Noah Hoffman finding his stride | AspenTimes.com
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Noah Hoffman finding his stride

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Michael Hoffman U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman glides through the Whistler Olympic Park during Jan. 17's World Cup pursuit race in British Columbia.
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Noah Hoffman was exhausted Tuesday, the result of spending an entire day occupying airports from Fairbanks to Seattle, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Still, after nearly 14 hours in transit, the 19-year-old U.S. Ski Team nordic skier could do little to temper his enthusiasm. His voice was filled with cheer and optimism, something that had been conspicuously absent in past weeks.

After an inconsistent start to the season and an entire month spent out of competition, Hoffman found his stride in unlikely places ” Duntroon, Ontario, and Fairbanks, Alaska.

After posting three top 10s at the Haywood Ski Nationals, then a silver medal in Sunday’s 50 km. classic at the U.S. National Distance Championships, the former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club standout’s burgeoning ski career and confidence are alive and well.

“What a good way to end the season,” Hoffman said Tuesday night from the Denver International Airport. “It was awesome, and I was definitely missing it. I was really nervous that I’d be racing slow again, that what I had been through was not going to help at all. But once I raced, I just wanted to race some more.”

Hoffman was not racing at all during February. Instead, he was catching up on reading and playing chess at fellow Olympic Development Team member Michael Sinnott’s home in Sun Valley. After a string of “less-than-desirable” results, coaches, who surmised Hoffman was overworked, decided to shut the skier down.

A self-described eccentric, Hoffman couldn’t help but spend the rare free time scrutinizing his past and contemplating his future.

“I’m a little discouraged right now,” He told The Aspen Times Weekly in late February. “There’s still racing to come this year … but I feel like I need to get things turned around a little bit.”

His first opportunity came in March 9’s 10 km. skate at the Haywood Ski Nationals in Duntroon, about an hour north of Toronto. Hoffman admitted that he was anxious standing at the starting line. Conditions compounded matters; fluctuating weather prompted officials to run the event on an abbreviated, largely flat course that didn’t suit Hoffman.

“I was nervous. I mean, I didn’t know what to expect,” Hoffman said. “… It was basically like going into the beginning of the season. You don’t know how things are going to go.”

He was buoyed by the result, finishing sixth overall and first among Americans. Two days later, he finished one spot higher in the 15 km. classic. He was again the top U.S. finisher.

The promising week continued in the 50 km. mass start ” just his second race ever at that distance. The first came one year earlier in Fairbanks, where, by his own admission, Hoffman physically unraveled.

The start this time around was hardly auspicious. Hoffman said he struggled to keep pace with the lead pack, struggled with his rhythm and constantly worried about being dropped.

That all changed at the 30 km. mark, where his energy levels soared and Hoffman said he hovered near the lead. At 40 km., he decided to make a move to split the lead group from 10 to five, and surged out in front on nearly every uphill.

Had it not been for a slight tactical gaffe on the final lap ” Hoffman let one Canadian and Sinnott pass him on top of the final hill, then couldn’t make up ground as planned during the downhill to the finish ” he might have pulled off a win. He finished third, just six seconds off the pace.

“I was a little disappointed. I didn’t know the race was going to end, and I kind of wasn’t mentally prepared,” he said. “It was a good learning experience … I was psyched with the way I was skiing.”

He questioned that optimism after a string of mediocre starts at the U.S. Distance Nationals. He opened with an 11th-place finish in March 24’s 10 km. classic, then took 13th in March 27’s 30 km. pursuit ” the only race of the year in which another U.S. junior beat him.

In that race, Hoffman knocked one pole with his ski during an uphill and broke it, then had a replacement pull right out of his hand during a brief collision. At one point, he skied a couple hundred yards with just one pole.

“Equipment was not the reason I didn’t ski well,” Hoffman said.

But equipment did give him reason to think he could pull out a win in March 29’s 50 km. classic. Hoffman’s skis were gliding so well that he routinely vaulted to the front as the lead pack thinned. He wound up leading nearly half the race, he said, much to the chagrin of coaches who urged him to let others pass.

“It was maybe a questionable race on my part tactically,” he said. “People think I made some big mistakes. I’m not convinced I did. … My skis were so fast. It was hard for people to go by me.”

On the second-to-last lap, Hoffman finally pulled off to the side, letting Canadians Stefan Kuhn and Ivan Babikov pass. He struggled to keep pace from there, he said, dropping nearly 20 meters behind on the next extended climb.

Hoffman led American James Southam by nearly 45 seconds heading into the final lap and was confident he would be the top U.S. finisher. He did not plan for the struggles that ensued, however.

“At that time, I blew to pieces,” Hoffman said. “The exact same thing happened last year. … I was walking on a couple hills, I was dizzy and struggling to stand up. It was a full-on bonk.”

The meltdown gave Southam the window he needed to pass and hold onto third.

“Basically, at that point, I was psyched to hold onto second American and fourth overall,” he said. “To be second at the U.S. Nationals is still pretty sweet.”

And timely. Hoffman’s exploits pre-

qualified him for next year’s U23 Championships in Germany and significantly boosted his chances to nab an Olympic spot for Vancouver in 2010.

How quickly fortunes can change. Now, a re-energized Hoffman can’t wait for 2010.

“When you get to travel for a while and hop into some races, it’s the best thing ever,” he said. “I’m ready to go. … The first Monday in May is when the plan will start, when I’ll get back into the game. I definitely won’t be sitting around until then, though.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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