Heading into the NCAA Championships this week, the defending national champion University of Colorado ski team has a number of weapons in its arsenal. On the men's Alpine side, the coaches will look for a strong performance from freshman Ola Johansen, who has been a driving force for his team all season.

After placing first in the giant slalom at the Utah Invitational and New Mexico Invitational and only missing a spot on the podium twice this season, the Norway native was named the men's Apine MVP in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association.

"I think we were surprised," CU head coach Richard Rokos said. "I didn't think that he would be in that league. But being first in that league is very respectable and it is a good feeling for team, for school, for everybody. It's a confidence-builder and something to kind of support your planning."

Johansen and the Buffs will look to add another national title to their résumé starting Wednesday with the giant slalom races on their home snow in Steamboat Springs. The four-day competition continues through Saturday.

Coming into his collegiate career, Johansen, 22, added a wide range of experience to the team. Before his transition to the United States, Johansen skied for a variety of teams and competitions, including the Norwegian national team (2013-15), the Doenski Alpine program in high school, FIS races (since 2008), the World Cup and the European Cup.

"It was, of course, more serious on the national team and they were more professional than the FIS circuits," Johansen said. "And then coming to college was also very competitive and serious, but you do it for the team, very similar to the national team.


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"When I did the World Cup and the Europe Cup it was, of course, a little bit higher level from U.S. races, but at the top, college is a high level as well. If you want to win a college race, you have to be the fastest man. "

Johansen had a little adjusting to do this season after finishing his last season with a back injury. But with the help of his new coaches and team, he got back on track in no time.

"He was on the injuries a little bit last year, so for him it was just steady progress in terms of building physical confidence in terms of little issues with his back," Rokos said. "We needed to take it easy on some part and adapt to it, but did not compromise too much, and I think he's right where he needs to be."

Since he's been able to recover fully from the injury, Johansen has showed up consistently for the men's team and scored no lower than fourth place in races he's competed in. Heading into nationals, he said he's happy with where he's at and is hoping for the best this week.

"I feel pretty good. Of course, there is a little more pressure, but I just have to think of it more as a normal race and do the same thing. My job is not different than any other race," Johansen said.

In addition to Johansen, other CU skiers to watch in the Alpine events include

Max Luukko and Henrik Gunnarsson on the men's side and Tonje Trulsrud and Nora Christensen for the women.

"The whole men's Alpine team is doing remarkably well," Rokos said. "They actually placed top three in New Mexico — one, two, three — so all three guys are considered in the first group. The women are a little bit behind, but only by just a hair, and I'm hoping we can keep those girls top 10."

Injury update

Jessica Honkonen, one of CU's top Alpine skiers, suffered a knee injury during training over the weekend and will not be competing in nationals.

"It was pretty sad," Johansen said. "Jessica is a pretty strong skier and, of course, you don't want anyone to get an ACL injury. I hope she can recover fast. But we've got some good other skiers, so I don't think it will be a problem for the championship."

Alissa Noe: noea@dailycamera.com