Aspen juniors take nordic nationals
Every March at the USSA Nordic Junior Olympics, the top team in the nation – out of 500 or so – is awarded the Roger Weston trophy. Commonly, though, the Boys High School National Championship trophy is known as the “Alaska Cup” – you see, this piece of hardware rarely wanders afield of the Last Frontier.But thanks to the local lungs and legs of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club/Aspen High School squad, the trophy now resides here in Aspen. In an unprecedented outburst during the March 6-12 Junior Olympics in Truckee, Calif., the Skiers claimed their first national title and, apparently, Colorado’s first, too.Wünderkind Simi Hamilton led the charge with three golds and a silver in four races – three individual, one three-man relay. And Brandon Cooper, another AHS senior, sophomore Noah Hoffman and Scott Lacy, an Aspen Middle School eighth-grader racing up a division, laid down top finishes to help cement history.”I pretty much put the crank down and went for it,” the 17-year-old Hamilton said, summarizing Aspen tactics.But the team award was only announced at the end of the weeklong event. And it came as a giant shock to the non-Alaskans.”I thought there was no way we’d be even close,” Hamilton said. “But when they announced it – ‘Aspen High School’ – it was just a great honor. Brandon, Noah and Scott skied really well, but I guess it didn’t hit me until then, ‘We really deserved this.'”Said Hoffman, who is also the first junior champion of the Aspen Highlands Inferno race: “I didn’t even know we were eligible, or whatever. But it’s just awesome to be a part of it.”And Cooper: “This is a huge step – state champions and now national champions. Sim’s always been a dominating force, but now we’re a bunch of dominating athletes. And there’s tons of young skiers coming up.”Hamilton, 17, won gold in all four events last March as a first-year, J-1 division racer (for 16- and 17-year-olds). This time around, Hamilton was “nipped,” as he said, in the sprint race to open the event. He settled for silver.”Sprinting’s a great event because it’s not just about who’s the fastest, but also the smartest. That day, I wasn’t the smartest. But it did help with the pressure. I didn’t feel anymore like people were expecting me to do the same as last year,” he said.In the ensuing 10K classic and 15K sprint, Hamilton stormed to gold. He beat out even the “older junior” competitors, or 18- and 19-year-old OJ’s from college teams, as the fastest man at the meet. Then, as the anchorman of the No. 1 Rocky Mountain Division J-1 team in the 3x5K relay, Hamilton outkicked the J-1’s and OJ’s once more to strike gold. All told, that’s seven golds and a silver in Hamilton’s eight-race career as a J-1 at the Junior Olympics.Cooper’s top finish was a fourth in the 15K classic for J-1’s, and the 15-year-old Hoffman pressed to two top-10 finishes in the 15- and 16-year-old J-2 division – a fourth in the 5K classic and a 10th in the 5K freestyle. Hoffman was also part of an RMD team that won silver in the 3x3K relay for J-2’s.Lacy, classified as a J-3 division skier, qualified for the J-2 Junior Olympics, nevertheless, as a middle schooler. His top finish was 38th in the 5K J-2 freestyle.And the season is done now. And well done. Especially for Hamilton. On Sunday, while attempting a 540 on his telemark skis off a tabletop jump at Snowmass, Hamilton crashed on a backwards landing. Now he’s on crutches, in an ankle cast. “At least it was after the season,” he sighed Tuesday.Back at the Junior Olympics, Hamilton was also honored with another AVSC first. Hamilton won the Dave Quinn Award, as the athlete who best exemplifies the ideals of cross-country skiing.Hamilton’s mom, Ruthie Brown, is an 11-year AVSC nordic coach. With daughter Jenny a sophomore ski racer at Vermont’s Middlebury College and Simi headed there next fall, Brown is retiring as an AVSC coach. She plans to remain president of the Rocky Mountain Division competition committee.She summed up Simi’s week this way:”He said to me, ‘It’s all exciting and great to win gold and have the team do well, but really the true honor is winning the Dave Quinn Award.'”It doesn’t have to do with the caliber of the skiers, but their caliber as human beings,” she added.Needless to say, the U.S. Ski Team keeps its eye on Hamilton. But yesterday, shackled as he was with his latest injury, he found himself looking back at what will stand as the Aspen leg of his career.”Still, it’s really hard to look back now – because I’ve been doing AVSC nordic for eight years, since fifth grade. I’ve taken so much out of it and I’m kind of bummed I can’t give back more. AVSC is one of the best programs in the country, and it’s awesome to see,” he said.Cooper plans to attend Bates College in Maine. Naturally, he will face the Hamiltons of Middlebury at regular winter carnival events. But first, Cooper will defer a year to train and race in Sweden. “To see what will happen, overseas, training with Swedes – it’ll be an experience for sure,” he said.So, during the first year of AVSC nordic director John Callahan’s watch, AVSC’s nordic legend grows.Said Hoffman, the sophomore: “It’s gonna be weird going forward. Sim and Coop, they’ve got so much experience and they’ve definitely helped me with my training. I mean, Sim’s the best J-1 skier in the country and Coop’s so dedicated and he works so hard, it’s just awesome to be able to ski with those guys. It’ll be weird without them here.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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