Jasper Johnston is fast on skis.
But the Ely junior found an even quicker way to travel on snow a few years ago when he tried sled-dog racing, competing in the 120-mile Junior Beargrease.
“It was a really good experience and I will be sure to remember that for a very long time,” said Johnston, who started sled-dog racing as a seventh grader before quitting to focus more on skiing. “Once I get out of college, that’s definitely something I’d like to get back into.”
From racing with dogs to racing with Timberwolves, Johnston hopes to make more memories at the state Nordic ski meet Friday at Giants Ridge.
The Section 7 champion is back on the course that he manhandled a week ago when he posted a sub-14:00 time in the 5-kilometer freestyle race and a section-best 14-minute, 41-second time in the 5K classical pursuit.
Johnston is seeking a top-five individual finish at state while at the same time helping the Timberwolves vie for a top-four team placement.
“If I put down a time that fast or ski at my best, I should be right up with those top few skiers,” he said.
Ely coach Paula Anderson agrees.
“If Jasper has a good day, he’ll be right there,” she said. “There’s 10 boys ranked, and everyone figures you can toss their names in the air and see which one lands because they are all quite fast.”
Johnston lost to Grand Rapids’ Sam Stertz at the beginning of the season, a defeat he says has motivated him the rest of the way. He beat Stertz by a half-minute at sections.
“After that race, I was really thinking about going into the next race more prepared and focused,” Johnston said of his one defeat this season.
Anderson is in her 22nd year as head coach and has been with the program since it began in the early 1990s. She was neither surprised nor concerned about the December loss.
“He gets faster as the season goes on,” she said. “He starts out a little slower at the beginning of the season, then gets faster, faster and faster. Then, for a fairly long time, once he reaches his racing form he can hold that and a lot of kids don’t hold it as long. That’s a really good characteristic to have.
“I have found through experience that when you’re really fast in December, you aren’t necessarily going to be fast right now. It’s hard to maintain that unless you are in another league.”
Johnston says it all comes down to his training regimen that he follows year-round.
“I have been following my training plan really well and just doing the little things that make you a little bit faster,” he said.
Anderson runs an organized training program for eight weeks in the summer, with eight sessions per week and a minimum of two hours per training session. Many skiers, like Johnston, run cross country in the fall and track in the spring and then work on ski techniques during the winter.
“They come in pretty fit when I get them,” the coach said.
In addition to the high school races, Johnston has competed in three Junior National Qualifiers this season and has one more scheduled next week. He was the top U-18 finisher at a 10K individual start skate race at Mount Itasca. He skied at junior nationals a year ago in Anchorage, Alaska, and qualified again with his win in Grand Rapids.
That’s despite attending one of the smallest Minnesota schools that offers Nordic skiing. Ely takes pride that it challenges, and often beats, some of the state’s largest schools.
“That always feels good,” Anderson said. “One year somebody said (of a vanquished opponent), ‘Their school is bigger than our town.’ ”
Johnston agrees that’s a motivating factor in doing well.
“Going up against the biggest schools in the state, when we beat them a lot of the time it feels really good,” he said.
Predicted sub-zero temperatures forced the postponement of the race from Thursday until Friday. One might expect Northland skiers would have a slight advantage in the cold weather. “We’re more used to it than I would guess some of the people from the Twin Cities,” Anderson said. “We know how to deal with it.”
The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys qualified for the first time in a generation, while Grand Rapids’ Stertz is on the short list of individuals to watch.
The Section 7-champion Duluth East girls, led by section winner Gretchen Haggenmiller, head up the Northland contingent that includes section runner-up Ely (with individual runner-up Zoe Devine) and Grand Rapids’ Elsa Viren.
PREP NEWSMAKER: JASPER JOHNSTON
Prep status: Ely junior
Sports: Nordic skiing, cross-country running, track
School activities: National Honor Society, Student Council
Family: Father, Jerritt; mother, Molly; sister, Rena, 13
Pets: Shylo, a mixed-breed dog
College plans: Study forestry or natural resources and ski at an undetermined school
FACE-TO-FACE WITH JASPER JOHNSTON
If I could meet one person — dead or alive — who would it be? Norwegian Olympic skier Johannes Klaebo
One thing people don’t know about me: I used to compete in sled-dog racing
My ideal vacation: Norway
The toughest course I’ve competed on: Giants Ridge
If I had a million dollars, I would: Buy a house with a hobby farm
Fear or phobia: Snakes
Favorite home-cooked meal: Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs (eats the night before every race)
One thing at the top of my bucket list: Set canoeing speed record for border route in the Boundary Waters
Favorite musical group: The Lumineers
Game-day superstition: Eat oatmeal on the team bus about four hours before a race
Last website I visited: Skinnyski.com
Social media of choice: Instagram
Favorite team: Green Bay Packers
Dream job: Wildland firefighter