Vermont’s Katharine Ogden finally received the medal she had worked for two years to achieve at the 2017 USANA FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships at Soldier Hollow. (U.S. Ski Team-Tom Kelly)
SOLDIER HOLLOW, UT (Feb. 3, 2017) - Two years ago in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 17-year-old Katharine Ogden set a goal. She had just finished sixth in skiathlon - the second-best finish ever for an American at Junior Worlds. But she wanted more. She wanted a medal. Friday at the 2002 Olympic venue at Soldier Hollow, she achieved that goal, becoming the first American to medal at the Nordic Junior World Championships.
It was a medal representing pride in personal accomplishment, and a medal that can boost an already thriving sport in America.
With a fifth-place finish in Wednesday’s 5k freestyle event, Ogden had already notched yet another top Junior World’s performance, bettered only by Lindsey Williams’ fourth place finish in the 2003 freestyle sprint in Solleftea, Sweden. But for decades, even that first step of the podium was elusive.
After her 5k finish two days earlier, Coach Bryan Fish could see subtle indications that her focus was really centered on the skiathlon. "KO has this unique quality to dig really deep and excel at championship events," said Fish. "She has done a great job of balancing her focus from one week to the next with directed focus toward Junior Worlds here in the US."
As a balanced skier with both classic and skating skills, Ogden is well suited to skiathlon - a unique event where athletes ski both techniques. The women’s event starts with a 5k leg of classic technique, or diagonal stride, followed by an equipment change in the pits and another 5k of freestyle or skating technique.
Katharine Ogden celebrates her bronze medal in the women's 5k/5k skiathlon with her father John at 2017 USANA FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships at Soldier Hollow. (U.S. Ski Team-Tom Kelly)
Cross country ski racing is in Ogden’s family. Her ski racing dad got her going at age three at home in Vermont. She joined a youth ski program at five and has been racing ever since. Since eighth grade, she’s been studying and racing at Stratton Mountain School.
Going into the race, Ogden knew that a vital key to her medal goals would be staying in contact with the leaders through the 5k classic leg. Out of the start, Norway’s Marte Maehlum Johansen took the early lead, with Italy’s Anna Comarella and Ogden close behind. Swedish star Ebba Andersson, who already had two gold medals to her credit, lurked a few positions back.
Coming out of the mass start and making the long, slow climb up the first hill, fans lined the track - screaming ‘KO’ at the top of their lungs and ringing cowbells at every turn. Then was a period of solitude as the course wound its way up the hill - the high elevation causing searing pain in the lungs and legs of the athletes. The course then came swooping down and back up another hill where fans from over a dozen nations screamed encouragement.
On the second of four laps, the final classic stint, Andersson made her move to the front - seemingly in a position to dominate as she had in the 5k freestyle two days earlier. Johansen and Comarella were right on her tail. And so was Ogden.
“Historically I’m a little bit stronger of a skater, so my strategy was mostly just to hang on for dear life in the classic so I could put myself in a good position for the skate,” said Ogden. “I was pretty happy with where I was in the classic part and I knew that once I got on skate skis, I’d probably be at a little more of an advantage because I’m historically better at that.”
Her ski change in the pits was flawless and she skated out in pursuit of the leaders. Only one spot separated her from the medals. But the final 5k would be a bitter fight against the best junior ski racers in the world. Ogden quickly got past Comarella to run third. And for most of the third lap, was in constant contact with Andersson and Johansen. As they came into the final short climb before the stadium, Johansen made an inside move on the corner leading up the hill, crossing over in front of Andersson and taking the lead on the downhill. Ogden remained in third, but lost a few seconds to the leader and a gap formed.
Through the final lap, Andersson and Johansen duked it out while Ogden kept her focus on maintaining her position. She ramped up her pace, putting valuable seconds on Comarella. Coming off the final downhill, she put her head down into an aerodynamic tuck to carry her as far as possible. Rounding the corner to her left, she glanced back and saw no sign of a chase.
Through the pain and agony of a ferocious race with her heart racing, she skated into the finish with a smile on her face as a World Championship medalist.
“I was impressed with KO’s composure today,” said Fish. “A mass start rarely goes exactly as you envision in your mind. She stayed up front the whole time and remained calm at the end of the classic section when a 10 sec gap opened. She did an excellent job managing her energy, staying composed and responding to attacks.”
In the finish, she quickly adapted to her new role - as a podium finisher in a major international race. She comfortably stood alongside Andersson and Johansen - holding her Fisher skis and Swix poles high.
Reflecting on her medal, she thought about all the training days.
“Every day in training it was something that I think about,” she said, reflecting on the past two years. “It’s the little things that help me push myself. Even in the middle of June, I’ll be like, ‘you know what I want to be? On the podium at World Juniors.’”
That evening amidst the colorful ice castles at Midway’s Homestead Resort, Vermont’s Katharine Ogden received the medal she had worked for two years to achieve.
“The USA has never earned a Junior Worlds medal and to do so on American snow is very special,” said Fish, who added plenty of shoutouts to the team’s wax technicians and Ogden’s SMS club coach Pat O’Brien. “It’s hard to describe and I’m not sure it has fully sunk in.”