Unmatched work ethic leads to All-America finish at ski championships for Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Sortland
Natasha Sortland, a Zumbrota-Mazeppa senior, finished 10th in the 10-km freestyle at the 2023 US Ski & Snowboard Junior National Cross Country Ski Championship in Fairbanks, Alaska.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Odds are most people are going to have a different definition of fun than Natasha Sortland.
Especially when it comes to Nordic skiing.
"I just love going up the hills," Sortland said. "It's just like running and running up hills. It's a lot of fun. I don't know why, it's just exhilarating."
It's that mindset that has allowed the Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School senior to be so good as a long-distance runner in both cross country and track and field — sports she will continue at NCAA Division I Northeastern University in Boston. And it's one that also has made her one of the top high school female Nordic skiers in the country, even though she is still relatively just a few years into the sport.
It's thanks to a work ethic few can match.
"To compete at a high level in this sport you have to be training six or seven days a week and you have to go hard," Rochester Nordic Ski Team coach David Herbert said. "Natasha does all of this with a smile. You worry about kids handling it, you don't want them to get burnt out. But she just embraced and worked hard at it. It's really paid off. I'm kind of bummed she is done. I told her she has to go ski in college."
In the first weeks of the season, Sortland makes the 80-minute trek to Hyland Hills Ski Area in Bloomington, waking up at 4 a.m. to get in a quick workout on the man-made snow ski trails before a full day of school with a schedule that includes college classes.
For her, it's the equivalent of doing a morning meditation or yoga routine, receiving the same type of therapeutic benefits.
"I enjoyed those drives," Sortland said. "Super quiet. Nobody is on the roads and I would get there when the trails were super fresh. It was honestly, always a great start to the day. Really good for the mind. Like meditation honestly.
"... But I've made the commitment to myself. If I do Nordic skiing I want to make the most of it and prepare myself so I could be the best that I could be for this season."
It has all been worth it.
The latest evidence came this past weekend when Sortland competed at the 2023 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Junior National Cross Country Ski Championship at the Birch Hill Recreation Area in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of the Midwest Junior National Ski Team.
It's an event the top professional skiers, like St. Paul native and Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, used as high schoolers to reach the top of the sport.
To her own disbelief, Sortland found herself on the podium, fighting off single-digit temperatures to place 10th out of more than 80 of the top high school Nordic skiers from across the country in the freestyle skate on March 16. It classified her as an All-American.
She still is wrapping her head around it.
"It's crazy," Sortland said, "when I first started in the eighth-grade, I couldn't move 10 feet without falling."
Yet, Sortland's All-America finish almost didn't happen as her spot on the team was anything but guaranteed. But the last month of the season, she found her groove and fully cemented her status on Team Midwest with a second-place finish in the classic mass start at the 2023 Mayor's XC Ski Challenge in Minneapolis on Feb. 19. It's another effort she has a hard time putting into words.
"I was honestly in shock the whole race and afterwards," Sortland said with a laugh.
Sortland then soon found herself with her 20-plus other teammates on the Midwest Junior National Ski Team on a flight to Fairbanks for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with sky-high confidence.
What made it even a bit sweeter was the fact that she wasn't the only Rochester-area participant. Sortland was joined by Lourdes sophomore and 16-year-old Anna Peikert, who turned in a pair of top-40 finishes in the U-18 division. It seems it's only a matter of time until Peikert records an All-America placement as well.
"She has the best form that I have ever seen," Sortland said. "Like honestly, I stick behind her in practice, so I can just try to copy her."
Now for Sortland, it's time for the track season — the last chapter of her illustrious prep career.
"It's crazy to think my high school career is almost over," Sortland said. "But I'm excited for whatever's next."