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Manka and Mittelstaedt to represent BSSEF on a national stage

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LPHS senior Skylar Manka clears a gate during a 2023 race. PHOTO BY PAUL BUSSI / IDEAL PHOTOGRAPHY

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

Lone Peak High School senior Skylar Manka was 5 years old when she joined the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation’s alpine race team. Now she’s ranked 12th in the Western division and is preparing for the U18 U.S. National Championships. 

From March 9-15, she’ll compete at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire against the top racers from the Western, Eastern and Rocky Mountain Central divisions. She’s the first BSSEF athlete to qualify for U18 nationals in at least five years, and Junior Development head coach Aaron Haffey said she’s probably BSSEF’s top junior athlete.  

Years ago, she raced on weekends to hang out with friends and she was winning most of the “really fun little events,” she remembered. This season, she’s race-trained six days a week, missing half-days of school on Wednesdays and Fridays. Her effort paid off.  

“It’s pretty amazing,” Manka said. “Especially when I’ve been working so hard in this sport for so long.” 

She joined the FIS—International Ski and Snowboard Federation—Elite U18 division this year, after spending last winter in the development division. That was a strategy devised by coach Haffey to help improve Manka’s ranking before pushing for nationals this year. Haffey joined BSSEF in 2018 after more than 15 years coaching college racers, the U.S. women’s ski team, and the Norwegian men’s team. He coached at two Olympics and a handful of world championships before coming to Big Sky to coach adolescents.  

Manka said Haffey knows so much that it can be overwhelming. But he’s helped break his coaching down into small bits, allowing her to focus on one fundamental at a time. Haffey said Manka is coachable and works hard to make changes.  

“She’s put the miles in for sure,” Haffey said, pointing to the amount of time she’s spent training and racing this season—26 FIS starts and 30 total race days. “As she [grows older],I’ve seen her mature a lot as a person and an athlete and focus a lot more.” 

Haffey also commended her determination and grit as a racer, her love of the mountains, and her supportive parents. 

Manka had her first breakthrough in the elite division at Sun Valley, Idaho this winter. In the standard two-race combined event, she overcame a low ranking to “make the flip” after a strong first run. She flipped toward the front of the pack for her second run, allowing her to ski a clean course and finish in the top 20.   

“It felt amazing, I was very proud of myself,” said Manka. Haffey told her that if she consistently finished in the top 20, she’d have a good shot at nationals.  

Manka will compete in downhill races on March 10-11, super-G on March 12, giant slalom on March 13 and Slalom on March 15. PHOTO BY PAUL BUSSI / IDEAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Manka realized if she went all-out, she could hang with the girls in the elite division. She proved it by earning the 12th rank in the Western region—which includes most Western states except Colorado and New Mexico.  

As the sport requires athletes to miss a lot of school, Haffey said the Big Sky School District has been supportive of BSSEF. He added that Manka has been disciplined and gets ahead on schoolwork.  

However, as she narrows her college search, Manka is planning to shift her focus back to school. She loves ski racing—and plans to join a college club team—but she wants to try a life without the rigid commitment. 

“I want to find the fun in [skiing] again that I had when I was younger,” she added.  

Nationals will be her last major race, but she’ll have four more this season. She’s eager for the tough competition, and she’s trying to avoid feeling nostalgic for missing the sport, she said.  

“BSSEF is a really good organization,” Manka said. “I’m really impressed with all the coaches that have been able to help so many athletes go far in this sport, even when they have major setbacks. I’m really excited to go.” 

Manka added that she’s proud of her former soccer teammate, Hana Mittelstaedt, for accomplishing a similar feat.

A first for BSSEF Nordic 

From March 9-17, Mittelstaedt will compete in Fairbanks, Alaska in the U16 Junior Nationals. The Lone Peak freshman is the first ever BSSEF Nordic skier to qualify for junior nationals, according to Nordic Director Leah Lange, who said that’s a huge deal for Big Sky.

Mittelstaedt said she tries not to focus too much on results, and repeatedly emphasized the importance of having fun during an interview with Explore Big Sky. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Mittelstaedt moved from Gallatin Gateway to Big Sky when she was 6, and she’s been cross-country skiing for as long as she can remember. She finds freedom in fresh air, gliding across the snow as daylight wanes during practice. With her friend Maddy, they were once the youngest kids in the BSSEF Nordic program, and were called “the nuggets.”  

She’s now one of only three U16 athletes in the 70-athlete program, and she ranked eighth in the Inter-Mountain division. Mittelstaedt said qualifying for nationals is a big deal and it was her goal at the beginning of the season. But she’s trying not to think too much about it.  

“This year I’ve really been focusing on the fun aspect,” she said. “Last year it was getting too intense, and I was putting too much pressure on myself to place really well in the races. This is kind of like a bonus.” 

Coach Lange believed she could see a top-10 finish at Fairbanks, due to Mittelstaedt’s potential to break through in each of the three events which form a composite final score: a multiple-round 1.5-kilometer sprint, an individual race against the clock, and a mass-start. As a relatively new 14-year-old racer, Mittelstaedt hasn’t specialized in any event, Lange said.  

“On a good day if everything comes together, anything can happen,” she added. “In U16 it’s their first time racing—nobody can predict their results.” 

Lange said Mittelstaedt is strong, with a big motor that allows her to push a fast pace for a long time. 

“We try to have a smart training plan,” said Lange, a three-time NCAA champion and former pro. “Getting in distance when we can, getting in quality intensity when we can. It helps that she played soccer in the fall.” 

Mittelstaedt doesn’t do it for the racing, but loves the social aspect of the sport. Especially when the team travels, she befriends her opponents. She gave credit to her coaches, including Lange and Anna Fake who emphasized fun as the program’s main objective before the season.  

“I really do like pushing myself though,” she said. “At the start line, we’re always like, ‘why do we do this, this is horrible,’ but afterwards it’s always so fun—it always makes you feel so good.” 

Mittelstaedt said it’s hard to find the mental space to keep pushing her limit—she called it “the pain cave.” 

“You need to step across that mental line of holding back for your comfort… Half of the sport is mental. It takes a lot of preparation mentally to race,” Mittelstaedt said. 

Lange said Mittelstaedt’s best race of the winter was a mass-start, skate-style event in Bozeman. 

New to U16, she was seeded 100th without any experience with mass-start—a giant cluster at the start line. She passed 76 of her competitors, finishing 24th overall and sixth in her Inter-Mountain division, all while overcoming a crash. Lange called the performance “incredible.” 

Lange said Mittelstaedt has a good gliding classic stride, shown here from an event at Soldier Hollow, Utah. COURTESY OF LEAH LANGE

The Bozeman event was one of three Junior National Qualifier races she attended, with others in Boise, Idaho, and Soldier Hollow, Utah.  

“It’s really challenging to qualify for junior nationals, the field is big,” Lange said. “I think the skiers in [BSSEF’s] U14 and U12 age groups are driven, and will be ready [to qualify] when their time comes. I think BSSEF will have numbers qualifying and not just one. They really know how to work together.” 

At the recent Inter-Mountain Youth Championships—mostly U14 and younger athletes—in Soldier Hollow, BSSEF took first, third and fourth place in the downhill event; second, third and fourth in skate; first, third and fifth in classic. Lange gives credit to older kids for teaching younger athletes how to race, and she’s been excited to hear the team’s younger skiers asking about Hana.  

“They know her and totally look up to her,” Lange said. “She’s really nice to everyone around her.” 

Lange was chosen to coach the Inter-Mountain Division at nationals, so she’ll travel to Fairbanks where she competed in U16 junior nationals herself in 2013. If it’s the same race venue, Lange believes it will be a strong fit for Mittelstaedt’s racing style.  

“I really want to emphasize: My coaches are the best,” Mittelstaedt said. “They make me keep doing it, honestly. I would not be where I am today without them, and my friends also make it way more fun.” 

Mittelstaedt and Lange share smiles after practice in early March. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

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