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Finishing kick wins it for Fiala

Thirty kilometres of racing the trails of Otway Nordic Centre was not nearly enough for Nikki Kassel.
Rivers Loppet
Nikki Kassel, left, poses with Tony Fiala after they won their respective divisions at last year's Stride & Glide Sports Spirit of the Rivers Loppet at Otway Nordic Centre. Kassel won gold Saturday at the Masters World Cup cross-country skiing championships in Beitstolen, Norway. The Caledonia Nordic Ski Club will host its annual loppet starting Sunday at 10 a.m.

Thirty kilometres of racing the trails of Otway Nordic Centre was not nearly enough for Nikki Kassel.

By the time she crossed the finish line first overall in the female open 30km class in Sunday's Stride & Glide Sports Spirit of the Rivers Loppet, Kassel was just getting warmed up. While other racers were still finishing she went back out on the slopes for a 20km cool-down.

For anyone who knows the 41-year-old Kassel, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Last week at the Lakes Loppet in Burns Lake, she won the women's 50km race and couldn't help but wish there had been more distance in the Prince George loppet.

"I wanted to ski 50, that's my specialty and the conditions were awesome," said Kassel, who is healthy again after being hampered by knee problems that plagued her for two years. "Thirty is not long enough. I found at about 25K I finally got my legs. I feel almost like I'm flailing for the first 20K.

"I'm just happy to be back skiing, so hopefully it continues and I can get back into it."

Kassel coverd the 30km distance in one hour 25 minutes 34.2 seconds. Shar Ballogh was second overall in the women's 30km (1:28:25.4) and Angela Wheeler of Vanderhoof posted the third-fastest time (1:37:22.1).

Tony Fiala, a two-time Olympic biathlete originally from 100 Mile House, showed there's no rust gathering under his feet at age 49. He won a photo-finish at the line over teenaged speedster Alex Nemethy of Vanderhoof to claim the fastest 30km male skier title, clocking 1:21:51.2, just ahead of Nemethy (1:21:51.7).

"The snow conditions were awesome and it was nice skiing with Alex because he's a bit younger so I kind of showed him a few things during the race to increase his speed," said Fiala, who won three races in his category at the Canadian masters ski championships three weeks ago in Kamloops. "He's an amazing athlete and he has a good future ahead of him."

Two years ago in the same race, Fiala ended up second overall, one-tenth of a second behind David Zurevinski of Vanderhoof. Last year he lost another close race to then-Caledonia Nordic Ski Club coach Andrew Casey, arriving 6.4 seconds behind him.

Nemethy led most of Sunday's race. But all those years of experience in World Cups and Olympic competitions taught Fiala how to win races and he had enough left in the tank to pass Nemethy, who will attend the University of Victoria next fall to study engineering on a track and field/cross county running scholarship.

"He passed me maybe 200 metres back there and I tried to stay on his heels and he beat me by half a ski length at the end," said Nemethy, who turns 18 today. "He's one of those guys who really pushes me, right with me all the time and he'll make me work hard if I'm going to win it. I've been training quite a bit, putting lots of kilometres in. This is probably my last ski race for the next couple years. There's no snow in Victoria."

Mike Smith was the third-quickest male in the 30km distance (1:25:09.1)

Other category winners were: 30km - Male 60+: Lauri Karjaluoto, 1:33:13.9; Male classic technique: Will Andal, 1:45:31.6.

15km - Female rec: Lynda Foreman, 50:00.3; Female 17-and-under: Sadie Bialuski, 52:59.9; Female classic: Terra Young, 1:15:5.2; Male rec: Matt Brown, 44:30.1; Male 17-and-under: Damian Georgyev, 52:26.2; Male classic: Gord Horning, 1:08:37.6.

7.5km - Female rec: Kaia Andal, 19:43.8; Female 13-and-under: Danika Fiala, 22:46.2; Male rec: Nick Veeken, 37:52.5.

2.5km - Female 10-and-under: Aliah Turner, 13:23.0; Male 10-and-under: Bjorn van Geloven, 21:19.4; Skier with a bunny: Chelton Van Geloven, 13:07.3.