When the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships kicked off last week in Houghton, Michigan, there was a Jackson skier on the starting line.
Elijah Weenig, Jackson’s defending double high school state Nordic champion and Junior National qualifier, took on the championships with an eye on qualifying for the Scandinavian Cup in Falun, Sweden. That would have taken a top 6 rank across the races at the U18 level, and Weenig just missed, finishing 10th overall.
Still, there’s no disappointment for Weenig, considering the results he did accomplish.
Weenig advanced to the skate sprint quarterfinals, where he narrowly missed the semifinals. In the 15-kilometer skate, Weenig was 10th among U18s, and the top Intermountain Division racer. In the 10-km mass start classic he was eighth among U18s, also notching his second top IMD finish of the week.
“I got to race everyone across the country, a lot of colleges were there,” he said. “And there were a lot of kids my age. I really got to scope out the competition a little bit for Junior Nationals.”
He did have the opportunity to prequalify for Junior Nationals there as well, though he narrowly missed that, too. He’ll get his crack at qualifying Jan. 17 and 18 when the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club hosts the Junior Nationals Qualifiers and Wyoming High School races at Trail Creek Nordic Center.
“He was racing among elite level athletes, vying for World Cup position, and it’s not often we have athletes there,” Nordic program director Ben Morley said. “He is in a position to compete at a high level with the ability to bounce back and recover fairly quickly.”
One would assume that an athlete moving from high altitude in Jackson to low altitude in Michigan would have an advantage. For Morley, Weenig and company, not so much. High altitude lets the athlete train with less oxygen available, but when heading toward sea-level, Morley said, it makes it harder for high-altitude athletes to find that extra fast-twitch gear.
And, more than anything, the hope will be that Weenig is able to take his experiences from the elite, stacked field he faced in Michigan and apply that strategy to Junior Nationals, where he plans to be on the podium in March.
“Understanding what it’s like to have the confidence going up against the fastest athletes in the country, it’s prepared him more than anything,” Morley said. “Finding that next gear, having the ability to kick it in and understand what it takes at that next level.”
Beyond that, Weenig appreciated just seeing the level of competition that thrives in the sport he loves most.
“Talking to people who’ve been to U.S. Nationals before, it seems like the competition is getting a lot tighter and a lot stronger,” he said. “I think it’s cool to see how this sport is just progressing, which is awesome.”
Next is the home Junior National Qualifier, and Weenig won’t be the only Jackson racer on the line this time. Athletes from across the high school and club teams will be racing for podiums.