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photoErik Bjornsen racing at the World Championships earlier this season. Photo by Rob Whitney

Home Stretch
The Methow's elite skiers

The local elite Nordic skiers with Olympic dreams who were introduced to Grist readers as winter began should never again have to explain where the Methow Valley is located. They’ve skied their way to the top nationally and sometimes internationally this season, giving local fans some bragging rights.

All five skiers are near the top of the national Super Tour standings. As of Feb. 20 (the latest statistics available) Erik Bjornsen is in third place, followed by Brian Gregg in fifth place and Sam Naney in eleventh place. In the women’s division, Sadie Bjornsen is in second place overall and Caitlin Gregg is in fifth place.

There are two sets of big races left in North America—the March 24-30 Canadian National Championships in Whistler, B.C., and the April 4-11 Super Tour Finals in Truckee, Ca.

And local biathlete Casey Smith, who is finishing his last year of junior division competition, also has tasted victory. He recently took first place in his division in the sprint, pursuit and mass start races at the U.S. National Championships in Maine.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some season highlights for each athlete:

Erik Bjornsen

photoSadie Bjornsen at one of the many finish lines she crossed this season. Photo:

After winning his first national title in the men’s 15k freestyle event at the U.S. National Championships, Erik Bjornsen went to the U23 World Championships in Europe. After World Championships he stayed in Europe to race and went to Kremnica, Slovakia, where he lived with one of his best friends from the University of Alaska.

“It has been really awesome…to experience the true culture of this part of the world,” Bjornsen said of his stay in Slovakia. “It’s something we often miss out on when we just see the race venue, the hotel and what’s in between it.”

Sadie Bjornsen

After earning the 20k classic national title at the U.S. National Championships and taking 2nd places in classic sprint and freestyle, Sadie Bjornsen joined the World Cup circuit in Europe.

At the World Championships she was a member of a four-person team that placed fourth—the best finish ever for American women. She went on to achieve two World Cup personal bests, including her first finish in the top 10. Just shy of the points to place her in the top 50 World Cup women, which would have qualified her for the World Cup Finals, she finished her European season at the OPA (Europa) Cup Finals in Toblach, Italy, where she competed in three races and won a first, a second and a third place.

Brian and Caitlin Gregg

“Everything has really come together this season,” said Brian, who along with his wife, Caitlin, has had a string of top race results. He recently won the Great Ski Race marathon. Speaking from California, where he and Caitlin have been living with family, Brian said they are training at altitude for “the most competitive races in North America this season” – the April Super Tour Finals in Truckee. They also will race at the Canadian National Championships.

photoCaitlin and Brian Gregg at the Vail Mountain Games earlier this winter. Photo courtesy

‘This is the freshest, most excited and most enthusiastic I’ve ever felt at this time of year in my whole career,” said Caitlin. She added that she’s finding it “a huge advantage…to race and travel with your soul mate.” It’s been a season when “usually one of us is having a good day,” which has kept the couple’s “energy and enthusiasm really high,” she said.

Gregg credits her strong season to Scott Johnston’s coaching and the support of family and community. “It takes so many resources and so much family and community support [to ski at this level],” she said. Early on, the Greggs decided to spend their season focused on domestic races to earn points that will count toward 2014 U.S. Olympic team selection.

Caitlin said the couple has been able to boost their chances of making the 2014 Olympic team, plus they’ve earned enough prize money to feel like they have a cushion “so we can train and focus on Sochi,” where the games will be held.

Sam Naney

Sprint specialist Sam Naney said he’s made solid gains this year and will end his season by entering the classic sprint at the Canadian National Championships and four events at the Super Tour Finals.

Following the U.S. National Championships in January, Naney said he “wrestled through a long bout of a cold” before the Tour deTwin Cities in Minneapolis, where he had “ok results,” but never really found his “top-end form.”

photoSam Naney will finish his season with four events at the upcoming Super Tour Finals. Photo by Ian Harvey/Toko US

He returned home and started high-intensity training with Scott Johnston.

“What we realized is that while my speed and fitness up to 95 percent of max race pace was great, that top five percent was missing,” Naney said. “And at the end of a sprint, it's that last five percent that wins.”

The training paid off with better results at his next set of races, including the elite sprints held before the American Birkebeiner, a 50k marathon, in Hayward, Wi. But the most unusual event in Naney’s season was his decision to race the marathon, the first he’s entered since college. He said he skied with the lead pack for the first 40k and finished in 22nd place.

“I think it was a testament to the strong base work I've put in these last several years, and to the technique foundation Scott has led me to build as well.”

Casey Smith

Biathlete Casey Smith is in Whistler, B.C., racing in the North American and Canadian Biathlon championships through March 20.

“I am very excited to go to these races because they will be at the 2010 Olympics venue.” He added that there would be lots of competition, with about 190 races spread over all age categories. The Methow’s Kelsey Dickinson is also competing in Whistler.

Smith will end his season by helping with and competing in the March 22-24 Mammoth Winter Biathlon in Mammoth, Ca. “This is an event that is designed to promote and get people excited about biathlon,” Smith said.

photoCasey Smith with his German-made biathlon rifle. Photo by Karen West

As for his time in Europe, Smith said that he was tired and not skiing very fast after the Junior World Championships so “I really focused on my shooting, as well as gaining experience racing at a highly competitive level since that is hard to do in the U.S.” Next year he will move into the men’s division.


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