Zimmerman, Randall win sprints in U.S. Cross-Country Championships

Zimmerman, Randall win sprints in U.S. Cross-Country Championships{mosimage}Leif Zimmerman shot past defending champ Carl Swenson in the final 100 meters despite Arctic wind gusts Thursday to win the men’s sprint title at the Chevrolet U.S. Cross-Country Championships while Kikkan Randall led all the way for the women’s title. It was Randall’s second U.S. title, and Zimmerman’s first.

On a day in which the qualifying round was postponed 90 minutes — to 11 a.m. — because of sub-zero cold and gusting winds, both Swenson and Rebecca Dussault, who had won all three previous race for men and women, saw their victory strings cut. Zimmerman’s win ended Swenson’s bid for six consecutive titles; he won the last two a year ago at Black Mountain and the first three races this year.

“I think this might hold a candle to Alaska,” said Randall, the 2002 sprint champion. “It felt like skiing across Antarctica in that first straightaway.”

Swenson added, “It was a little slick and the wind was gusting so much it really threw us off in the last heat. It was really hard to keep our feet under us.”

In fact, Zimmerman said he and fellow U.S. Development Team member Andy Newell, who led the qualifying round, got a break when Swenson was smacked by a burst of wind as they headed toward the final downhill. When they got the bottom, making a long righthand curve into the final 200 meters, Zimmerman made his move and pulled past Swenson and scrambled home first.

“Newell and myself were behind Carl by a good 10 meters and then, coming over the top, a huge gust of wind came up and nailed Carl right in the face,” the gold medalist said. He and Newell narrowed the gap.

“I cut inside the trees [on the final turn]. I don’t think it was quite as windy. It was like a slingshot going by him and then it was a free-for-all, but I still had the momentum from drafting behind those guys.”

He surprised himself, Zimmerman said, because he hadn’t been expecting to race hard since he’s leaving Friday to return home for a few days before the SuperTour finals Jan. 21-25 at Telemark resort in northern Wisconsin. “I just came out to do it. I wasn’t expecting much … I felt really good when I started skiing. I had good legs this morning” in the qualifying round where he was fourth.

Swenson, who at 33 is more than a decade older than Zimmerman and Newell laughed and shook his head. “I know these guys have always been sprinting fast; I can’t touch ’em in the qualifier” where every athlete skis individually around the course; the top 16 are then put into the four-skier heats marking the final round.

“I go as fast as I can but I’m not as quick as they are,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it.” Newell finished second with Swenson third and Scott McArt fourth among the 150 men, which represented a drop of nearly half the record-setting 291-man field from Tuesday.

Randall, a 2002 Olympian who is the niece of 1980 Olympian Betsy Haines and ’76 Olympian Chris Haines, led the qualifying and won every heat in the final round. “I was feeling strong today and I didn’t want to mess around with playing cat and mouse, so I just took the lead right from the start and built it from there.”

She said the final corner leading into the stadium was windblown and got slick. “It was a pretty wild, icy corner,” she said, “and I was pretty close to skidding off the course. So, I was lucky to hang onto it there and continue skiing to the finish.”

She finished ahead of Norwegian Sigrid Aas, a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with Middlebury College skier Kate Whitcomb third and Wendy Wagner fourth. Since only U.S. citizens are eligible for medals at the championships, Whitcomb is silver medalist and Wagner took the bronze in the field of 108 women.

The championship conclude Sunday with the long distance races in classical technique the men’s 50km and women’s 30km.

Black Mountain, Rumford, Maine
1km Freestyle Sprints
January 8, 2004
(Eight make semifinals; only U.S. citizens eligible for medals)

1. Leif Zimmerman, Bozeman, Mont
2. Carl Swenson, Park City, Utah
3. Andy Newell, Shaftsbury, Vt
4. Scott McArt, Anchorage, Alaska
5. Colin Rodgers, Middlebury, Vt.
6. Tim Weston, Fairport, N.Y.
7. Chris Cook, Rhinelander, Wis.
8. Anders Haugen, Anchorage, Alaska

1. Kikkan Randall, Anchorage, Alaska
2. Sigrid Aas, Norway
3. Kate Whitcomb, Middlebury, Vt.
4. Wendy Wagner, Park City, Utah
5. Lindsay Williams, Hastings, Minn.
6. Carolyn Treacy, Duluth, Minn.
7. Rebecca Dussault, Gunnison, Colo.
8. Alison Crocker, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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