Steamboat Springs Top cross-country skiers from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club were dusted by an Estonian superstar last week and loved every minute of it.
Head cross-country coach Travis Jones said Thursday that Jessica Gray, Brooke Rygg and Jessica Philip, all got a chance to race against Kristina Smigun in an International Springs Series event in Bogus Basin, Idaho Sunday.
Smigun was fresh from the World Cup, where she finished second overall, and was clearly the dominant skate skier all winter.
"I think just watching her ski was such an eye-opener for both our boys and girls," Jones said. Mark Iverson and Dan Adams also made the trip.
The quintet from Steamboat experienced both highs and lows during five races spread over seven days and three sites in Idaho. Sometimes, the highlights and lowlights were compressed into the same race. Most of all, Jones valued exposing his skiers to top North American and European skiers in a relatively low-pressure environment.
The Spring Series involved the U.S. and Canadian national teams, the best collegiate racers in the country, plus the best junior skiers in America. All of the Steamboat athletes are still in high school.
Also competing was a sprinkling of top Europeans like Smigun, as well as four junior women from Sweden who placed second in the World Junior relays this winter.
Philip said she appreciated the fact that Smigun came to North America and gave all the other skiers a chance to improve their international rankings by going up against the best.
"It was really cool," Philip said. "When a girl comes and beats you by huge amounts of time -- it was inspirational to see where we could someday be, where we want to be."
Although Smigun easily defeated the competition in Idaho, the Steamboat women had a chance to ski in close proximity to the World Cup competitor during a sprint race that required them to ski several laps on a short track. Jones said his skiers had the experience of feeling Smigun overtake them, and then attempting to stick to the tails of her skis for a few strides.
"It was pretty amazing to see her ski, she was so fast and so strong," Gray said.
The best results for the Steamboat women as a group came during the two-day pursuit race that opened the series in McCall, Idaho.
"Our girls skied really well," Jones said. After the first day's 5-kilometer classic race, Gray was the 11th junior, Rygg was 13th and Philip finished a respectable 18th. Gray got off to a blazing start during the second day's skate race, but ankle tendinitis forced her to pull out. Rygg held her 13th position from the first day and Philip moved up three spots to 15th.
Gray was one of two American junior women admitted to the elite field of 20 racers who participated in the Lexus Sprint Race at Sun Valley a day later. Gray hung in with a pack of skiers, but it was a daunting race for a junior skier, Jones said.
"It was hard core," Jones said. "She had a hell of a learning experience I think. She didn't ever get dropped by her pack, though. She loved it -- she was just glowing afterwards."
Iverson turned in a nice race in a 10K classic event at Sun Valley, placing ninth among the juniors. But he really returned to the form he showed at Senior National in January during a sprint relay in which he was teamed with Adams.
Adams, who did not get selected for Junior Olympics in February, surprised his coach and shocked the other American junior coaches by breaking out with the lead pack of three other skiers on the first leg of the race.
Jones said he could see from a distance that four skiers had broken away from the 19 other skiers in the mass start. It wasn't until they drew closer that he realized that Adams was sprinting with the fastest juniors in the country.
"I was out-of-my-mind excited," Jones said
Adams and Iverson handed off to each other for a series of turns on the track, and although they flirted with the lead at times, they wound up fifth among the club teams (made up of two skiers, each from the same hometown).
The big news was that Iverson's relay splits were consistently the fastest of the entire junior field.
"We saw the old Mark again," Jones said.
The Steamboat coach said the biggest lesson his athletes took away from the series was learning what it takes for a racer to hold it together, both mentally and physically, through five races in seven days.
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org