Sideline champion

Every other year, the NCAA Championships for skiing take place in the East and we can watch it. This year, NCAA’s were hosted by Bates College at Black Mountain, a place where most of us had already raced at least twice if not three times this season.

On Thursday, eight Dartmouth skiers left campus in a bus at 6 a.m. Despite having traveled to Rumford so many times, we got lost and arrived just before the 10 a.m. race start. We cheered voraciously, ate soup with the racers after they finished, and then we went home to study for exams and write papers.

Saturday was a different story. While there were a few team members who didn’t come because they had exams, almost everyone was on that 6 a.m. bus. Every seat was filled and a few students, exhausted from all-night studying, slept on the floor in their sleeping bags. We didn’t get lost, either.

Before the race, I skied the course with Katie Bono, Audrey Weber, and Sarah Van Dyke. It was sunny and warm, but the snow was still cold from the previous night, hard-packed and very fast. It was great skiing and we got even more excited for our teammates.

These races were long and mass-start, which meant exciting. After seeing the women’s off to a clean start, we ran along the trail until we reached the biggest climb on the course.

Nobody had started a watch, so we didn’t know when the race would come through. We could hear yelling as they went by the loops that passed close to us further down the hill, but it wasn’t until we could hear the sound of their skis and poles on the snow – which came long before we could see the racers – that we knew they were coming.

I barely ever go to races just to cheer. Sure, I see the men race when I’m warming up or cooling down, but when you go to a race for the sole purpose of cheering, you feel like you better do a darn good job.

There was cowbell. There was screaming, the kind when you aren’t sure how your voice is going to sound because you’ve never tried to yell so loud before.

And after two of the 5k laps, there was worry. Did you see that Colorado girl? She was blocking Rosie Brennan so badly! She was slowing down, but she wouldn’t let Rosie by! And Hannah Dreissigacker, it looked like she was stuck behind that pack!

But on the third (last) lap, our girls were looking great. Rosie was in the lead pack and looked strong. Sophie Caldwell wasn’t far behind, and Hannah was in the top 10 and passed a girl as she went by us. We knew we couldn’t beat them to the finish, so we just trusted that their sprinting skills would serve them well. Without even needing a pencil and paper, we knew that they would win the day; no other team had all three skiers in the top 10.

I stuck around until the whole field went by. As my friend Natalie Ruppertsberger, a Plainfield native who skied for Ford Sayre, went by in her Bates uniform, I screamed especially loudly. She had told be she didn’t want pity-cheering: no “good job, you’re doing great.” So I told her she HAD to pick it up, she HAD to pass these girls, she had to GET UP THIS HILL. I ran along beside her yelling until a coach from Alaska admonished me: “Dartmouth, you can’t run with racers like that.” Oops.

As we walked back to the stadium, Audrey and I discussed how great if felt to see our teammates kick some butt. For those of us who feel like it’s a battle to get one of the six varsity spots each weekend, it’s reassuring to know that it’s because our teammates are the best in the country, not because we’re bad skiers.

After congratulating Rosie – who had swiped a podium spot with her 3rd place finish – and Sophie (5th) and Hannah (10th), I headed out to ski again. The snow was holding up well. Before the men’s race, we found a green sharpie and wrote the boys’ names on our bellies. I ran to the start, where Nils Koons was jogging around, and showed him the big “N. Koons” which Courtney had lettered in. “I have your name on my stomach, so you’d better have a good one!” I think he rolled his eyes.

The men’s start was more exciting. Compared to his fellow NCAA champions, 2008 winner Glenn Randall is probably the worst starter of them all, and he was in the bottom five leaving the stadium.

As the men came up the hill the first time, our skiers were clustered in the teens, still in contact with the leaders. Glenn had already made up a lot of spots. We yelled, rang our cowbells, and pulled our shirts up (no, not that far) so the boys could see their names.

Unlike in the women’s race, which had a small lead pack the whole time and boiled down to a sprint finish, the men’s race had a single leader. Vregard Kjoelhamar of Colorado broke early on the second lap. Pat O’Brien and Nils Koons were in the chase pack, but Glenn was nowhere to be seen, and we left one intersection for another before he came through.

When we finally saw Glenn on the hill, he had a large hole in his spandex and was bleeding. Glenn has never been a strong downhill skier and one of the slopes on the course had sent him off the trail. He was making the best of it and passing people, but it was tough to watch. He had already worked himself through the pack once, and it was a lot harder this time around, now that the race was strung out.

As the laps went by, Pat and Nils were still in the chase pack. The last time I saw them, Pat was in a group of maybe eight skiers, three of whom were from Alaska-Anchorage, undoubtedly using team tactics. I hoped that he could hang on going up the big hill, and skied to the finish – this was going to be an exciting one.

After Kjoelhamar (no, he’s not American) came through, we held our breaths. The UAA boys battled to the line against a New Mexico skier, with a Denver racer trailing. Then came Pat! Beating out a Michigan Tech skier in a sprint finish! Pat, who has never won a carnival, had the race of his life and was the first eastern skier. Nils was 14th and Glenn 18th after surviving a hard and doubtless disappointing race. The boys were 3rd on the day, which was pretty great.

Despite these excellent performances, Dartmouth ended up 7th in the overall championship, which combines two days each of nordic and alpine racing. It was not the finish we had been looking for when we entered undefeated. I’ll admit it even if the press release won’t. But I can’t criticize – I couldn’t have skied at NCAA’s, and the athletes who represented us did a great job.

To me, the championships mean something else. I’m meant to be on the sidelines cheering – and that is quite a fun place to be, watching my teammates beat the crap out of the other teams, sprinting to see them as many times as possible, covering myself in green, and yelling for them until I don’t have a voice left to yell with.

And lucky for me, spectating is different from racing – graduation doesn’t mean that next time NCAA’s are in the east, I won’t be out there cheering!

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