Johnny Curtis Memorial

Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club’s Natalie O’Brien leads the pack on her way to a third-place finish in the Johnny Curtis Memorial Nordic classic sprint finals at Trail Creek Ranch in January. O’Brien finished third among Intermountain Division skiers to qualify for Junior Nationals next month.

Seven athletes from the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club qualified for Junior Nationals last year, a club-best dating back two decades and a mark that the program was beginning to rise.

And again the bar has been raised. Ten Ski Club athletes have punched their ticket to Junior Nationals, with one alternate.

Elijah Weenig, Sam Johnson, Desmond Concannon and Bridger Stiles are moving on from the U18 and U20 male divisions. Mason Wheeler, Mac Wirth and Will Johnson are on from the U16 male division. Natalie O’Brien, Aurora Stiles and Kate Brigham will represent Jackson from the U16 female division, and Birch Klomparens is the alternate from the U18/20 female crop.

“It’s not the culture or the community 100%,” program director Ben Morley said. “It’s not the training plan 100%. They kind of feed off each other. The success of training and racing helped build the culture.”

The Jackson athletes will be representing the Intermountain Division in Truckee, California, in mid-March. The Jackson skiers qualified on the strength of their accumulated points this season across all Nordic disciplines.

Weenig is the top U18 qualifier and second overall from the U18/20 crop. Johnson qualified fifth, Concannon eighth and Stiles 14th.

Wheeler leads the U16 boys, taking the third spot on points. Wirth followed in seventh and Johnson in 11th.

Brigham was the second qualifier among U16 girls, followed by O’Brien in third. Stiles, who is competing up a division from U14, was the sixth qualifier.

The athletes solidified their spots in the third Junior National qualifier at Solider Hollow, Utah over the weekend, competing in a stacked field of both junior athletes and colleges.

Weenig was first among junior athletes in the 5-kilometer/10-km interval start and 16th overall with only one non-college athlete ahead of him, Sun Valley, Idaho’s Johnny Hagenbuch, a World Junior Championships veteran.

Wheeler took two podiums, finishing third in the interval start and third in the classic 10-km. Though Weenig and Johnson lead the program as the two most decorated male skiers in the highest division, Wheeler has quietly put together a stellar campaign with podiums in each junior national qualifier.

“He’s got more training under his belt, he had a phenomenal cross-country running season, and for the most part he’s stayed healthy this year,” Morley said. “He’s very focused and determined this year, much more so than last year. There’s also a maturity now since he’s seen what was possible last year.”

The girls have been on the podium, or at least orbiting it, in each junior national qualifier as well. O'Brien reached the podium on Saturday, placing third in the U16 5-km classic race. Morley expects Brigham and O’Brien to contend near the top on the national stage.

It will serve as a noteworthy test for Stiles, too, considering she’ll have another two years competing at the U16 level.

“With how she’s racing and competing, she will undoubtedly be the top U16 in the region,” Morley said of Stiles, “and hopefully have an opportunity to find the podium at nationals down the road.”

The second straight year of record-high qualifiers began taking root in years previous. Morley attributes the growth of this team, in part, to the success found by former athletes Annabel Hagen and Anna Gibson, the latter a national champion cross-country skier in 2017.

“I think they were the precursor and inspiration for a lot of these kids to see what was possible if you put in the work and follow our training plan,” Morley said. “Hopefully these kids will be the inspiration for other families and kids to get involved down the road.”

Before the club’s skiers head to nationals, they’ll be competing for state championships. The Wyoming High School Activities Association Nordic ski championships run Feb. 28-29 in Cody. Both the girls and boys teams, led by varsity coach Katie Paddock, will be seeking repeat state team titles.

An earlier version of this story left out Natalie O'Brien's third place finish in the U16 5-km classic race at Solider Hollow.

Contact Chance Q. Cook at 732-7065, sports@jhnewsandguide.com.

Sports Editor Chance Cook has lived in rural Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Butte, Montana. He is no stranger to spending time in the woods chasing animals. If you see him out, challenge him to a game of pool. Send tips and questions.

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