ROCHESTER, Minn. -- This is not going to be a cross-country ski season that Rochester native and 2022 Winter Olympics hopeful Ian Torchia will look back upon with fondness.

Except for the final part.

And even that will be a mixed memory. He finished as a champion Sunday, Feb. 28, in one of the country’s biggest Nordic ski races of the year — the American Birkebeiner classic-style race in Hayward, Wis. — but it felt like a near-death experience.

Still, the Rochester Lourdes and Northern Michigan graduate will take it.

“It was the cherry on top of a (bad) year,” said the 24-year-old. “But it was a great way to end an otherwise disappointing season. Now, it’s going to be time to reset and recover.”

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

The recovery might take a while. It was that gutting of a 43K race, done in near-blizzard conditions and one where Torchia made a massive mistake.

He allowed an offered “Coke feed” to slip through his grasp with 10K to go, then didn’t do anything about it. Somehow, he won anyway, though he’ll reflect back on his “wave off” of quickly pursuing that Coke again as one of the two or three biggest mistakes of his life.

“A teammate’s dad offered me a Coke feed, but I dropped it,” Torchia said. “But I was feeling good at the time, so I waved him off (when the man offered to retrieve it for him). Then, about a minute later, I realized I should have gone back and gotten it. My body started bonking.“

“Bonking” is Nordic ski and any endurance-sport wordage for a person’s body completely breaking down, glucose carbohydrates drained from so much exertion.

An exhausted Ian Torchia is interviewed after winning the classic race of the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., on Sunday. (Copywright American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)
An exhausted Ian Torchia is interviewed after winning the classic race of the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., on Sunday. (Copywright American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

All of Torchia’s fuel had departed. Or at least it sure felt like it.

“When you feel that, you just want to go in a snowbank and lay down,” he said. “It’s so bad, it makes you want to cry.”

That’s especially true when you’ve experienced what Torchia has this season, falling short of his goals in advance of trying to earn a spot on the 2022 Winter Olympics U.S. Nordic Ski team. And then this “bonking” happened with a win seemingly right in front of him.

Torchia’s season of disappointments included what happened on Saturday, with him competing in the Nordic ski skate-style competition of the American Birkebeiner. Torchia, a Nordic ski NCAA champion in 2018 at Northern Michigan, finished second in the Birkebeinier skate race last year. It left him with a firm goal heading into this year’s skate, and that was to win it.

He wound up not coming close, cramping in the final portion of the race and finishing fifth. Torchia’s mood sank to a new low.

“I’d made it my goal to win it,” he said. “I came in with a lot of expectations. I should have learned my lesson by now, to not come in with expectations. But I was really discouraged afterward. It’s been a really disappointing season, because I know what I’m capable of. But after (Saturday’s race) was done, my fiancée (Kameron Burmeister) and my coach (Patrick O’Brien) helped me refocus my mental state.”

Big winner

Torchia found himself focused and energized enough on Sunday to have separated himself from the pack with a little more than half the race to go.

“I was feeling pretty good, but then it started really snowing,” he said.

Pushing through it became grueling. Then pushing through it following the Coke “wave off” made things infinitely worse. With 7K left, Torchia was so debilitated that he thought he was about to pass out. He didn’t, in good part because he wasn’t going to let himself.

This season had fallen so short of his wishes, but now here he was, the clear leader in one of the biggest races of the year. It was his race to win, if he could just keep moving.

Ian Torchia gasps for breath after winning the American Birkebeiner on Sunday in Hayward, Wis. (Copyright American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)
Ian Torchia gasps for breath after winning the American Birkebeiner on Sunday in Hayward, Wis. (Copyright American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

So he did, all while being drained at a level he’d never experienced before.

Torchia hung on. He’d built such an early lead that despite him creeping through the final few kilometers, he was first to cross the finish line, in 2 hours, 39 minutes — 7 minutes faster than anyone else.

He immediately collapsed to the ground, the sky seeming to spin above him.

Quickly, race conductors roared to his side, ready with a bunch of food offerings. There was no way Torchia would wave them off this time.

“I was eating everything they gave me, left and right — doughnuts, a Clif Bar, root beer,” Torchia said.