Whatever condition they were in a week ago, most of the members of the U.S. Ski Team would rather forget it.
The ride to Davos, Switzerland, had been rough enough with Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell suffering the worst of a stomach bug that affected the team for most of February.
Newell wrote in a Feb. 23 blog post that he and Randall vomited right before leaving Poland for a nine-hour road trip. With two vans and a cargo that needed drivers, Liz Stephen volunteered to ride with her sick teammates. They took turns behind the wheel and arrived in Davos about 10 hours later.
There, the entire crew rested. Meanwhile, those at the U23 World Championships – Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen and Noah Hoffman – made due in Erzurum, Turkey. For the most part, their bodies held up as Bjornsen notched fifth in the 10 k classic and Hoffman won silver in the men’s 15 k classic on Feb. 23.
Diggins mustered the strength to race once at U23’s and placed 15th while still recovering.
When the World Cup resumed Saturday in Lahti, Finland, the Americans saw the light they had been looking for. They could exhale without worrying about infecting others and soak up the performances they sought for weeks.
Randall led the group in 12th in the women’s 15 k skiathlon, her best skiathlon result of the season. She was one position off her distance finish last year in Lahti, where she was 11th in the 10 k pursuit.
Fourth in the overall World Cup standings despite missing a few races in February, Randall wrote in an email that she felt better as Saturday’s race went on, progressing from a 7.5 k classic race to 7.5 k skate.
Starting toward the front of the pack in bib No. 9, she struggled to hang on to the opening pace and was 17th about five kilometers in.
“My body felt heavy and sluggish,” she wrote. “I started feeling a little better on the 2nd lap and better again during the skate.”
She added that her skis contributed to her result, with solid kick up the steep climbs and great glide. In the skate, they helped her knock off more places, and by 11.4 k she was down to 13th.
“Once my body started coming around, I was able to move up a few spots,” Randall wrote. “Today was a good sign that I have rebounded from my 2nd round of the stomach bug that I got right after Poland. I wasn’t sure how today would go but I think this bodes well for the final period.”
Randall, who finished 1:21.5 behind Norwegian winner Therese Johaug on Saturday, leads the World Cup sprint standings. U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said Randall was in a good spot going into Sunday’s classic race.
“Today was a huge confidence booster for her,” Whitcomb said on the phone. “She’s feeling really good about her fitness and she feels like she has something to prove in classic racing and classic sprinting.”
The day on the whole boosted the spirits of the U.S. women’s team as Diggins and Stephen finished 18th and 21st, respectively, and Bjornsen placed just outside the points in 33rd.
“They were all busting with energy after the race,” Whitcomb said. “Three in the top 21 and four in the top 33 is pretty impressive. They’ve got a good vibe going right now.”
For Diggins, who was 1:45.1 out of first, the race was about letting go of expectations. Considering how the stomach bug hit her, she wrote in an email that she looked at Saturday’s race as an opportunity to get back into the rhythm of the World Cup.
“The start of my race was really good, but I took myself out on one of the many icy corners in the classic and lost quite a lot of spots there,” Diggins wrote.
She went from skiing outside the top 30 to cracking 20th in fewer than six kilometers.
“Having a pretty chill attitude about the place I was going to get helped because I was able to not let it throw me off and worked my way back in the skate half, focusing on getting that ‘good racing’ feeling back again,” she wrote.
Bjornsen also had to regroup after falling about three kilometers in. She had been around the top 20 and dropped back to nearly 50th, she wrote in an online chat.
“From then I was a woman on a mission,” Bjornsen wrote. “I was skiing with Jessie before I fell, so I went like mad until I caught her again, and then tried to relax to save some energy for skate.”
Starting in bib 66 made it hard for Bjornsen to peel off places early, and once she made up ground, it was difficult to deal with losing it.
“When I got back, then I was like: ok, work with Jessie and ski with her, because I know she is ALWAYS in good form and fast, especially on the skate leg,” Bjornsen wrote.
She finished 2:29.2 after the winner, 11.6 seconds out of 30th. Pleased with how she felt on Saturday, Bjornsen explained the value of doing so well at U23 worlds.
“My performance at U23′s confirmed that I have the form,” she wrote. “When you are racing on the World Cup it is hard, because 50th feels so bad. It was nice to go to a race, where I felt like I could do well. So now, I have a new revived head on my shoulder.”
Stephen placed just outside the top 20 and 1:53.7 behind Johaug. Skiing in 48th at 5.6 k, Stephen got inside the top 30 with about six kilometers to go and hammered out the seventh-fastest women’s skate leg.
In Holly Brooks’s first race back in Europe since winning the American Birkebeiner 50 k last weekend, she had a rough outing in the skiathlon and ended up 46th. She fell twice, first on what she called the “famous Lahti 180-degree” downhill, where another racer took her out from behind and broke her pole on the first of five laps.
“I fell really hard, practically knocking the wind out of myself, broke my pole, lost my glasses,” Brooks wrote in an email. “I had to ski around the stadium with one pole and got tangled with another skier, falling again. I was a bit shaken for the second leg of the classic race and the entire skate race.”
Despite the tough race, she was looking forward to Sunday’s classic sprint and excited for her teammates.
Whitcomb said it was good to have the team back together after a World Cup bye weekend and even better that they were healthy.
U.S. Men Deal with Adversity
In the men’s 30 k skiathlon, Kris Freeman finished 42nd, 3:11.3 behind winner Dario Cologna of Switzerland. Hovering around 20th near the halfway point, Freeman attempted to make up about 10 seconds on the lead pack. After a strong classic leg, he pushed hard to close the gap before the 20 k mark.
“He wasn’t able to recover from that,” Whitcomb said. “He did get back in contact, but he just wasn’t able to get his feet back under him. Energy just wasn’t right for the skate leg for him.”
Hoffman had a similar race to Brooks, except both of his poles broke during his classic leg. On the second of 10 laps, he was in dead last, Whitcomb said. Out of 90 starters, Hoffman crawled his way to 49th (+3:36.1).
“It was actually a pretty remarkable race for Noah today,” Whitcomb said. “But once you lose the pack, it’s gone.”
Americans Mike Sinnott and Sylvan Ellefson were lapped, taking them out of the race and putting them in 75th and 81st, respectively.
Sinnott wrote in an email that his legs felt a little flat and he lacked “pop” after the first few laps.
“I was hoping the skate would bring a better feeling, but it was more of the same,” Sinnott wrote.
He found the positive in the race and viewed it as a learning experience.
“Same as racing domestically, you can always learn and develop as a racer,” he wrote. “There are merely different lessons to be learned on the big show. I for sure notice more calm at the start of these races now that I have a few starts under my belt, and I am learning where my strengths and weaknesses are on a grandeur scale.”
Ellefson wrote that he was still trying to determine how to race in top form to contend in the top 30. Being sick for a considerable portion of his time on the World Cup didn’t help.
“The plan for me was to go into the race, see how I was feeling, and go from there,” Ellefson wrote. “The first two laps of the race felt good. The last couple did not. I wasn’t going to pull myself from the race, I would let the lead pack decide that.”
He planned to travel to the remaining World Cup races in Norway and Sweden, and was looking forward to having fun and enjoying the rest of the season.
“It’s important for me to remember why I love to nordic ski,” Ellefson wrote. “To be around a fun team like this, an awesome team of techs, and enjoying my time out there on the skis certainly helps.”