SSWSC qualifies two Nordic ski athletes for Junior World Championships | SteamboatToday.com

SSWSC qualifies two Nordic ski athletes for Junior World Championships

Noel Keeffe, right, leads a pack of skiers at the US Senior National Championships a year ago. Keeffe qualified for the 2019 World Junior Championships on Jan. 19-27 in Lahti, Finland. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Adelsman)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Only six men and six women earned spots at the cross-country Junior World Championships, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club trained two of the 12.

The 2019 U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships in Craftsbury, Vermont, Jan. 3 to 8 included two distance and two sprint races over the course of six days. Six current and 11 alumni SSWSC athletes competed in the first three events: a 10K classic race for women, a 15K classic race for men, a 1.4K classic sprint, then 7.5K and 10K mass start skate races for junior women and men.

Noel Keeffe, a former SSWSC athlete and current University of Utah freshman, raced to a podium finish in the freestyle sprint on Tuesday. It marked the best finish ever by a SSWSC cross-country athlete.

Keeffe displays the versatility cross-country skiers aspire to have: equal ability in both the skate and classic disciplines.

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and University of Utah skier Noel Keeffe leads a trail at the 2019 U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships in Craftsbury, Vermont. (Photo courtesy of John Lazenby)

He had already made a name for himself earlier in the competition, finishing as the second overall junior finisher and 13th overall in the classic sprint race, a specialty of his. That, coupled with a 52nd finish overall and ninth junior placing in the 15-kilometer classic race, solidified his spot as a U.S. athlete for the Junior World Championships — an international competition for athletes younger than 20, in Lahti, Finland, on Jan. 19 to 27.

Selection for the Junior World Championships was based on performances in two of the three races.

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"Noel is competing at a very, very high level," SSWSC U20/U18/U16 head coach Josh Smullin said. "Last year in his qualifiers at nationals, he was in the top 10 twice, but just missed the trip to World Juniors. He regrouped and traveled to some high level races around the country. He got himself to the high level competitions to practice the sprints."

Keeffe wasn't alone in qualifying for the Junior World Championships. Current SSWSC athlete and Steamboat Springs High School senior Waverly Gebhardt, 17, also qualified for the first time.

Gebhardt didn't start off the way she had liked, taking 60th overall in the 10-kilometer classic race as the seventh junior, but she powered through the classic sprint race the next day, finishing as the top junior in 14th overall. Her seventh-place performance in the junior mass start skate race Sunday solidified her qualification for the Junior World Championships.

"That's more than Waverly and I expected could be possible," Smullin said. "Her big success was in the classic distance race, so we knew she could be very good there, and all of a sudden she has a sprinting prowess."

Gebhardt does everything right as an athlete. She controls the elements she can with keen attention to detail and does stretches every night to keep her body healthy. But she didn't anticipate the performance she had.

"I came in with a little more energy for the classic sprint, because I wasn't super happy with the day before," Gebhardt said. "It's only four minutes and the whole way I was just thinking to myself, 'If you want this, you've got to push it really hard.' I kept repeating in my head, 'Can you go faster?'"

Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation athlete Sophia Mazzoni, left, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athlete Waverly Gebhardt, right, pose for a picture after the classic sprint race at the 2019 U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships in Craftsbury, Vermont. Gebhardt qualified as the No. 1 junior finisher at the U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships. (Photo courtesy of John Lazenby)

Gebhardt and Keeffe were invited to the U.S. Ski Team camp last spring in Bend, Oregon, where they trained alongside World Cup winners and Olympic medalists. Smullin believes that week in May set the tone, instilling in their minds how the best in the world approach training.

In addition, Gebhardt traveled to Park City, Utah, in the summer and fall for training with the U.S. Ski Team.

"Those were a lot of fun and a lot of hard work,” Gebhardt said. “It was nice — I got to train with girls that I race against."

Gebhardt has committed to the University of Vermont's ski team and will have two more years to qualify for the Junior World Championships. She hopes to compete at the NCAA level, but for now, she's formulating new goals as a junior world-qualifier.

"It wasn't a given that she would make this trip," Smullin said. "Now that she's done it, we have to set some new goals on what will be successful."

To reach Leah Vann, call 970-871-4253, email lvann@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @LVann_Sports.

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