March 11, 2010

by Lynn DeBruin
Special to

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - As a freshman, Nordic skier Matt Gelso managed only fifth - and sixth-place finishes at the NCAA Skiing Championships.

As a sophomore, illness left him even lower in the standings.

And last year, he couldn't even crack the top 10, saying that he "skied like garbage."

But Thursday, Gelso more than erased the past by capturing gold in the men's 10k Classic at Howelsen Hill.

"I didn't ski very well at the beginning of the year specifically because I wanted to ski well here," said Gelso, a University of Colorado senior. "In past years, I've done too much early season and came in here a little tired. This year I wanted to come in here prepared and really stick it to those Europeans."

That he did.

His winning time of 29 minutes, 25.5 seconds was just 24 hundredths of a second ahead of German Franz Bernstein from the University of Vermont. And Gelso became only the second American-born male skier to win an NCAA classic race, joining Northern Michigan's Christopher Cook who won in 2003.

Overall, only four American men have won any Nordic event dating back to 1976.

Perhaps even more impressive, however, was that Gelso's win was his fifth consecutive this season.

"It's unbelievable to maintain that level of intensity for so long a time," said CU coach Richard Rokos. "He looks like he's in a zone and will stay in it for as long as he wants."

Rokos hopes that continues Saturday when the championship concludes with the men's 20k freestyle. On Friday night, the men's and women's slalom events will be contested.

CU will need to win big there if it hopes to overtake the University of Denver in the team competition.

DU bumped its overall lead to 120 points Thursday morning after Pioneer junior Antje Maempel successfully defended her women's 5k classic title.

But after the men's race, the Colorado University Buffaloes had pulled within striking distance.

DU leads at the midway point of the championship with 420 points, with CU second with 351.

The University of New Mexico is third with 319, followed by Utah (300.5), Vermont (287.5) and Dartmouth (275.0).

Gelso's win gave CU 50 points. But even he admitted that he wasn't sure he'd pull it off. He was third at the halfway point but turned on the jets for the second lap.

"I definitely didn't ski downhill as smooth or fast as I would have liked, so I was a little worried at the end, especially considering a lot of fast guys were behind me," Gelso said.

But with his slim victory in nasty conditions (snow and wind), he finally had CU cheering following an opening day dominated by rival DU.

"This is good," Gelso said. "It gives us some confidence. Ski-wise, it's good. Confidence-wise it's good."

CU's Vegard Kjoelhamar added a fourth-place finish for the Buffaloes - his time of 29:54.0 just half a second off the bronze.

DU's highest finisher in classic was Kristian Soerlund (18th, 30:47.4), followed by Andrew Dougherty (19th, 30:49.1) and Harald Loevenskioldr (23rd, 30:59.2).

"It's one race short of his college career (ending), but it's already a dream-come-true career," Rokos said of Gelso.

"I would like to make it six (wins) in a row, but we'll see what happens," added Gelso. "It's so variable, anybody in the top 15 could win it."

Maempel, meanwhile, will be trying to go for a back-to-back sweep on Saturday.

"She's amazing," said DU teammate Kate Dolan, who finished 13th in the race, about 96 seconds back. "She's obviously the strongest skier out here and she really put it down today."

Maempel admitting repeating was tougher.

"Last year I wasn't the best all season. I was pretty good, but other people were faster so I didn't really expect to win at all. It was a surprise. This year there was more pressure."

The Pioneers picked up 121 points in the women's 5K, as Pioneer freshman Mari Elden added points by finishing third.

For Elden, her podium finish was the first of her young career.

Just two weeks ago, she finished 8th on the same course during regionals. Thursday she was nearly 17 seconds faster.

The only difference she could figure was more training.

But there was no catching Maempel, who this season never finished lower than second in a race while winning seven times.

Now she has more gold to add to the tiny diamond she has glued to the corner of a front tooth.

"It's a European thing," she said of the unique look.

As with her gold medals, the look fits.