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Dougherty wins dual slalom

FLC gravity teams have strong showings at nationals
Fiona Dougherty of Fort Lewis College captured the dual slalom national title Friday at the USA Cycling Collegiate MTB National Championships at Purgatory Resort. (Cody Olivas/Durango Herald)

Fort Lewis College senior Fiona Dougherty had never reached the podium at the national championships before this year. On Friday, she won the female varsity national title in dual slalom.

“It’s super-exciting,” Dougherty said. “I came in with literally no expectations. My goal was to reach the round of eight.”

“She always had the potential, but maybe just got into her own head,” said FLC coach Chad Cheeney.

The gravity racer from Texas came to FLC as a cross-country rider. On a training ride, however, Cheeney descended behind Dougherty and saw her ripping up the trail.

“I told her, ‘You’re a crazy fast downhiller,’” Cheeney said.

Not long after that, Dougherty switched to racing downhill and dual slalom.

“That’s what makes our team so rad,” Cheeney said. “It’s easy to see where you are and what you want to become.”

“I switched to downhill because I got burned out (on cross-country), and I feel this new chapter was healthily built,” Dougherty said. “I love the Fort Lewis team so much. There’s so much focus on having fun and the athletes as a whole. The results come because we’re having fun and being passionate about it. That’s my favorite.”

To reach the dual slalom round-of-eight quarterfinals and her goal, Dougherty beat her opponent by 0.07 seconds. Then the pressure was off.

“My dual slalom coach Eric (Nelson) was keeping me focused on having fun,” she said. “I already beat my goal, so I might as well just send it.”

Dougherty said she kept “G-ing out” out on the turns, so Nelson told her let off her brakes 10% each round to help clear the double and keep her speed up.

“That last round was almost no braking,” she said. “It was a little scary, but it definitely helped. I was able to hit the doubles and it made it smoother.”

The adjustments proved to be a difference maker. She won her finals round by a combined 0.009 seconds over Emily Harris of Lindsey Wilson College. Dougherty won the first finals heat by thousands of a second as well so she figured she had to win the second heat to claim the title.

Dougherty rode fast up top, but made her winning move in the last 20 feet of the race.

“She was ahead of me until the last two gates,” Dougherty said. “Then I threw down a couple pedal strokes and was able to pass her.”

“I didn’t believe it at first,” she continued. “I saw the time difference and looked at my teammate and asked her, ‘did I do that?’ Then I fell to my knees. It was my first podium at nationals and to win it, it was a crazy feeling.”

“Fiona just got faster and faster as the night went on,” Cheeney said.

Kaia Jensen also reached the podium in fifth-place for FLC. Sadie Schafer wasn’t far behind and finished sixth, helping FLC score the most points on the dual slalom toward the team omnium championships.

In the men’s varsity dual slalom, Keanu Smith finished third for FLC and Cole Fiene finished fifth.

“This is the first year we had a dual slalom focused coach, and it made a huge difference,” Dougherty said. With the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic also building a dual slalom course at Chapman Hill, the city of Durango leaving it up and Durango BMX helping maintain it, the team could also practice racing dual slalom on actual course.

Dougherty said last year they practiced on the BMX track, but with the course at Chapman basically on campus, the riders would ride it on it even outside of practices.

“We really made a point to practice dual slalom and it showed,” Cheeney said. “That’s one of the best slaloms we’ve ever had as a program. We qualified everyone but one; that’s never happened. Usually half the team doesn’t make the bracket. A big thanks to Iron Horse, Durango BMX, (Durango) parks and rec and Chapman – we’ve got people in our corner helping us now. That’s why we’re so bad ass in cross-country – so many people are supporting us.”

Fort Lewis’ gravity riders carried the momentum they built on the dual slalom course into the downhill championships.

Four FLC women and two men reached the downhill podium, giving FLC the most team points in both of those races as well.

Jazlyn Smith of Colorado Mesa University won the downhill, finishing just 0.7 seconds ahead of Jensen. Jensen flew down World Cup in 4:42.39 and was joined on the podium by Ruth Holcomb (4:48.14), Dougherty (4:58.53) and Schafer (5:05.29). Olivia Salter finished 10th (5:20.29), and Hannah Sulas finished 11th (5:22.93).

Dougherty called the course “gnarly” and said there were eight did-not-starts in her division, meaning eight competitors didn’t want to race the track.

“This downhill is legendary,” Cheeney said Saturday. “People are shaking in their boots. It’s fast with relentless bumps and drops and chutes. It’s all steep, so there’s no break in the action.”

Ethan Wright had a standout performance for FLC, finishing second behind UCI World Cup competitor Matt Sterling of Colorado Mesa.

Wright, who is from Alabama, also came to FLC as a cross-country rider but switched to gravity. During the COVID year, Cheeney said Wright told him his goal was to win a national champion, and he nearly accomplished it.

“That’s pretty incredible,” Cheeney said about his second-place finish. “Most of the podium goes around the country and races pro downhills. (Our guys) just ride bikes.”

Sterling, who won dual slalom, also won the downhill title in 3:47.48. Wright (3:50.43) finished second, followed by teammates Smith (fourth, 3:55.32), Max Jackson (sixth, 3:59.69), Fiene (eighth, 4:01.10), Brandon Weir (ninth, 4:01.80) and Kye Cordes (14th, 4:08.51).