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Cloquet grad skis to national championship

When former Lumberjacks star skier Anja Maijala got in a Nordic ski pileup at the start of a Junior National race earlier this month, she didn't let it slow her down. Maijala explained that a girl fell during the mass start featuring dozens of sk...

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Cloquet grad Anja Maijala (center, No. 1) takes her place on the podium after winning the 10K freestyle U20 women’s Junior National race in 30:09.8v at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah on March 8. Annika Landisof (No. 2) followed 8.5 seconds later in second place. Erin Moening (No. 3) was next across the line in third (+27.8). Bruce Adelsman/skinnyski.com

When former Lumberjacks star skier Anja Maijala got in a Nordic ski pileup at the start of a Junior National race earlier this month, she didn't let it slow her down.

Maijala explained that a girl fell during the mass start featuring dozens of skiers, and it caused a chain reaction. Skinnyski.com photos of the race at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway, Utah, show Maijala picking herself off the top of another skier while others do the same. The crash put Maijala and several other girls at the back of the pack.

"I did have some adrenaline after the fall," Maijala said in a phone interview from Alaska last week, where she is a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "But I figured nothing else could go wrong now."

Maijala had 10K to get back on track and, boy, did she.

The Cloquet grad finished the race at the front of the pack, skiing away from the lead group at about the 36-minute mark on Hermod's Hill, made famous in the 2002 Olympics.

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The announcer in an online video sets it up as Maijala is climbing the hill: "This could be where the race is won," he said as she increased the gap between herself and the No. 2 and 3 racers. "If she can make it to the finish and past the whale's tail, she will be a national champion."

The video of the race shows Maijala crossing the finish line with both arms raised; then she collapses on the other side.

"That's a pretty big deal, winning a Junior National like that," said Ben Croft, one of Maijala's Cloquet-Esko-Carlton coaches, in his classic understated manner.

Her college coach, Nick Crawford, agreed.

"We've been awfully proud of her," he said.

Crawford, who coaches both the cross-country running and Nordic ski teams at Fairbanks, said he recruited Maijala to the Nanooks as a dual-sport athlete.

"She has been very successful her freshman year and scored for us in both sports," he said.

Maijala said she raced cross country, but her training focus all year has been on Nordic skiing. She's made great strides in her technique and fitness levels, which might come as a surprise to some who know how much she ran and skated and skied while she was going to school in Cloquet.

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Crawford said he saw a lot of "untapped potential" in Maijala, who hadn't had the kind of one-on-one training a lot of the elite Nordic skiers get in high school.

"I felt she had a lot of room to grow," he said.

Maijala admitted being a student-athlete in college takes up way more time than she ever put in as a high school student.

"All the decisions are around athletics: what to eat, when to go to bed. I practice two times a day," Maijala said.

"It's a lot of 'athleting,'" she added with a chuckle, noting that she also puts plenty of effort into academics as well.

For his part, Crawford said Maijala is a great all-around teammate and called her "the life of the team."

"She plays us live concerts before races on the mandolin," he said. "She's just a really fun person to have around and she's been a great addition to our team."

In a super competitive region where she even raced against some Olympians from Nordic countries, Maijala said her goal for her freshman year at college was "overall improvement," which she achieved. In her college season, she placed top 25 and top 20 in a few races.

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Unlike her college races, Maijala was racing against skiers her own age at the Junior National races in Utah earlier this month. In a series of races that week, the Cloquet grad took sixth place in the 10K classic race March 6, and sixth place in the freestyle sprint finals the next day. After a day of fun March 8, Maijala was ready for the final event: the 10K freestyle race, three laps around the 3.3K course at Soldier Hollow.

That morning Maijala said she felt good about her upcoming race. She also was inspired by fellow Minnesotan Jessie Diggins' Olympic gold medal performance and a video chat between the skiers and Diggins that morning. Diggins said her first Junior National race was a Soldier Hollow too.

"I think she really inspired a lot of people at Junior Nationals to give it their all," Maijala said of the Stillwater High School grad, who won the state Nordic ski championship three times. Maijala won the state freestyle race her senior year, and finished second overall, while recovering from a shoulder injury.

Still, Maijala didn't necessarily expect to win at Soldier Hollow.

"I was surprised but I knew she was capable," Crawford said. "Looking at the U20 field, I knew she'd be competitive. I'm really pleased it all came together for her."

Watch the video of the race at livestream.com/xcountrylive/xcjuniornationals2018/videos/171309704.

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