Promos hyping February's Winter Olympics are running on TV. The trails at Hatcher Pass are busy with world-class skiers working toward their goal of joining the party in Pyeongchang, South Korea. And Sadie Bjornsen put up a Christmas tree on Thursday night.
All are sure signs that ski season is coming, and big things are looming for the Alaska Pacific University cross-country ski program.
Bjornsen and six other APU skiers will leave Anchorage in mid-November for Europe and the World Cup racing circuit. If things go well for them, they won't be back until early April, after the World Cup season wraps up.
Which explains why Bjornsen, a member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, is celebrating the holidays now.
She and APU's other World Cup-bound skiers hope to meet the Olympic qualifying criteria for the U.S. team during the first part of the World Cup season so they don't have to travel back to North America for January's U.S. Olympic Trials and national championships at Anchorage's Kincaid Park.
"I set up a Christmas tree in the house last night and played Christmas music because we always miss (coming home for) Christmas and the traditions are not the same in Europe," Bjornsen said Friday after spending the morning skiing freestyle intervals at Hatcher Pass.
"So I'm celebrating Christmas this weekend or next. My neighbors think I'm crazy."
While Bjornsen's evenings may bring visions of sugar plums, the days are about refining their ski techniques at Hatcher Pass, the ski area blessed with early season snow that gives Alaska-based skiers a jumpstart on the season.
"When we're commuting to Hatcher and stuff, it becomes our entire day," said Bjornsen, a 2014 Olympian. "Which is good, because we're on snow, whereas other people are not."
Bjornsen is among 25 APU skiers who are getting reacquainted with skiing on snow after putting in high volumes of roller skiing and running during summer and fall training.
The group ranges from elite skiers like four-time Olympian Kikkan Randall to up-and-coming racers like Hannah Halvorsen, Hunter Wonders and Canyon Tobin. Halvorsen, who recently moved from California to Anchorage to join the APU team, was a member of the bronze-medal relay team at last season's World Junior Championships, and Wonders and Tobin are recent Anchorage high school graduates with a record of success at the junior level.
"This time of year they have the most training in their bodies right now, so (there's) a lot of fatigue," APU head coach Erik Flora said. "They've done all the hard work (and) now it's getting ready for the season."
And what a season it could be.
Flora thinks six to eight APU skiers could wind up on the Olympic team, which would be a record for the program. APU sent four skiers to the 2014 and 2002 Olympics and three to the 2010 and 2006 Olympics.
"Since I've been coaching, we were pretty excited to have one person make the team and participate in the Olympics," he said. "(Now) we're gonna have somewhere in the range of six to eight athletes that will be part of the Olympic team, and we've been talking about the different goals. One might be fighting for medals, the other might be getting experience for the next Olympic cycle."
The APU front-runners for the Olympic team are the seven who will begin the season racing on the World Cup tour in Europe — Randall, Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Chelsea Holmes, Jessica Yeaton, Erik Bjornsen and Scott Patterson.
Any U.S. skier who posts a top-eight World Cup finish in the classic sprint, the skiathlon, the women's 10K or the men's 15K freestyle will gain a spot on the team, as will any who rank in the World Cup's top 50 sprint or distance standings by mid-January. After that, coaches can make discretionary choices. If spots remain after that, they will be determined at the race series at Kincaid Park.
Other APU skiers will start the season on North America's Super Tour circuit. Their goal will be the Jan. 3-8 race series at Kincaid Park, where any Olympic berths not already clinched by skiers on the World Cup will be up for grabs.
The national team hasn't said how many skiers it will take to Pyeongchang, South Korea, but by the time racing begins at Kincaid, the pickings may be slim for the women.
The U.S. Ski Team has a rock-solid women's team that has medal hopes in the relay, team sprint and some of the individual events. Between APU's Europe-bound women and other national-team skiers like Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell and Ida Sargent, the women's team is loaded with talent that could secure all of the Olympics spots during the first several weeks of World Cup racing.
Things are less certain on the men's team.
"It's gonna be tough for more than a few guys to qualify over in Europe," said Erik Bjornsen, a 2014 Olympian and Sadie's younger brother.
That could mean spots could be at stake at Kincaid Park, and Bjornsen is hopeful his APU teammates who start the season on the SuperTour circuit will be among the top contenders.
That group includes Tyler Kornfield, David Norris, Reese Hanneman, Logan Hanneman, Eric Packer and Thomas O'Harra as well as Wonders and Tobin. Another Anchorage skier who could be in the mix for an Olympic spot at the national championships is Alaska Winter Stars skier Gus Schumacher.
"As long as they put together some decent races in the SuperTour, they should have the advantage of being on their home track," Bjornsen said.
As for him and Patterson? "Hopefully, Scott and I won't be back here," he said.
Bjornsen, 26, has recorded more than a dozen top-30 World Cup finishes, including an 11th-place finish in a pursuit race last season. At last season's World Championships, he and Simi Hamilton claimed fifth place in the team sprint.
Bjornsen said he hopes to avoid the stress of 2014, when he was less of an established presence on the national team.
"I was not sure if I would make it or not," he said. "I was so excited and relieved when I finally got that call."
Both of the Bjornsens said they spent a lot of their time at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in wide-eyed wonder.
"I spent a lot of time playing around and checking out the whole Olympic experience," Erik said. "I don't regret that at all, but for sure going into the next one I'm more focused. Of course I want to go and have a great time, but I would like to do something special and come home with a solid result. I've put a training plan together so I'm peaking at the Olympics."
Sadie Bjornsen said Sochi was the realization of a childhood dream, while Pyeongchang will be about achieving grown-up goals.
In Sochi, she placed 18th in the 10-kilometer classic and was a member of the ninth-place relay team. She has made a huge step forward since then — she and Diggins won the bronze medal in the team sprint at last season's World Championships and she's been on the World Cup podium five times.
"The first time I went, it was something I had literally been dreaming of since I was 6 years old," Bjornsen said. "I went there with eyes wide open and taking in every single thing from Day 1 when you get your uniform and you can't sleep that night because you're so excited. All of those thing are so memorable. They were also emotionally draining because they were so, so exciting.
"I think that's what the first Olympics was for me, a chance to really absorb everything. So going into this Olympics, my strategy is going to be to pace myself a little better emotionally.
"This Olympics, I'm going there with a goal. It's really exciting to go there knowing I have a chance to fight for some of the medals. Instead of that huge level of excitement, I'm trying to conserve a little more and understand what I'm there for."
But first, it's time for Christmas.
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