In the solitary sport of cross-country skiing, Liz Stephen is motivated by being part of something more — a team.
Competing far from her East Montpelier, Vt., roots, she equates her fellow US Ski team members with her family.
“Though this is an individual sport, I wouldn’t be doing it if not for the team aspect,” she said. “We feel strongly about the team, have team goals, want to do well, be a family and want team success as well as individual success.”
That came in late November in Gallivare, Sweden, when the US scored its first World Cup cross-country relay podium by a women’s 4 x 5-kilometer team. Stephen, a Burke Mountain (Vt.) Academy grad, skied the first freestyle leg of that third-place finish.
Stephen, 26, hopes to race in the 4 x 5k team relay during the Nordic World Ski Championships underway in Val di Fiemme, Italy but is also concentrating on the individual 10k skate, 15k pursuit, and 30k classic distance events.
“I’d like to get a top-five in one of those races,” she said. “I’ve never had a top-five in individual World Cup.”
But in 2013, she’s had three 15th-place finishes and one eighth.
“I have 10 years of training and preparation under my belt,” she said. “I’ve been doing the right things. I’ve gotten lucky and I haven’t had many injuries. With endurance sports, especially for distance, you log quite a few hours before getting near the top and each year is better for me.”
A former Alpine racer, Stephen made the crossover to Nordic in high school, soon garnering a national title at age 19. A 2010 Olympian, Stephen is now one of the country’s top distance skiers. Her US Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb, a Worthington, Mass., native, is the same coach she had while at Burke.
The 5-foot-2-inch Stephen shines at climbing and the hills of Val di Fiemme await her.
“There are really tough courses here, about six major climbs per 5k lap,” she said. “These courses suit me for sure.”
Though many competitors tower over her, she uses her size to her advantage in races against sturdy females standing more than 6 feet tall.
“It would be tough for me to be the sprinter with my build,” she said. “That tends to attract bigger, stronger girls. There are so many cross-country events that I can excel in climbs and longer distances.”
The streaking University of Vermont is hunting for its third consecutive Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association Championship title.
“We just kind of started out on the right foot and have kept on going,” said director of skiing and Alpine coach Bill Reichelt . “There’s no real mystery. We’re fortunate to stay healthy and have things go our way.”
Last week in the Middlebury Carnival giant slalom, Jonathan Nordbotten , a junior, notched his second victory and senior Sean Higgins joined him in the top five.
“Those two, along with Travis Dawson , are leading the team right now,” Reichelt said.
The Catamounts are also seeing strong results from junior Kate Ryley and sophomore Kristina Riis-Johannessen .
“Those two have been pushing each other all year,” Reichelt says. “That kind of competition keeps them sharp.”
Reichelt anticipates the return of sophomore Elli Terwiel , who finished 28th in the World Cup slalom event at Schladming, Austria, on Saturday.
Bates hosts the EISA championships with Alpine skiing Friday at Sunday River and cross-country Saturday at Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine.
Counting on strength in numbers, four White Mountain ski areas are teaming up for a 2013-2014 season pass with no blackout dates. On sale Feb. 23, the White Mountain Superpass encompasses Bretton Woods, Cranmore, Cannon and Waterville Valley with pre-June 1 prices of $949 for adults, $549 for teens, and $449 for juniors (WhiteMountainSuperpass.com) . . . Killington’s Nor’Beaster spring pass is $199, good from March 15 through season’s end . . . One sweet ski is the 24th Annual Chocolate Festival, a fund-raiser for the non-profit Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring and Snowshoe Association in North Conway, N.H. Ski, snowshoe or drive from inn-to-inn Sunday along the 45-kilometer network for chocolate treats along the way.