Trip to NCAAs highlights ski season for Meredith's Hart
|Meredith’s Leah Hart competes in the NCAA Championship meet for St. Lawrence University at Stowe, Vt. earlier this month. The Inter-Lakes graduate capped off an outstanding season with a 17th place performance in the 5K Freestyle. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)|
March 28, 2011MEREDITH – Leah Hart knows she's come a long way since she started her Nordic skiing career as a freshman at Inter-Lakes High School in 2004. After trading in her basketball shoes for cross-country skis and poles following years of downhill skiing, the Meredith native has blossomed into a standout at St. Lawrence University, where she qualified and competed in her first NCAA Championship meet earlier this month.
"The winters in New Hampshire were just too beautiful to be spent inside," said Hart of her decision to switch from hoop to skiing. "I had been downhill skiing all my life and enjoyed running, so making the move towards Nordic was an obvious one."
While she now skis at some of the top trails in the northeast, Hart remembers the experiences she went through during her time at I-L and how they helped guide her towards a successful collegiate career in the sport.
"Skiing at Inter-Lakes was always an adventure," she explained. "Long muddy bushwhacks, swamp skis and general exploration was expected at practice. A successful practice used every minute of daylight.
"I owe a lot to (I-L coach Steve) Olafsen and my teammates throughout the years," she continued. "Not only did they teach me to ski, but they showed me the true value of having an adventurous spirit. I decided I wanted to continue to ski in college because of my love for beautiful winter outings with kindred spirits. I found my passion for skiing at Inter-Lakes and I often think back on how the blustery skis at the Sandwich Fairgrounds introduced me to the Nordic skiing world."
After capturing the Division IV state championship in both the skate and classic races during her outstanding senior season for the Lakers, Hart chose St. Lawrence University, located in Canton, N.Y. The Saints have an enrollment of just over 2,000 students.
"I chose to go to St. Lawrence because it is a small liberal arts college in the northeast with a strong dedication to community and relatively outdoor-oriented," said Hart of its upstate N.Y. environment. "The biology department and facilities are top-quality and I could ski on the team. The enthusiasm of the students and pride of the campus hooked me."
While the junior biology major found some difficulties adjusting to the collegiate ski scene initially, she turned those experiences into success in a very short amount of time.
"I've learned so much over these past three years," she admitted. "I remember my first carnival race not knowing how to warm up or when to go to the start. I was nervous about how hard I could push myself in a race. This year I had complete confidence in my athletic capacities; I felt fit, focused, and self-assured. I feel like I matured as an athlete and no longer worry about how to perform best on race day."
This season saw Hart develop into the top skier on the St. Lawrence squad, as she qualified for the NCAA Championship meet held in Stowe, Vt. March 9-11. Competing against the top collegiate skiers in the country, Hart finished 17th in the 5K Freestyle and 33rd in the 15K Classic.
"This was surely one of Leah's strongest races of the season," said SLU head coach Ethan Townsend after Hart's showing in the freestyle. "It's great to see her competing at this level and we're proud of the way she represented the program."
Hart felt prepared entering her junior season thanks largely to hard work put in during the off-season spent in New Hampshire.
"I came into the season after a hard summer of training in the White Mountains," she recalled. "I found a level of motivation within myself that I didn't know existed. Skiing was on the forefront of my mind this past year and I'm happy to see that the focus paid off well beyond my expectations."
When NCAAs rolled around after a stellar carnival season, Hart took in the full experience, as the familiar location of the Vermont trails made the trip even more memorable.
"Making NCAAs was incredible," she said. "Before the season started, I didn't think I would even be in contention for making it. The race was in Stowe this year which is a course I have skied a lot and is also not at elevation as it was last year in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"It was nice to have this sort of home course advantage," she continued. "This gave me confidence while skiing against the best collegiate skiers in the country. The camaraderie and spirit of the event was the highlight though. Everyone at the event logged hundreds of training hours, skied in the rain, and was 100-percent dedicated to the sport. I felt honored to be among such an elite group of competitors."
With her junior year winding down and her senior campaign looming in the near future, Hart, who was named captain for the 2011 season, will look to continue her ascent up the NCAA ladder.
"I am so thrilled to have one more year to ski, knowing my potential to compete at a national level," she said. "I hope to make NCAAs again and just enjoy being part of the competitive atmosphere for another year."