Tom Kelly: The magic of college ski racing
Park City, UT (March 16, 2022) — It was just a few minutes into the women’s mass start 15k at Soldier Hollow on Saturday. The start-finish area was a ghost town, save a few volunteers. But up on the hillside to the south, hordes of fans were creating a din across the Heber Valley, yelling feverishly, running alongside the race track and waving flags of every color in the rainbow.
It was college racing at its finest!
Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of races at Soldier Hollow and at the Eagle Race Arena at Park City Mountain. But there is nothing to compare to collegiate ski racing with the passion and camaraderie from teams across the nation. Last week the National Collegiate Skiing Championships came to town and with it came all of the feverish fandom you would expect to see at a Pac-12 showdown at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
A part of the scene took me back to my own college days at the University of Wisconsin, where I was an ardent Badger fan when we were a perennial favorite at the NCAA Hockey Championship. I’ve never completely hooked onto the Utah bandwagon. But when you build up enough Ute alums as friends, you start to come around. And, yes, I did feel a little naked not having at least a U baseball cap.
Much like a Saturday football game, this was a complete party with tailgating, fans wearing their team colors and huge flags being waved along the track. It was aided by the fact that the weather featured blue skies and 50-degree temperatures — a far cry from the bomb cyclone-like snowstorm that had gripped Park City Mountain in the days prior.
The Utes had set a pretty good scene coming into Saturday’s finale. Having won two straight official NCAA titles (not including the one that COVID took away mid-championships), and three of the last four, there was a lot at stake for the host school.
Australian Ute Katie Parker and Norwegian teammate Gustav Vøllo had already put big points down with alpine podiums. Thursday, fresh off a couple top-25 Olympic finishes, Ute Novie McCabe won the 5k classic cross-country. And earlier Saturday morning, Canadian Ute Sam Hendry was second in the men’s 20k.
All of that was enough for me to set my bread dough aside to rise Saturday morning as I sped down to Soldier Hollow to be a part of history.
I’ve been to World Cups, U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials — each exciting events in their own right. But nothing quite compared to what I experienced at the collegiate title match.
Penultimate Ute fan Spence Eccles was in great spirits, wearing his crimson and proudly showing off his Super Bowl-sized ring given to him from the 2021 NCAA ski champions. Ute Ski Team alumni including Ron Steele, Luke Bodensteiner, Thor Kallerud and Jim Gaddis were just as proud of the Utes 2022 edition as they were of their own teams a few years ago. These are the moments big college benefactors live for — seeing their investment in kids pay off in the form of athletic accomplishments.
Fans, families and parents came from literally every corner of the globe to be on the snow with the Utes last weekend. The alpine team was there to root on their teammates, cheering wildly as their cross-country teammates climbed up hills as opposed to racing down them.
As the race wore down to its final few kilometers, it was clear that nothing was going to thwart Sophia Laukli and McCabe from bringing home the victory. Laukli, who had been 15th in her Olympic debut in the Beijing 30k just a few weeks earlier, came over the bridge and into the stadium with a clear lead. She looked over her shoulder to be sure as a fan handed her the crimson and white Utah flag to ski the final hundred meters to the finish.
As the team packed the awards grandstand a short time later, you couldn’t help but get caught up in the team pride that every team, not just the Utes, brought to Utah last week. College ski racing is top-notch competition. It was a field packed with Olympians from a dozen or more nations. It was hotly contested with teams from Vermont, Denver and Colorado all hot on the tails of Utah.
But more than anything, there was this special spirit that only exists in collegiate sports.
It was a fun week to be a Ute!