I thought of this time as just gaining experience,” she said, “and hopefully I’ll be back one day.”
Laukli said she knew some members of the team retired, so she thought if she skied well and the stars aligned, she might make the team.
“If everything went right, I knew there was a chance,” Laukli said. “But with that being said, it took a while for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I did qualify when it happened.”
Laukli said competing in Europe and at the Olympics is thrilling but also exhausting. She’s looking forward to skiing for her teammates on her home course.
“It’s just a different intensity,” she said. “It’s just really fun too, even the past couple of training days here, seeing all of the other teams. … It’s just a really fun environment, and it feels just a little bit less aggressive and cutthroat while still being competitive and people taking it really seriously, but I think it’s just a nicer balance.
“I don’t want to give up this part because it’s so much fun.”
Westminster men’s and women’s alpine skiing teams will also be competing in this week’s championships in the giant slalom and slalom events.
Alpine races will be held at Park City Mountain Resort, with giant slalom opening the championships slate on Wednesday (9 a.m. MST) and slalom following on Friday (9 a.m. MST).
Nordic competition will take place in Midway at Soldier Hollow — it includes a 5/10K classic interval start on Thursday (10 a.m. MST) and 15/20K freestyle mass start on Saturday (9:30 a.m. MST).
Admission is free to all of the races.
Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.