March 13, 2010

By Lynn DeBruin
Special to

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Franz Bernstein first grabbed Vermont's school flag and waved it wildly as his teammates sang their fight song.

Then, unable to resist, he grabbed a second flag, that of his homeland, Germany.

"I've got two hands, so I can hold them both," Bernstein said after sprinting past New Mexico's Martin Kass on Saturday to win gold in the men's 20K freestyle at the NCAA Skiing Championships on Howelsen Hill.

The same might be said of the medals he won at this year's NCAA championships.

Two days earlier, he had to settle for silver when University of Colorado senior Matt Gelso took it to the field in winning the men's 10K classical by 24 seconds.

He saved just enough Saturday to win in 49 minutes, 19.7 seconds - 1.2 seconds ahead of Kass.

"This is one of the biggest wins I've ever had," said Bernstein, who came into the championships on a roll, having won four consecutive races.

That it came on Howelsen Hill was impressive as the course was running steep and fast.

"In a 20K race, you can't go hard all the time. People made moves, and you had to stay with them. It was a good pace, but the last two laps were a little faster," he said.

Coming in, most figured Gelso was the favorite.

"I feared Gelso the most," Kass admitted. "It turns out Franz was the toughest competitor."

Gelso already knew that.

"I knew Bernstein used to be a sprinter and coming from an Eastern school, they tend to have a better tempo, better sprinters. I knew getting into a sprint with him was not something you wanted to do," Gelso said.

But because the course was fast, the race stayed close.

"If you fell behind, you caught up on the downhill," Gelso said.

Overall, though, Gelso was happy.

"Obviously I would have liked to have won," he said, "My muscles were tired. I didn't have the sprint today."

Kass was glad just to be racing after coming down with what he thought was just a cold a few weeks ago.

"I had an awesome season...but it kicked me off my game," Kass said of the undetermined illness. "I had no power at all for regionals. Obviously I recovered."

Just not enough to hold off Bernstein, who grew up probably just five hours from women's double-winner Antje Maempel.

While the course belonged to the German-born racers, it was the University of Denver standing highest by three-peating in the team competition.

It made DU head coach Andy LeRoy pleased considering he grew up skiing in Steamboat Springs. And he's excited about next year's championships, particularly because the Pioneers Nordic coach, Dave Stewart, hails from Stowe, Vt., site of the 2011 NCAA championships.

"Maybe I'll put the reins on him to show me the ropes and tell me what I need to do," LeRoy said. "I'll see what we can do."