For the past two seasons, Mads Stroem and Rune Oedegaard were living shadows of one another for the University of Colorado ski team.
If Stroem was setting the pace in a particular Nordic event, chances are Oedegaard was directly on his heels. And whenever Oedegaard won an event, Stroem often was trailing in his wake across the finish line.
Oedegaard, however, is gone now, leaving Stroem without the partner in competition who helped lead the junior from Norway to new heights while working together to lead the Buffaloes to the 2015 NCAA championship — the 20th in program history.
As CU opens the 2016 season this coming week at the Utah Invitational, Stroem will be one of the athletes tasked with keeping the Buffs among the nation's elite in what could be another banner season for the highly decorated program. Not only will CU be aiming to defend its national title, but the Buffs also will be racing toward their third title in four years and fourth in sixth years when the NCAA finals are held in March in Steamboat Springs.
"I think Steamboat is a huge factor in our motivation this year," Stroem said. "We're hosting, we want to go back-to-back. For me, coming into the NCAAs as maybe the favorite and then waking up with a sore throat and ended up second. ...I really wanted to win last year. This year, I really want to win at Steamboat at home. That's what we're going to use as motivation this year."
After winning the NCAA 20K championship as a freshman in 2014, Stroem placed second in the 20K at the national final last season while finishing fourth in the 10K. Stroem enters the season having placed fourth or better in 21 of 22 races through his first two collegiate seasons.
Of course, Stroem did much of his damage last season skiing alongside Oedegaard, finishing as the runner-up five times in races won by his former teammate. Stroem admits the duo routinely pushed one another to the brink of their limits, but believes he is ready for a bigger leadership role in 2015.
"It's going to be interesting, for sure," Stroem said. "The two of us, pretty much in a normal day would go one-two, just switching it up. We had five wins each and pretty much five second-places each. We roomed together for two years, and you have days when you're not on top but he has his best game and you get motivated to put in those hours. We were pretty similar in that way.
"We have a couple new people on the team and overall I think we're as strong as last year, hopefully. I know a lot of weight is on my shoulders, but I think that's cool, too. We have a new guy Petter (Reistad) who is a really good skier too."
Of course, Stroem hardly is the only talented athlete returning to what should once again be a loaded Buffaloes team. The alpine lineup is set to include two men's skiers who placed in the top 20 at nationals in both the slalom and giant slalom — Henrik Gunnarsson and Kasper Hietanen — in addition to Adam Zika, who placed 13th in the slalom.
On the women's side, CU welcomes back a pair of athletes who placed in the top 20 in both downhill events in seniors Thea Grosvold and Jessica Honkonen.
"The (team) push each other in good ways," head coach Richard Rokos said. "It's family-oriented, but the competition is always there, regardless if it's alpine or Nordic."