Olympians-turned-volunteers power elite cross-country ski races in Anchorage

Hannah Rudd, Sonjaa Schmidt and Renae Anderson ski past a crash that ended the hopes of Sarah Goble, Katie Weaver and Karianne Olsvik Dengerud in Tuesday’s SuperTour sprint race at Kincaid Park. (Graeme Williams)

On normal days, Jim Jager works as a high-level city employee at Anchorage’s port. 

But earlier this week, he was doing manual labor along the cross-country ski trails at Kincaid Park, on the western edge of town. Snow was piling up on the course markers, so Jager pulled a leaf blower out of his car.

“I was blowing snow off the v-boards, so that the skiers could see where the trail was,” Jager said.

Jager is one of dozens of Anchorage residents who are volunteering at Kincaid during the ongoing week-long, national-caliber cross-country ski race series, known as the SuperTour. The events, which continue Saturday and Sunday, have drawn Olympians, top-level junior athletes and a contingent from Canada for some of the highest-level races in North America this year.

Good results could help racers qualifying to compete at the World Cup in Minneapolis in February, on the top-level circuit’s first swing through the U.S. in two decades. Typically, World Cup races are held at Scandinavian and Central European venues.

“I mean, it would be a surreal experience to get to race a World Cup on home soil,” said Sammy Smith, 18, a talented Idaho junior who won both Tuesday and Wednesday’s races at Kincaid. “It’s hard for a lot of American racers — they spend their entire winters in Europe, so not a lot of opportunity for family or relatives to come watch.”

Volunteers chat during Tuesday’s SuperTour sprint race at Kincaid Park. Kikkan Randall, who leads the association that organizes the races, said there were 50 bibs ready for volunteers, but so many showed up that they still ran out. (Graeme Williams)

The Anchorage cross-country races wouldn’t be happening without volunteers like Jager — one of many city residents with strong ties to the highest level of the sport.

Jager is an accomplished long-distance ski racer himself; his son Luke is an Olympian who is currently racing in Norway on the World Cup. 

Other retired Alaska Olympians were scattered all across Kincaid Park as volunteers and race officials: Adam Verrier was doing play-by-play announcing on the stadium intercom, and Tyler Kornfield was helping to run tests for traces of banned chemicals that, if rubbed onto skis, can help them slide faster.

Also present Tuesday was Kikkan Randall, who won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics and now heads the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage, which is organizing the events.

“It takes a big team,” she said. “But thankfully, we’ve got a good group here in Anchorage that just reflexively comes out and does this.”

Randall added that she was a little jealous that her job kept her from spending her day on skis. But, she said, she also remembers how much racing hurts, “so it’s kind of nice to watch.”

Many of the visiting athletes were experiencing Anchorage for their first time, and reviews were positive — even from racers who have competed at scenic European mountain venues.

“I was not expecting this big of a town, at first,” said Liliane Gagnon, a Canadian national team member. “Skiing here at Kincaid, seeing the oceans and the mountains when it’s sunny, it’s really nice, honestly. The trails are awesome. I’m loving it here, so far.”

Befitting Anchorage’s informal status as Cross-Country Ski Town USA, more than a dozen locals are competing this week as part of two Alaska club teams. 

Those Alaska athletes usually spend much of the winter on the road, living out of suitcases at Airbnbs in ski towns across the country.

a skier
Anchorage’s Michael Earnhart strides in Wednesday’s individual start SuperTour race at Kincaid Park. Earnhart, who trains with the Alaska Pacific University club team, said it was a little bit of an adjustment to get used to racing on his home courses. (Graeme Williams)

But it turns out that sleeping at home and racing at Kincaid were not as much of an advantage as some expected. Michael Earnhart, a 21-year-old U.S. Ski Team member who trains with the Alaska Pacific University club, said he was initially excited to race in Anchorage.

“But it ended up being kind of weird to not go somewhere else and get that whole lock-into-the-race feeling,” he said. “It’s finals week for me — I was kind of thinking about other things. Normally, you go on a ski trip and it’s just skiing. You can tell teachers, ‘Sorry, I was out skiing.’”

Earnhart still managed a third place in the week’s opening event, a three-minute-long sprint race.

His father, William, was watching from the side of the trail. He’s the board president of the Anchorage ski association, and said that beyond the SuperTour races, he’s looking forward to next winter, when his organization will host the national championships at Kincaid.

“Nordic skiing in Anchorage started with volunteers and racers,” he said. “And that’s what continues it.”

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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