RUMFORD — Sylvan Ellefson wrapped his arms around U.S. Nordic Ski Team peers Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman.
Together, they posed for one of those photos that will go well with beverages and free time at a reunion banquet in about 50 years. And nobody would have been surprised if there had been a second opportunity for posterity's sake on the Black Mountain podium an hour or two later.
As it turned out, the traveling companions and training partners just missed that clean sweep.
Ellefson, an NCAA All-American during his career at Bates College, collected his first career bronze medal at the U.S. Cross Country championships in Thursday’s 15-kilometer freestyle skate.
“This is just what I wanted to do,” Ellefson said. “One of my big goals for the year was to do well in this event today.”
Elliott, 23, took home the gold, winning a national title for the third straight year. He was 50K champion in 2010 and won the 30K freestyle here a year ago.
Hoffman led at multiple checkpoints but missed a medal when Matt Liebsch’s finishing kick earned him the silver.
The top four finishers were separated by just over 13 seconds.
“For most of the race, the split times I was getting were saying I was third and that my teammates were first and second,” Elliott said. “Our coach was cheering so hard at that point. That would have been unbelievable.”
Each man employed a different strategy during his four laps around the Broomhall Stadium loop.
Hoffman opted for the quick start. Elliott eyed a late charge. And Ellefson — outfitted in the yellow bib symbolic of a leader or prerace favorite — maintained an air of calm and consistency.
“I’ve been trying to ski into these races,” Ellefson said. “My legs were a little fatigued at the end, but I feel like my body was up to the task.”
Ellefson, 24, of Vail, Colo., finished fourth in Tuesday’s 1.6-kilometer sprint.
The 2009 Bates graduate cracked the top-10 in multiple events at the 2011 nationals. He followed that with wins at the Boulder Mountain Tour and Owl Creek Chase.
“This is the best competition around, right here,” Ellefson said. “The only thing better is competing in Europe.”
Black Mountain harbors even more comforts of home for Ellefson than you might imagine.
Even though the Bates campus is an hour away, these were the trails Ellefson used for practice and home meets.
“I love the course. People who aren’t familiar with courses are coming in just a little bit more tentative,” Ellefson said. “I came in with a lot of confidence from having skied here so many years.”
Athletes left the starting station in 15-second intervals, but computerized scoring helped build the drama throughout.
At the halfway point, Ellefson unofficially trailed Hoffman by nine seconds and led Elliott by five.
“My strategy was to go as hard as I could the first lap, then settle in and kind of hammer it out on the final lap,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s time of 30:18.8 edged the fast-closing Liebsch (30:21.4). Ellefson (30:25.9) and Hoffman (30:32.2) followed.
“I kept hearing that I was anywhere from first to fourth the whole race, so I knew it was really close,” Ellefson said.
Nils Koons of Sidney, a Dartmouth College product, was the top Maine finisher in 16th.
Close wasn’t the buzzword in the women’s 10K.
Jessie Diggins backed up her victory in Tuesday’s sprint with a dominating performance, collapsing face first from exhaustion about 20 yards past the finish line,
Imagine how her competition felt. Diggins (24:56.3) finished more than a minute ahead of runner-up Daria Gaiazova.
“I’m only 20 years old, so I don’t come to an event like this feeling pressure to defend a title or anything,” Diggins said. “I just try to take it year by year, race by race.”
Caitlin Gregg picked up the bronze.
Two Maine women placed in the top 15. Clare Egan of Cape Elizabeth was 11th. Lucy Garrec of Freeport finished 15th.
Another Cape skier, 16-year-old Christina Kouros, won gold in the women’s 5K adaptive sit ski.