The Durango sports community brought home yet another national championship this week.
Local cross country skier Tad Elliott won his fourth overall title when he won the 2016 U.S. Cross Country Freestyle championship in the men’s 30-kilometer race Jan. 7 in Houghton, Michigan.
Elliott, a 2007 graduate of Durango High School and son of Mike and Nancy Elliott, edged U.S. Olympian Brian Gregg for the top spot with a time of 1 hour, 20 minutes, 31.6 seconds. Gregg was right behind him with a time of 1:20:41.2.
“I was in position to win and decided to go for it,” Elliott said Friday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I was pretty lifted. I could only dream of a top-five performance at nationals.”
Elliott, who races for the Vail Ski and Snowboard Club, passed Gregg with 2.6 kilometers left in the race. The Durango native knew Gregg historically is a strong closer, so there was no letting up even when the win was within reach.
“You can’t think you won the race until you cross the line,” Elliott said. “I was very stressed when finishing because I was thinking he was going to pass me.”
The win was Elliott’s fourth overall national championship in his career. He previously won titles in the 50K, 30K and 15K from 2010-2012.
The special performance fell on the same day as his mother’s birthday. It also came on the heels of a battle against mononucleosis that kept him out of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. Mononucleosis is a viral disease that is commonly caused by the Epstein-Barr virus that causes severe headaches, fever, extreme fatigue, muscle soreness and swollen glands.
After his 15K win in 2012, Elliott became ill during fall 2013 while training to qualify for the Olympics. The virus kept him out of commission for the next nine months. The road back to recovery was long and grueling, but Elliott came back with a vengeance.
“There were a lot of hospital visits,” he said. “There was not a lot of good health.”
Being out of competition for nearly a year, Elliott wasn’t on anyone’s radar before the race. He started 40th but took the field by storm. Once healthy, Elliott trained hard in Durango. He knew he was in top shape going into Thursday, so his confidence was high.
“I knew I was in my best form,” he said “I thought I could be in the mix, and, as the race progressed, I knew that I was feeling awesome. I knew I had my skis faster than everyone around me, and that’s when I started to believe that I could win.”
The win couldn’t have come without his family influence and team support. Elliott credited his win to Vail Ski and Snowboard coach Eric Pepper and twin brother Evan Elliott, who is the development coach for the Vail Ski and Snowboard team.
Both coaches tested the course before the race, which turned out to be a difference-maker.
“To prove to all the people who have had faith in me has been pretty neat to deliver,” Elliott said. “It felt like a huge team win.”
Over 1,000 miles away, the rest of Elliott’s family was carefully watching via webcast. Elliott paid a post-win tribute to his mother on her birthday by picking up some snow and blowing it to the camera as if he was blowing out candles.
“We were getting text messages from friends and his twin brother,” Mike Elliott said. “We were pleasantly surprised that he came back so strongly. He said that he felt so good. The opportunity came, and then he went for it.”
Cross country skiing has always been part of Elliott’s life. His father is the former director of Rocky Mountain Nordic and a three-time Olympic cross country skier who competed in the 1964 Innsbruck Games, the 1968 Grenoble Games and the 1972 Sapporo Games.
Elliott credited his father for giving him good genetics. The elder Elliott bashfully disagreed.
“He’s put in the work, he’s trained smart, he’s developed on his own,” Mike Elliott said. “He’s very thorough.”
Paige Elliott, the youngest of the family, also was exposed to skiing at an early age. Paige went on to ski at Dartmouth College and is currently active in the Durango community as a coach for the Durango Nordic Ski Club.
Elliott, 27, splits time between Durango and Vail as he trains. He currently is traveling to Vermont to train for two more cross country races: the Lake Placid Loppet on Feb. 21 and the Stowe Derby on Feb. 28.
Other Durangoans who finished in the 2016 U.S. Cross Country Championships were Rogan Brown, who finished 24th in the 30K in 1:24:41.0; Cully Brown, who placed fourth in the junior 10K in 26:38.0; and Katja Freeburn, who took 38th in the junior 5K in 16:35.0.