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Cloquet grad is No. 1

Ripp wins all four races at nationals

Cloquet's Aidan Ripp is a 2024 national champion four times over, winning every Nordic ski race he competed in last week during the U.S. Collegiate Skiing Nationals championships. Held March 5-9 at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, New York, more than 150 Nordic skiers from colleges around the country competed in four events across five days.

From the opening race, Ripp set a pace that was unmatched by anyone in the USCSA, winning the opening 7.5-kilometer skate race by over 44 seconds, and he never looked back.

Now, in his last year at Paul Smith's College, in upstate New York, the 2019 Cloquet grad told the Pine Knot that he has wanted to sweep the national races since his first national meet in 2022, when he took first place in two of the three individual races and won the overall title. Those plans were foiled last year, when he got sick before the competition at Mammoth Mountain in California, and won "only" one race. Things were different last week.

"I was ready this year, and feeling good," said Ripp, who wore his Pine Valley hat during the races in a nod to his skiing home. "I had some hiccups in the distance races, but it still went well."

Ripp wasn't the only Carlton County athlete at the collegiate championship. In all, four former Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Nordic skiers representing four colleges competed at this year's USCSA Nationals championships. Ripp and Western Colorado college senior AJ Miajla were racing their last college races. University of Minnesota Duluth junior Benjamin Bauer and Elsa Mowers of Middlebury College competed in their first collegiate nationals.

Conditions were challenging the first days, with warm wet snow and high temperatures for skiing. As with the recent American Birkebeiner race in Wisconsin, the race course was covered with snow, surrounded by brown grass and barren trees.

The first event was a 7.5-kilometer skate race with interval starts. The wet sticky snow and the steep hills made it challenging to not crash. Ripp took first place in the men's race, in 20 minutes, 29.1 seconds, while Bauer placed seventh in 22:18.6 and Maijala finished 34th.

The second day featured a classic sprint format with the top 30 qualifiers going in heats of six, with the top two advancing to the next round. Again, Ripp placed first and Bauer took seventh. Maijala came in 18th place in the sprint race.

The third event was a mass start 15-kilometer classic cross country ski race. The snow conditions had improved and the course was well-prepared. Ripp took first place again, finishing in 39:21.8, while Bauer placed sixth in 41:33.2. Maijala finished 28th, in 48:31.1.

Also winning the USCSA men's overall title for the second time in his college career, Ripp said he realized while racing last week that the Mount Van Hoevenberg course was a lot like the Pine Valley ski trails in Cloquet. "I think that's why I like racing there," he said of the familiar course near his college. "It was a funny realization."

The final event would normally be team sprints, with three athletes tagging off, doing three laps each. That was changed to an individual-start uphill time trial due to high winds in the stadium, creating an 800-meter "sufferfest" for the athletes.

Ripp and Bobcats teammates Diego Schillaci and Phil Matthews placed first in the team hill climb, finishing in a total time of 8 minutes, 2 seconds. Ripp's time of 2:22 was the fastest leg on the time trial by over 20 seconds.

Bobcats Nordic coach Matt Dougherty called Ripp "the consummate student athlete: driven, focused, and dedicated to his craft."

"Aidan helped build the Paul Smith program to unparalleled heights in the history of the program," Dougherty said. "From competing in the Olympic trials, the World University Games to winning national championships, he has been the backbone of our program. He will be nearly impossible to replace."

The CEC athletes were happy to connect with old teammates, including two others - Esko sisters Hannah and Halle Zuck - who came and cheered them on. Ripp, Bauer and Maijala also made First Team Scholar All American, awarded to athletes with a GPA of 3.30 or higher. Mower's results were not posted to the USCSA website, likely because she was skiing for Middlebury's club team.

"Seeing everyone there was super-cool," Ripp said, adding that Maijala also competed the last two years, but not the others. "It's crazy to think that there were six of us there at one time. It was really fun to have that time together."

Now a repeat multiyear national champion, Ripp said he isn't sure what will come after graduation this spring. He might try out for a professional ski and biathlon team in Vermont, or he could go to work and then pursue graduate school or medical school somewhere.

Dougherty said Ripp was a leader in many ways, but particularly in making sure he and his teammates were getting the best out of each day, maximizing their potential.

"He has such a bright future in front of him, not only in skiing but as a person," Dougherty said. "We will miss him dearly, but I am so excited for his future."