Ward wins Nordic combined event at Howelsen; record falls
Steamboat Springs — Lap after lap, it looked as if the cross country portion of the senior men’s Nordic combined race would come down to Ben Loomis and Ben Berend, but when the leader came around the final turn and headed toward the finish at the base of Howelsen Hill on Saturday, it was Michael Ward out in front.
“It was not easy to tell from the start list who was going to win the race, which is exciting,” Todd Wilson said. “We all know Michael’s got jets and can be really fast … they know they got a steam engine coming behind them.”
Wilson, the Nordic combined program director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, knows Ward as well as anyone. Originally from Aspen, Ward spent four years living and training with the SSWSC before moving to Park City as part of the U.S. Nordic combined national team.
Ward, like many of the athletes at Howelsen Saturday, was using the annual “Winter Start” event as a launching pad into the new Nordic season. Saturday’s event, which featured ski jumping and Nordic competition for U16, U18 and senior age divisions, was also a qualifier and try out for the World Junior team, Youth Olympics and Continental Cup team.
“We are blessed to be able to host early competitions like this, and this year has been especially great with the weather,” Wilson said. “These first events really mean a lot to our older athletes. With different competitions coming up, we have to have tryouts right away. Right out of the blocks, first competitions of the year, we have to have competitions that mean a lot.”
Ward’s win in the senior men’s division means a lot to him and his goals for the season, but it also served as a reality check. Ward, known for his dynamite cross country skills, has always seen ski jumping as his Achilles heel. For this reason, he spent much of the summer season trying to improve in that area and feels as if he’s made tremendous gains.
“This last summer, I turned my jumping around, which was awesome,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to perform when it was needed (today). But I came back in the second jump for the special jumping competition and put in a really solid jump of 97 meters. So I’m happy with my jumping today.”
Ward’s original mark of 84.5 meters off the HS100 jump wasn’t up to those same standards, however, which led to him starting the 10-kilometer cross country race — held under the lights in front of Howelsen — in eighth place, one minute and 22 seconds behind Steamboat’s Berend, who started up front with a jump of 95 meters.
Berend and Loomis were neck-and-neck throughout most of the four-lap race, but eventually, the “steam engine” that is Ward found a way to close the gap.
“On the last lap, I passed Ben Loomis on the first big hill of the lap. I was able to slowly reel Ben in on the back hill of the course,” Ward said. “It came down to the last hill, and I just had a little more gas. I’m happy though. Great start to the season.”
Ward won with a final Nordic combined time of 26:14. Berend took second in 26:16, and Loomis was third in 26:42, with South Korea’s Je-Un Park taking fourth in 27:07.
SSWSC athlete Koby Vargas was sixth in the senior men’s division in 28:43. Also earning top-10 finishes from the SSWSC were Decker Dean (ninth, 29:22) and Grant Andrews (10th, 29:23).
“I was really pleased with how our guys from Steamboat fought a good fight and hung in there,” Wilson said. “Conditions on the hill today were different than we trained all week with a little bit of wind and air on the hill. I was really especially pleased with how they handled that. A lot of our guys had long jumps.”
Brenden Andrews, also of the SSWSC, won the men’s U16 HS75 Nordic combined race in 15:45. He was second in the jump and first in the cross country race. SSWSC athlete Bennett Gamber was second in 15:56.
In the HS75 special jumping competition, Cara Larson won the women’s U16 division with 69.5 meters, and Andrew Urlaub won the men’s U16 division, also with 69.5 meters.
Sophia Nester was the lone U18 women’s competitor, while Brian Byrne edged Steamboat’s Nolan Sankey. Byrne and Sankey were the only two in the men’s U18 division.
In the HS100 special jumping competition, Cara Larson won the women’s senior division with a distance of 91.5 meters. SSWSC athlete Logan Sankey was fourth with a distance of 78.5 meters.
The jump of the day came in the men’s senior division when Illinois native Casey Larson broke the HS100 record with a distance of 105 meters. The previous record was 102 meters, set in 2006 by Clint Jones, the current director of the U.S. Nordic combined team.
“When we have good air on the hill like that, there is always that potential,” Wilson said of Larson’s record jump. “It’s been a long time running to break that record. So it was good to see it fall.”
The next major event for the Nordic combined athletes will be next week’s Continental Cup in Park City.
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