Beneath picturesque skies with a chill in the air, a line of 8- and 9-year-old cross-country skiers lined up at the start area and patiently waited for Saturday's Rocky Mountain Division race to begin.
Sort of. "Patiently" and "8- and 9-year-olds" are words rarely spoken in the same sentence. Some stayed in line, but several skiers ran around to stay warm, while Steamboat Springs' Meg O'Connell, 8, passed the time by trying to do the splits on her tiny skate skis.
More than 370 Nordic skiers from the J6 (8- and 9-year-old) to the Older Junior (18 to 19) divisions competed in Saturday's RMD and Steamboat Springs High School race.
The number of skiers, coupled with last-minute changes on many teams, forced lengthy delays at all levels. Consequently, official results weren't available Saturday, but it was a problem Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic program director Todd Wilson can live with.
"It was one of the great growing pains," he said. "A group of 30 showed up and weren't registered. What are we going to do? Turn them away? The sport is growing, and I think we're moving in the right direction."
The day got started at roughly 11:30 a.m. with the J6 and J5 skaters. The group took off, one at a time, cheering one another on from behind. Steamboat's Ben Berend took off first and made his way around the course set up in the rodeo grounds. The youngest skaters did not navigate the tracks of Howelsen Hill, but they were plenty tired when they crossed the finish line.
Berend, 9, got his start in Nordic combined after falling in love with ski jumping several years ago. He has since learned to cross-country ski and is enjoying it, even if he still gets a little nervous before races.
"I ate breakfast," he said. "But not a lot. I only had one egg."
One J6 skier, Cully Brown, and his family came all the way from Durango to race. Steamboat and Soldier Hollow, Utah, are the farthest trips the family takes for Brown's races.
"I started because of my dad," he said. "We ski together."
Family ties also got Meg O'Connell started. Her older sister, Mary O'Connell, competes in the J4 division for the Winter Sports Club.
"My sister was really good, and I felt I wanted to do something like my sister," Meg O'Connell said. Mary O'Connell, 10, agreed that her younger sister likes to follow in her ski tracks, but the entire family enjoys being outdoors and doing activities together.
The J4 racers were given the challenge of a little hill Saturday, and Mary O'Connell made sure her skis were ready for race day.
"I usually wax the night before and do a quick wax the morning of the race," she said. "My dad supervises me, but I do it myself."
Emily Hannah, 10, another Winter Sports Club skier, said the J4 group typically practices every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, unless there is a race Saturday. Gary Crawford usually works with the group of 10- and 11-year-olds. The Nordic coach, a 1980 Olympian, always has words of advice for his skiers.
"He says pace yourself and have fun," Hannah said.
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