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Alayna Sonnesyn: From College to Super Tour Racing and World Cup

Three-time American Birkie winner Alayna Sonnesyn tells about how growing up skiing Birkie trails, skiing college, and Super Tour has shaped her as a skier and how racing in the USA, from her experience, differs from Europe.

Photo: Alayna Sonnesyn/Nancie Battaglia

Alayna Sonnesyn (USA)

Growing Up at American Birkie Scene

Alayna Sonnesyn grew up skiing taught by her parents and the local ski club from an early age and started racing at the age of 12 for her high school team. 

“I grew up participating in the youth events at the American Birkebeiner. My parents have raced the marathon every year for almost 30 years, and I skied the Barnebirkie (little kids), Junior Birkie, and Korteloppet in high school. I have so many childhood memories of the Birkie, and I used to watch the elite racers cross the finish line and think they were superhumans!” 

Sonnesyn won her first American Birkie in 2019, and since then has stood on the highest step of the podium also in 2021 and 2022. This year she won in the sprint finish against Caitlin Patterson. 

At the 2022 edition, the level was high, drawing several skiers returning from Olympics and World Cup racing. 

“I was at an advantage because I know the trails so well. I remained patient through the race and didn’t lead too much at the beginning so that I could draft and save energy. This worked to my advantage because I had enough energy at the finish for a great sprint to the line.” 

While she has won American Birkie three times and occasionally participated in other ski marathons as well, her focus is on traditional skiing. Like many other elite skiers in the country, Sonnesyn skied for college, and after graduating, she joined the professional Stratton Mountain School T2 team to develop as an athlete. 

College Skiing Culture 

In the USA, it is not uncommon for talented junior skiers to seek to compete in college before or even during their transition to a national team. In contrast, Europe does not have a similar college racing system. 

For example, 2022 Olympians Sophia Laukli (15th in 30k skate at Olympics) and Novie McCabe (18th in 30k skate in Olympics) ski currently for the University of Utah. The College skiing system also draws young, talented skiers from Scandinavia and Europe, who may fall just outside their junior national system, making the field very competitive. However, it is not easy to get to a high-level program and earn a scholarship. Sonnesyn says: 

“I was extremely fortunate to earn a scholarship for the University of Vermont and was honored to race for them.”

In the US, college skiing is divided between three regions called Central Collegiate Ski Association, Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association, and Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association. It consists of a total of 22 colleges with cross-country ski programs. They operate under National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Those colleges compete within their own region, coming together to NCAA championships. 

College skiing offers the opportunity for structured, high-level training and racing and enables experiencing student life and working as a team. 

“Racing in college is very competitive. However, I think there is much more team spirit that comes with it. This adds a lot of fun and joy into ski racing because you are not only racing for yourself but for your team and your school.” 

Like in any circuit, skiers get points for personal standings and also for their school, and the season highlights NCAA Championships that is highly appreciated among universities. 

Photo: Alayna Sonnesyn/Flyingpointroad.com

Sonnesyn claimed two podiums at NCAA Championships during her time at the University of Vermont and has later made several World Cup appearances.  

“My coaches in college really developed me into a much better athlete and skier, so when I graduated in 2018, I was excited to join a professional ski team, Stratton Mountain School T2 team.” 

In SMS T2 Team, Sonnesyn gets to train with the best of the country as the team features several US national team skiers led by Jessie Diggins. 

Super Tour Versus Cups in Europe

Super Tour is the equivalent of the Scandinavian Cup or OPA Cups in Europe. Like in those races, juniors and those just short of the national team have the chance to challenge the best skiers in the country and qualify for World Cups and Championships. 

“I think Super Tour races are set up very similarly to Scandinavian and Europe races. However, US skiers have a lot to learn from European racing. The race field is deeper and more competitive in Europe, and frequently courses are harder,” Sonnesyn explains. 

Currently 2nd in the Super Tour standings, she concludes that the USA is doing a good job at improving the level in racing and the level of racers. 

Super Tour finals are taking place in Whistler, Canada, alongside the Canadian Championships 21-27th of March. 

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