SOLDIER HOLLOW — Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess knew the Soldier Hollow course didn't favor him, and he didn't feel particularly good as he prepared for four rounds of sprinting in Tuesday's final day of the U.S. Cross Country Championships.
"I didn't feel good at all, outside of racing," said the 25-year-old native of Bend, Ore. "Today was a much different sprint than we're used to. It was longer, and it was harder, basically."
Skiers who made the finals had to sprint the 1.7 kilometer course four times — three of those in less than an hour.
"It starts with that long climb, and that's a lot longer than you can ski maximally," he said. "What sets sprinters apart usually is the fact that they can go really fast. So it's on the gas, off the gas, on the gas, off the gas, and today it's just a grind."
He said despite feeling less than ideal before each race, that changed once the gun went off.
"Once you're in the race, if you make it past the hardest part (the hill), then it becomes a sprinter's race," he said. "I knew coming in I had a shot."
He said his fitness has improved over the course of the season and he's making the transition from college to life as a full-time professional skier. He feels best when he's competing.
"That's the mentality of being in the race," he said smiling. "The adrenaline, being with all of the people and going back to what you're good at."
He had a little extra motivation, as he and some of the others dedicated their efforts at this week's national championships to former University of Utah skier Charlie Smith, a native of Bend who passed away over the Christmas holiday.
"It's really cool," said Blackhorse-von Jess. " Everything is the same as it has been except I'm smarter. I'm more confident, and as they talked about before, we're racing for Big Charlie."
He choked back emotion at the mention of his friend and said all the skiers had Smith on their minds as they skied Soldier Hollow this week.
"I've got all the podium spots at championships, but now I've got the top one," he said of his first national title.
Blackhorse-von Jess edged Alaska Pacific University's Erik Bjornsen, who has won or come in second in all four races this week. Alexander Howe of ski club Craftsbury Greens was third.
On the women's side, Sadie Bjornsen, older sister to Erik, won her second straight gold and fourth overall medal of the week. She narrowly defeated Sophie Caldwell (Stratton) and Jennie Bender of Vermont, who finished third.
"Everybody was exhausted today after four races," said Sadie Bjornsen, who heads into World Cup competition next. "Today was really about who could dig the deepest and who could really go for it when they're exhausted. I struggled a bit in the qualifiers this morning, so it was a good test for me to come back and know that I could go for it. I ended up in the right place on the downhill and kicked it home."