Ward plugs along on Nor Am nordic tour | AspenTimes.com

Ward plugs along on Nor Am nordic tour

Far from the spotlight, in places like Fairbanks, Alaska, West Yellowstone, Mont., and Sovereign Lakes, B.C., Aspen’s Casey Ward is poling and kicking along on the Nor Am cross-country circuit.

An Aspen High graduate and two-time NCAA National Champion with the University of Colorado-Boulder Ski Team, Ward is competing in his third season on the unheralded Nor Am tour, a level below World Cup. And as a semi-pro racing under the Alpina boot company and Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Club flags, life isn’t easy. A dream is what keeps him going.

“My goal is to race in the Olympics,” said Ward, the younger brother of Natalie, an accomplished nordic racer herself who toured with him last season. (Former Olympic cross-country skier Craig Ward of Aspen isn’t related to Casey and Natalie, though he’s been a mentor/coach to both.)

To get there, however, Ward is first determined to break into the World Cup tour, and, hopefully, earn a spot on the U.S. Ski Team.

“Everything seems to be going in the right direction,” said the 26-year-old Ward. “It’s one of those sports that you don’t reach your peak until you’re 30. It’s a big time commitment, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

Ward plans to race in all seven Nor Am Cup events this season, a tour that began in Fairbanks, Alaska, in mid-November and includes two to three races at each stop in the classic, freestyle and pursuit disciplines. The U.S. National Championships in Rumford, Maine, in January remains highlighted on Ward’s calendar.

“To finish consistently top-15 in the Nor Ams, and hopefully top-15 overall in the Nor Am Cup, that’s the goal,” he said.

Those kind of results may lead to the long-sought World Cup start and possibly a spot on the national team, but Ward is taking it one race at a time.

“It’s not a shoo-in, it’s far off, but there’s a chance if everything goes right,” he said.

Take the Nor Am Cup event last weekend in Sovereign Lakes, B.C., for instance. Ward finished 30th in the 15K classic, about five minutes behind American Kris Freeman. “Due to lack of tech support, I was forced to wax and test with only one other racer,” he explained in an e-mail report.

The next day, however, Friday, Dec. 6, Ward advanced to his first final in a sprint race ? minute-and-a-half-long bursts over one kilometer ? and slipped in as the last of 32 qualifiers. In the finals, though, he finished third, his finest result this season.

“The race started out quick. I dropped into fourth and made a move on the first hill and got into third,” he said. “On the descent, the [fourth-place racer] knocked me back and then proceeded to crash on the corner, forcing me wide, and I was gapped out by 10 meters. In the last 200 meters, I was able to close the gap and finish on the heel of [the second-place racer]. Needless to say, I learned a lot in my first final; next will be much smarter.”

In the final race of the weekend, a pursuit where racers transition from classic to freestyle midrace, Ward finished 18th after starting in 24th position. “I am moving up in the world,” he said. “I feel like the the speed and race focus is getting finer tuned. A sign of things to come.”

Up next for Ward is another sprint and 30K classic in Rossland, B.C., Dec. 14-15.

@ATD Sub heds:West Yellowstone

@ATD body copy: At the second Nor Am Cup event of the season in West Yellowstone, Mont., Nov. 29-30, Ward was joined by the AVSC sister-brother duo of Jenny and Simi Hamilton, a senior and sophomore, respectively, at Aspen High.

The Hamiltons raced against the top up-and-comers in North America in the Nor Am events as well as the junior-level races.

Jenny Hamilton finished 31st in the women’s Nor Am 5K classic, about three minutes behind Wendy Wagner of the U.S. Ski Team, then proceeded to capture third in the junior women’s sprint race.

While Ward finished 22nd in the men’s Nor Am 10K classic, two-and-a-half minutes back from Justin Freeman of the Rossignal team and U.S. Teamers Kris Freeman and Carl Swenson, Simi Hamilton managed a respectable 62nd in the elite field, seven minutes off the pace.

“The race was really good for me in the first lap of the two-lap course; I was running in eighth place but had a mental struggle from halfway till three-quarters of the way through,” he said.

Simi Hamilton, like big sis Jenny, rebounded to shine in the junior sprint, finishing second behind Casey Simons.

“Aspen had a great showing in the junior sprints,” Ward reported. “Jenny was able to hold her own ? she was in the pack and it came down to the last 100 yards to decide the final. … Simi was third coming out of the start, but midrace he took the lead of the chase pack and led them into the finish. Simi, being the youngest in the heat, was racing with the big boys and showed them he could hang and is a threat to be reckoned with.”

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