Steamboat cross-country skiers travel to closed-down Finland for World Junior Championships |

Steamboat cross-country skiers travel to closed-down Finland for World Junior Championships

UVM collegiate skier and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club member Waverly Gebhardt finished 25th in the classic sprint at World Junior Championships in Vuokatti, Finland. (Courtesy Josh Smullin)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Waverly Gebhardt didn’t know she had the chance to go to Finland for the World Junior Championships until a week and a half before. She knew she was an alternate on the women’s team and when a team member backed out, Gebhardt was asked if she wanted to make the trip. She and fellow Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club skier Wally Magill made the journey to Europe to compete in the FIS cross-country junior world championships and came home with some solid results.

“Mentally preparing to race was tricky, and mentally making the decision to travel right now, that was a hard decision to make,” Gebhardt said. “The U.S. team and the crew there we were traveling with and the organization in Finland, they had all taken the right steps. They wouldn’t have put the event on if it wasn’t COVID safe. I felt good about that. Ultimately … skiing is what we do. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

At 19, Gebhardt is in her last year of eligibility for the junior championships. That was a factor in her decision to attend the event in Vuokatti, Finland. She said international travel felt a lot safer than domestic travel, since everyone traveling has to have a negative test. She also enjoyed that the international terminals and flights were far less crowded than domestic terminals.

Once in Finland, Gebhardt made the most of the long flight. In her first race, the sprint qualifiers, Gebhardt took 28th. That put her in the finals, which were sent out in heats, a format that she hadn’t seen since last winter, before the pandemic. Gebhardt thrived, speeding to a 25th-place finish.

“I was really happy with my sprint day,” she said. “That was sort of the race I was going there really fired up for.”

A few days later, Gebhardt and Magill competed in the 5K and 10K freestyle race. Magill took 68th, just over three minutes behind the winner. Gebhardt finished the 5K in 51st. Although there were 50 skiers between her and the victor, she was less than two minutes behind the winner.

Magill was on track to finish in the 30s, but he crashed, and his binding disconnected from his ski entirely, leaving him scrambling to reattach it while the field passed him and his momentum halted.

In the 15K classic race two days later, Gebhardt earned 53rd. Magill finished the 30K classic race in 59th.

“That last race, he basically said it was the worst race of his life,” said Josh Smullin, SSWSC U20 head cross-country coach. “Something went wrong in his body. It just wasn’t working right.”

At 18, Magill was among the youngest field of competitors and will have two more years to improve upon his results, should he make the team again.

The World Junior Championships are the most competitive races between athletes younger than 20 from across the world.

“They got a big experience,” Smullin said. “I think Waverly came away with one solid result, and Wally came away hungry for more.”

All the while, Gebhardt was taking classes virtually at the University of Vermont, where she’s studying neuroscience. In a normal year, Gebhardt would have flat out missed a week’s worth of in-person classes, but the online classes allowed her to keep up.

She’ll continue taking classes on the computer for the next week while she self-isolates. When she returns to training with her team, she’s focusing her sights on the NCAA championships in mid-March.

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