Plain Valley Nordic Team Returns from Frigid Alaskan Races with a National Champion

by Isabel Menna

Every March, the future of American cross-country ski racing gathers to determine who among them are the very best. Individual female and male title holders across three different teenage age groups are crowned in each of three different events: an individual distance race, a sprint tournament, and a mass start distance race. This year, during the second week of March in Fairbanks, Alaska at its Birch Hill Recreation Area, the U.S. Ski Team held its annual Junior National Championships. 

Quinten Koch stands atop the sprint podium at Junior Nationals in Alaska, with teammate Silas D’Atre at right in the fifth slot.

Plain Valley Nordic Team (PVNT), Wenatchee Valley’s senior race lineup, qualified eleven of its skiers to participate in the Championships: Kian Reid, Olaf Saugen, Addie Loewen, Michah Saugen, Caroline Menna, Silas D’Atre, Serenity Saugen, Quinten Koch, Kirsten Jarmin, Peter Norby, and Isabel Menna. (Tarin Worden was named an alternate.) Unlike last year, when ten of the eleven who qualified for Nationals in Minnesota were attending their first Championships, the 2023 PVNT edition included eight veterans. 

The cadre of PVNT skiers traveled with their coaches, Pierre Niess and Gabe Norby, and an assortment of parental chaperones, to compete against the 400 best junior skiers in the United States under the greater banner of their division, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA). PNSA was among the nation’s ten Nordic ski racing divisions participating in the week-long program. 

Caroline Menna, wearing face tape to ward off frostbite, whisks among the trees of Fairbanks’s aptly named race venue, Birch Hill.

Fairbanks’s brutally cold, artic air was at the center of the championship week story. Sub-zero temperatures and gusty winds required race officials to push start times to later in the day, skiers to adorn face tape and buffs to help fight off frostbite, and volunteers to wrap the thinly suited racers in blankets as they awaited their specific start times. Despite those efforts, the unsympathetic weather took its toll, causing several entrants to either not take their start or abandon a race. Nonetheless, most competitors made it through what was an exciting week of racing. 

After finishing an impressive fifth in the classical technique distance race on Monday, March 13th, Wenatchee native and Cascade High School freshman Quinten Koch upped his game by qualifying in second place the next morning, Tuesday, March 14th, for the under-16 boys freestyle sprint tournament that afternoon. Even though the top two finishers in each of the heats advance to the next round in the sprints, second place never again entered the mind of Koch, who skated across the line first in each of the quarter and semifinals. “I was feeling good enough to push it and didn’t want to take any chances of not making the next round,” said Koch.  

When it came time for the finals, PVNT had put not only Koch in the field of six, but also Plain native Silas D’Atre who won his quarterfinal heat and skied fast enough in the semis to join the group. The roughly two-minute contest, over just a bit more than a kilometer, saw Koch move up from third to challenge Fairbanks’s hometown favorite, Wells Wappett, for the lead as they approached the final turn into the stretch. It was at that turn that Koch made his move and stormed down the final meters to a convincing win and the U16 boys national sprinting title, the first national title for Niess and his upstart team. “I gave it everything I had in the last 200 and am thrilled it was enough to win,” recounted Koch. D’Atre completed a stirring day for PVNT in fifth. 

The Koch/D’Atre duo went on to ski to fourth and seventh places, respectively, in the finale of the week on Thursday, March 16th, a distance, mass start, freestyle fixture. Both boys were named three-time All-Americans, having finished in the top ten of each event and accounted for all six of PVNT podiums. (D’Atre was sixth on Monday.) Other notes from the race for PVNT include Caroline Menna finishing in the top twenty all three race days and D’Atre being recognized as the PNSA’s nominee for the Dave Quinn award for the attendee who best exemplifies the sportsmanship ideals of cross-country skiing.  

Of note is that PVNT alumnus and Leavenworth native Derek Richardson, skiing under the banner of his new college home in Alaska, also won, in his age group, a national championship in sprints. PVNT’s sprinting prowess, which requires explosive brawn in addition to adept skiing skills, is likely due to the expertise in technique and motivation of head coach Pierre Niess complimented by the team’s volunteer strength coach, Nate Koch, a physical therapist, athletic trainer, and father to Quinten. 

With the pomp and circumstance of the 2023 Junior National opening ceremonies and parade, the intensity of race week, and circumspection of the closing ceremonies and banquet now in the rear-view mirror, PVNT athletes are in the midst of a few weeks off before training begins for next season, which will once again take them to venues throughout the Western United States and Canada before concluding with the 2024 Junior Nationals in Lake Placid, New York, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic games. 

Returning all eleven of its national skiers next year and capitalizing on the Junior National success of Koch and D’Atre this year, and in 2022 when Loewen and Menna (Caroline) were named All-Americans, PVNT hopes to elevate its national prominence even further in the coming years where when any winter day its racers are not at competitions, you can find them swiftly gliding by on the Nordic trails of Plain and Leavenworth. 

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