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Tom Kelly, Provided by USSA
Kevin Bolger (Minocqua, Wis.) of the University of Utah wins gold in the classic sprint at the L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center near Midway, Utah.
I’ve had cold hands before. Usually, once the starter shoots the gun, it’s kind of full-on, and I’m not really thinking about much else but racing. I didn’t realize there was a problem until about 3 (kilometers) left. —Kevin Bolger

SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin Bolger knew his hands were cold.

But then, the lifelong cross-country skier had plenty of experience with weather-related discomfort.

“I’ve had cold hands before,” Bolger said. “Usually, once the starter shoots the gun, it’s kind of full-on, and I’m not really thinking about much else but racing. I didn’t realize there was a problem until about 3 (kilometers) left.”

The Wisconsin native is also not one to let anything, even pain, distract or derail him from a goal.

“He’s an extremely affable, rather calm, very nice individual,” said Utah director of skiing Kevin Sweeney. “The one thing I think he really has a great talent for is when he turns on his game face, or gets into that pre-race protocol, you know a switch is flipped and he’s an incredibly focused individual. I think that’s why he got into trouble in Alaska because … he’d made a commitment to that race, and not only for himself but really more so for the team.”

The senior captain for Utah’s nordic team was racing in his last competition of the week-long meet in Girdwood, Alaska, in early February, and he hoped to finish the 20-kilometer race the same way he’d finished his other events this season — on the podium.

“It was the one race of the season, I finished off the podium,” said the Utah senior. “I was fourth. I was still really happy with the performance, though.”

Very quickly, it became clear that there was a much bigger issue than missing out on a medal for the first time this winter.

“I looked at my hands out of my gloves, and I was like, ‘My hands are frozen,’” he recalled. “But I didn’t really think that much about it, like I didn’t think about frostbite or anything. They were just really, really cold.” He crossed the finish line and sought help from Utah’s athletic trainer.

“I couldn’t take my skis off,” he said. “I still didn’t think it was anything like frostbite, so I took my gloves off and my hands were completely white. I was like, ‘Whoa!’”

Bolger was told to warm his hands slowly, so he wrapped them in a jacket. As they thawed, it became clear that he’d suffered frostbite.

“It was painful at first,” he said. “But I thought, in like three or four hours, I’m going to be fine. I didn’t think it was going to be close to a three-week process with a giant question mark on my season.” That question mark remains, despite the fact that the senior, who was enjoying the best season of his nordic career is planning to compete with his teammates in the NCAA Championships this week in New Hampshire.

Bolger, who was named Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RIMSA) MVP with two wins and six podiums this season, as well as a U.S. National Championship victory, wears gloves that protect his hands and hide the red, raw and peeling skin. On the eve of his final opportunity at an NCAA national championships, his hands still look swollen and sore.

“It’s still a question,” he admitted of whether it will be warm enough to allow him to compete this week. “I do have to make a decision depending on if it’s warm enough or not. It could impact my life further down the road if I make the wrong decision. My hands are just vulnerable right now.”

That decision is made more complicated by Bolger’s success this season, which included winning his first U.S. National title in January.

“I won U.S. Nationals sprint race this year,” he said of the races that were held in Midway in January. “That was a giant motivator. That was one of those things that showed me I can compete with those athletes. … When I did win the U.S. Nationals, it wasn’t a goal of mine. I wanted to go there. I wanted to race strong. But I wasn’t prepping to race fast there like a lot of the skiers are.”

It isn’t just the possibility of an NCAA championship that Bolger has to consider. He’s hoping this winter is more of a launch pad for his dreams rather than a final chapter.

“I’m going to make a big push, absolutely, to try and make (the 2018 Olympic team),” he said. “It will take a jump in my training. I’ll have to refocus, set different goals, and obviously, it’s different than collegiate skiing.”

Sweeney said the season has been successful, in large part because of the leadership of his seniors and the willingness to work and adapt of his new skiers. Just whether or not the season will exceed his expectations remains to be seen this week.

As for Bolger, however, Sweeney said he’s accomplished more than expected this winter.

“I would say he’s exceeded it,” Sweeney said. “You know, that’s the irony of what happened with the frostbite and literally the potential of him not being able to go to the championships because he’s exceeded my expectations in being one of the top-ranked skiers from the west in both disciplines.”

Bolger hasn’t just competed in both classic and freestyle, he’s skied his way onto the podium – regardless of discipline.

“It’s not that common because you tend to see somebody who is a little more of a specialist in one or the other,” Sweeney said. “For Kev to come in and be as balanced and able to strike in both disciplines has been quite an accomplishment.”

Utah’s skiers begin their quest for NCAA glory on Wednesday with men’s and women’s giant slalom. Nordic hits the snow Thursday with 5K classic and men’s 10K classic. The races conclude Saturday with men's 20-kilometer and women's 15-kilometer freestyle races.

Of the 12 skiers representing the Utes in New Hampshire, two are defending NCAA title holders — slalom champ Julie Mohagen and men’s giant slalom champ Endre Bjertness.

Utah hopes to better it’s third place finish from the last two seasons, and in order for that to happen, the team’s leaders, Bolger and Natalia Muller, who earned All-American honors last year in freestyle, will need to lead their younger counterparts to some of their best results of the season.

“I think (this year) has been very positive,” Sweeney said. “And I do attribute that to leadership, and you know, to the younger athletes being open minded. … I think we’re set up for a good performance.”