Caitlin Gregg broke away from a pack of elite women and skied solo over the last 15 kilometers to win her third American Birkebeiner, on a sunny but cold Saturday in northern Wisconsin.
Gregg had hoped this season would end with competition in the Olympics in Sochi, but she failed to make the U.S. team. That disappointment helped fuel her intensity, and propelled her to a second straight win in the 41st annual Birkie.
“My motto has been if you don’t achieve one goal, that doesn’t mean you don’t keep fighting for the next one,” said Gregg, whose husband, Brian, is skiing for the U.S. in Sochi.
Thomas Reichelt, a German, outsprinted a pair of Italians and put his skis across the finish line first on Hayward’s Main Street, in the men’s 50K race.
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Reichelt said the intense pace early was a challenge, but he felt he had superior speed as the leaders reached the final kilometers
“I was pushing very hard,” Reichelt said. “Now I can drink a beer because it’s (the win) great for me.”
Fresh snow that fell heavily Thursday and Friday created slow and challenging conditions for the elites and 10,000 others who took the start line in single-digit temperatures. A stiff wind from the west drove the wind-chill to minus 10 and buffeted the skiers on the three-kilometer stretch over Lake Hayward.
Well-bundled, the skiers reached the main street lined with cowbell-clanging spectators with impressive icicles dangling off their faces and the masks they used to ward of frostbite. Many covered exposed areas with bandages, and made the start line look like a medical unit.
Italian teammates Simone Paredi and Sergio Bonaldi, the defending champion, chased Reichelt across the line in Hayward and finished within a second of the German.
“I was waiting for the others to catch me and nobody did,” said Reichelt, who took the lead into the headwind on Lake Hayward. “I thought in the sprint, I had no chance.”
Reichelt skis for the German Army team and raced in the Vancouver Olympics. He moved into first place in the FIS Worldloppet Marathon series with the win on Saturday.
“To win here is my second biggest success,” Reichelt said. “Now, I can drink a beer because the win it is great for me.”
Gregg devoted her season to securing a spot for the winter games in Sochi, but quickly reset her goals when she narrowly missed a post on the U.S. team. From home, she cheered for her husband, Brian, who will ski for the U.S. in the Olympic 50-kilometer race on Sunday.
“My motto has been, because you don’t reach one goal, you don’t stop fighting for the next one,” she said. “It’s a good message for all athletes.”
Gregg became the first woman to win three American Birkebeiners, the largest cross-country ski race in North America and one that dates back to 1973. She secured a $10,000 check: $7,500 for the victory and $2,500 for finishing as the first American.
The Greggs spent her first Birkie prize on a new house, and paid off student loans with the second.
“I’m thinking baby number one is on the way,” she laughed, sharing plans for Birkie prize number three.