By Mike Gorrell
The Salt Lake Tribune
MIDWAY - The road to becoming the U.S. national champion in the women's 15-kilometer race hasn't always been easy for cross country skier Rebecca Dussault. But at least it hasn't been lonely.
For the past three seasons, Dussault has been accompanied by her husband, Sharbel, and son, Tabor, almost 4, on a ski-racing odyssey that appears destined to take her to Italy for February's Turin Winter Olympics.
She solidified that prospect Tuesday by winning the 15-km freestyle race that kicked off the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Soldier Hollow. Her time of 46 minutes, 17.7 seconds was 2.4 seconds ahead of Morgan Arritola from Sun Valley and 13.6 seconds in front of Abigail Larson.
In the men's 30-km race, Russian Ivan Babikov blew away the field. He won in 1 hour, 25 minutes and 8.9 seconds, a full 1 minute and 45 seconds ahead of U.S. Ski Team member Andrew Johnson.
Since Babikov is not eligible to be U.S. champion (in fact, he is returning to Russia next week to try to make his national Olympic team), Johnson took the title for the second straight year. And it came on his 28th birthday. Carl Swenson, 35, of Park City, was next, followed by a disappointed Kris Freeman, who came into the race as the top-performing U.S. male.
Dussault said her win Tuesday showed "I'm back and fit again," a reference to her recovery from the chronic sinusitis that plagued her last year.
"It just zaps you," she said. "It makes your energy low and I had minor headaches. It just makes training hard and racing even harder. You can swing a golf club with a stuffy nose, but you can't Nordic ski."
Through those difficulties and the shock of being dropped from the U.S. Ski Team, which is focusing its meager resources on the men's team this Olympic season, Dussault took comfort in the presence of her family.
"It's been an up-and-down adventure," said Sharbel Dussault, who relies on e-mail and cell phones to run a tent-making business, Global Shelters, that his grandfather started in 1968 in Gunnison, Colo. "It's always difficult to keep everything balanced. But keeping our family together has been a big part of [gearing up for the Olympics], and Rebecca wouldn't have it any other way."
Devout Catholics, the Dussaults believe their faith has been an important factor in helping her overcome whatever physical and financial challenges arise. "We have a strong faith this is what God's will is for us," Sharbel Dussault said, "At least he hasn't closed any doors."
The only doors being shut Tuesday were by Babikov, who left everyone behind on the third of six 5-km laps at Soldier Hollow. "It just happened. Nobody else wanted to lead so I said, 'OK, I'll try,' " said the 25-year-old who trains in Canmore, Alberta and is applying for Canadian citizenship but still looks like a lock to make the Russian Olympic team for Turin. "Then I just skied by myself and tried to keep a good pace."
Although Johnson, Swenson and Freeman could not keep pace, U.S. Nordic Program Director Luke Bodensteiner said he was not disheartened by the results.
"It's good to have Ivan here so they know the level where they need to go," he said. "Andrew was tough today, Carl is coming into form and Kris just got tired. The heat [mid-40s at race time] is more difficult for him."
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