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Cross-country Skiing

Waltham’s Julia Kern has Olympic aspirations in cross-country skiing

The 2015 Waltham High graduate burst upon the world stage with a podium finish at a World Cup event in December.

Julia Kern finished third at a women's World Cup sprint event in Planica, Slovenia, in December, her first World Cup podium appearance.Darko Bandic/Associated Press

Julia Kern lined up at the gate for a World Cup cross-country skiing sprint final in Planica, Slovenia. It was December, and the sky was nothing but a thick, white fog after a brief thunderstorm passed over the course. The wet ground was exposed, except for the snowy path the course carved through the hillside. The scene was more reminiscent of a New England snowstorm in early April for the Waltham native than a picturesque European mountain.

Kern was undeterred by the conditions. On the final downhill slope, Kern made a move from the back of the pack after a skier fell. She made one last sprint toward the finish and overtook fellow American Sophie Caldwell in the final stretch to place third and make her first World Cup podium.

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Kern, 22, became the youngest American to podium on the World Cup stage.

Julia Kern competes during a women's World Cup sprint event in 2019.Darko Bandic/Associated Press

She’s no stranger to skiing in adverse weather. The 2015 Waltham High graduate is used to grueling New England winters from training at the Leo J. Martin Ski Track in Weston, and Cambridge Sports Union, her former club team.

“It was pretty unexpected that I made the final,” Kern said. “When I was in the finishing straight, racing my best friend and teammate for third, it was so surreal that I didn’t even know what to think for a bit.

“In sprint racing, you never give up because there’s always something that can happen.”

Caldwell wasn’t surprised. Kern has 35 World Cup races on her resume since the 2016-17 season in places such as Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.

“Julia thrives in those kinds of conditions,” she said. “The nastier the weather, the better she does.”

Kern’s propensity to succeed in bad weather has more to do with her mental fortitude than her natural ability. She’s known to make late surges from the back of the pack to stay within reach of a podium spot, and her aptitude for having a short-term memory during high-profile races has put her in a position to make more World Cup podiums as she gains experience.

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Julia Kern (left) competes during the Women's SP Final at the FIS Cross-Country World Cup Dresden on January 11, 2020.Thomas Eisenhuth/Bongarts/Getty Images

“Her mind is something you can depend on, so to win the World Cup sprint, you have to go through the qualifying round and three different heats. You have to keep re-toeing the start line and giving it all you have,” said Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the US women’s cross country ski team.

“She’s simply a game-day performer. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are, she’s going to bring the best she has and dig as deep as she can dig. When it is literally thunder and snow and lightning right in her face, then those game-day performers start to shine.”

Kern’s rise on the World Cup stage since her debut in 2017 happened almost as quickly as her sprint in Slovenia after dealing with adversity that affected her training ability for months. She underwent elbow surgery last June to fix an issue with a compressed ulnar nerve entrapped in her triceps, and dealt with a brief illness in the fall.

After her recovery, Kern followed her World Cup podium with a bronze medal in the sprint race at the U23 World Championships in March in Oberweisenthal, Germany.

“She’s an above-average racer,” Whitcomb said. “Julia is having more success early in sprint, but she’s doing well in distance [races].”

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Whitcomb compared Kern to Kikkan Randall, who won a gold medal in the cross-country sprint at the 2018 Olympics.

“Julia and Kikkan share so many similarities. I knew them both from a young age … I have been an observer from a long time and they’re so invested in their team,” Whitcomb said. “Kikkan and Julia also have similar strengths.”

Kern also has three US national championships — two in sprint and one in distance — all won in 2019 in Craftsbury, Vermont, a launching point to her breakthrough on the world stage. She won gold in the sprint freestyle race in Craftsbury.

Caldwell, 30, believes Kern has surpassed her own abilities and that of her cohorts when they were in their early 20s, and thinks Kern will improve as the 2022 Olympics in Beijing draws near.

“She’s already shown she can perform on the world stage,” Caldwell said. “We were never at the level that the younger skiers are at on the world stage and at U23s.”

The Olympics are not out of the realm of possibility for Kern as she continues her upward trajectory. Qualifying criteria for the Beijing Games is being set this spring, and qualifying races will begin in November 2021. The US women’s cross-country ski team will be selected in January 2022, when Kern will be 24. She’s on the rise at the right time to compete for a spot, fueled by her performances this winter.

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“The Olympics have definitely been a goal of mine since I was young and this year was a better year than I have even planned, so I think next year will be an opportunity for that,” Kern said. “I’m looking forward to fighting for a spot for the Olympics.”