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U of U ski team has waited a while to finish things off

SALT LAKE CITY — Two more days of competition. That’s all that stood between the University of Utah ski team and a second consecutive national championship last March.

It stayed that way. Midway through the 2020 finals at Bridger Bowl and the Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Montana, the NCAA announced the immediate cancellation of all its championship competitions because of COVID-19 concerns. Utah skiers, at the time, held a 293-261 lead over Denver in the battle for the national crown. The Utes were well on their way to successfully defending their 2019 championship.  

Fredrik Landstedt, Utah’s Director of Skiing, noted that the Nordic competitions had just been completed that day when word circulated that the Pac-12 planned to cancel all sports and championships because of the pandemic.

“By hearing that I figured that it would be very tough for us to finish our competition. So I kind of had it in the back of my head right away that it doesn’t look good. ” he recalled, noting that official word from the NCAA came a few hours later — bringing a premature end to the team’s ultimate goal. “It was really hard on the athletes, especially the senior athletes.”

All things considered, though, Landstedt acknowledged that there was a certain uncertainty surrounding things at the time.

Utah athletics director Mark Harlan has vivid memories of the situation. He was driving home from Las Vegas with his son when he received news of the impending cancelations.

“I was thinking about where all my teams were and just all of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks that our ski team was right in the middle of just a dominating performance in the national championship,” Harlan said. “And I literally just got a pit in my stomach when I thought I was probably going to be told within minutes that we would have to inform the people on the ground there that it was over and sure enough that’s what happened.”

Harlan noted it was a confusing and stressful situation.

“We all had that moment of the lost championship, but quite candidly at the time we were thinking about getting them all back safely,” he continued. “Because we just did not know what we were all dealing with and of course that was our first concern.”

Looking back a year later, Harlan was impressed with how the team handled the moment. He credited them for sticking together and coming back this fall for some incredible offseason training.

“Now to see them even more dominant as they head into the championships is something really, really special,” Harlan said.

The Utes won all of their meets this season and enter the NCAA Championships, March 10-13 at Cannon Mountain and the Jackson Nordic Center in Franconia, New Hampshire, as the team to beat. They’re one of just eight squads — joining Alaska-Anchorage, Colorado, Denver, Montana State, New Hampshire, St. Lawrence and Vermont —to have the maximum 12 qualifiers.

Utah’s NCAA championship participants include Gustav Vollo, Wilhelm Normannseth, Joachim Lien, Katie Vesterstein, Katie Parker and Sona Moravcikova in the slalom. Samuel Hendry, Bjorn Riksaasen, Luke Jager, Novie McCabe, Julia Richter and Sydney Palmer-Leger in the nordic competition.

Richter was named Nordic MVP in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association. A total of 14 Utes earned All-RMISA honors including the skiers heading to nationals. Lien and Riksaasen are seniors, while Richter is part of a junior class that includes Vesterstein, Parker and Moravcikova. Vollo, Henry and Jager are sophomores. Normannseth, McCabe and Palmer-Leger are freshmen.  

“Overall, I think it’s a great mix of the new and incoming athletes and some senior athletes on my team,” Landstedt said. “They’ve been skiing really, really well this year.”

The Utes, he explained, were ready to go again after the pandemic prevented a title defense. This is where they wanted to be and the NCAA’s decision to grant another year of eligibility has strengthened the program even more.

Circumstances, in a sense, have made the impending title run a bit sweeter,

“We definitely really want this one especially after what happened last year,” said Landstedt, who led the Utes to the national championship in 2019 in his first season at the helm. He also guided Colorado and New Mexico to titles in his lengthy career as a coach.

Landstedt came to Utah shortly after Harlan’s arrival as director of athletics. Needless to say, everything is working out well — quite well as a matter of fact.

“Talented coach and it’s just been amazing to see how he has just come in here and just done such a great job with the team,” Harlan said. “I think about the Eccles family, particularly Spence Eccles and his passion for skiing, and the investment they’ve made in the program and the ability to graduate so many kids in that program and to win championships.

“It’s just amazing when all those things come together — great kids, great athletes, great coaches, great donor support,” he continued. “You tend to see championships won when you have all that working together.”

Utah earned NCAA ski team titles in 1978 (women) and 1981 (men) before the competitions were combined. Co-ed crowns have come in 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2017 and 2019.   

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