Annika Hanestad

Annika Hanestad of Palmer qualfied to compete in the U18 Nations Championships cross-country skiing meet Jan. 21-31 in Vuokatti, Finland. Hanestad is a member of the Colony Knights cross-country ski team.

Frontiersman file photo

PALMER — Last season when she joined the Colony Knights cross-country skiing program, Annika Hanestad wondered where she would fit in on the team.

“Last year I remember thinking I wasn’t even sure if I’d even make varsity,” Hanestad said earlier this week.

Hanestad is not just a high school varsity skier. She’s now among an elite group in the nation. Last week, during the US Cross-Country Championships in Anchorage, Hanestad, of Palmer, qualified for the U18 Nordic Nations Championships. She is one of only six girls who will ski for the US national team in Vuokatti, Finland, Jan. 21-31.

“It’s a pretty select group,” Colony head coach Mark Strabel said.

And it’s a rare achievement, especially for a Valley skier, he said. Strabel said Hanestad is the first Valley skier to have the opportunity to compete in this caliber of event. The last Valley skier to qualify at this high of level was Strabel’s brother, former Colony and UAA star Eric Strabel.

Strabel said the chance to compete in this type of event is a stepping-stone to future opportunities at the international level.

“It’s preparing for racing for the US ski team later,” Strabel said.

Strabel said he certainly sees that type of potential in Hanestad, a Palmer area homeschooled student who approached him about joining the Colony ski team just more than a year ago.

“She can go wherever she wants to go,” Strabel said. “She’s got the work ethic, the talent that can take her far in life. This is one of the first steps toward trying to make the Olympic team later in life.”

Strabel said he thought Hanestad had the potential to qualify when the championships started last week at Kincaid Park in Anchorage.

“I had a good inkling she could squeeze in there if she had some good races,” Strabel said.

Strabel said Hanestad got better and better during the four-day championships, and cemented her ticket to Finland with a strong performance in the junior women’s 5-kilometer classic race on Sunday, the final day of the championships.

Kendall Kramer, a West Valley High School skier, was also one of the six girls’ to make the U18 team.

Hanestad said she’s very excited about the opportunity, but the achievement has not exactly sunk in yet. She enjoyed tremendous success as a sophomore, her first season of high school season. Hanestad earned Region III Skimeister honors after sweeping the classic and freestyle races during the Region III Championships.

Hanestad said the success came as a surprise, but also motivated her to do more.

“I put in a lot of hours (of training) this summer,” Hanestad said.

Hanestad said cross-country skiing started as a family activity. She was born in Minnesota, and moved to Eagle River when she was 11. A year later, the Hanestad family moved to the Hatcher Pass area near Palmer. Now her, training grounds are right out her back door.

“I definitely feel blessed,” she said.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at sports@frontiersman.com.

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