FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – The opening classic sprint at the 2013 World Championships was preceded by promise and excitement for the Americans, but when only three out of seven starters advanced to the heats on Thursday and none moved past the quarterfinals the team was left feeling frustrated. Kikkan Randall and Sophie Caldwell each finished fourth in their quarterfinals to place 19th and 20th, respectively, and Andy Newell was 21st after placing fifth in his heat.
“It’s a pretty disappointing day so far,” Newell said a few minutes after finishing. “I think this is probably my worst World Championships finish ever, even since I was a little guy at my first ever World Championships.”
Newell was actually 31st ten years ago in the freestyle sprint at this same venue, but ever since he’s finished 14th or higher at this event. Still, the empty handed feeling he described was repeated by nearly every one of his teammates.
“I wanted more out of today, for sure,” Randall said after getting out-double-poled in the final 200 m.
Caldwell was a lone bright spot, far exceeding expectations by squeaking into the heats with the 30th-fastest qualifying time and proceeding to ski competitively in third or fourth position for much of her quarterfinal. But overall the Americans felt otherwise unfulfilled by the outcome of their first race in Val di Fiemme. Newell was fourth in the Davos classic sprint last weekend and Randall was eighth; finishes in the teens and 20s pale in comparison.
The culprit, said U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover, was wax — or rather, no enough of it.
“The frustrating part is that the fitness of the athletes is there, they’re ready for world champs. On the wax side we worked super hard to make as good of skis as we could but it just did not come together 100% for us today,” he said. “Unfortunately that happens from time to time. That’s part of the game. But it’s a bummer when it happens at a major championship.”
Conditions were variable on Thursday; a new dusting of snow greeted athletes in the morning, the skies cleared for the qualifier, and flakes began to lightly fall again during the heats. The U.S. service crew knew to expect variability — forecasts predicted snow days ahead of time — and arrived at the venue at 6:30 a.m. to begin testing for a 10:45 a.m. start. But in the end, the Americans’ skis did not propel them up Val di Fiemme’s steep hills as well as their competitors’ did.
“I struggled for kick on the first hill and also on the second,” Newell said. “My skis were good in qualification — lots of kick — and then somehow with stuff changing around…it’s a little bit tricky waxing today. So I was slick for some reason, which sucked, and then I didn’t have the best finish.”
After qualifying in seventh Newell seemed poised for success in the heats, but when the quarterfinal began his disadvantage was apparent. He was forced into a herringbone where others weren’t on the steep climbs, and the effort to catch back up at the top of the course left him out of position and without enough energy for the finishing sprint.
“It’s OK, it’s sprint racing. That’s the way it goes sometimes. A bad start didn’t’ help, but for sure it was a little slick. It kind of took me out of it on that hill, unfortunately,” Newell said.
It was a similar story for Randall. She slipped as she attempted to set her wax and struggled to keep pace with Alena Prochazkova (SVK), Nicole Fessel (GER) and Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) in her quarterfinal.
“I didn’t feel like I could really access that sprint gear today,” Randall said. “I felt like I was going as hard as I could and not really hanging on.”
The team’s classic sprint showing was made even more heartbreaking by how close two more women came to qualifying for the heats. Sadie Bjornsen and Ida Sargent were 32nd and 33rd in the prologue, Bjornsen only missing 30th by 0.15 seconds.
“I felt like I pushed hard but I was struggling going up that hill. I was slipping all over the place,” Bjornsen said. “But it’s the first day, it’s a long championships.”
Sargent finished 0.62 out of 30th. It was definitely not the race she wanted, especially as its her strongest discipline.
“It wasn’t a good day but you have some good ones and some bad ones,” she said. “I had trouble getting kick on the uphill. You can’t be a little off today — everyone’s on, it’s world champs. You’ve got to be on your game and I wasn’t today.”
Newell was the only American to advance in the men’s race; Hamilton finished 1.08 seconds out of qualifying in 34th and Erik Bjornsen was 51st, 8.02 seconds behind 30th. Hamilton said his race likely affected by a recent virus contracted after the Davos World Cup last weekend. He sounded hoarse in talking with reporters and said his priority for the rest of the week will be to get healthy again.
“I got a virus in my chest and my head, but today at least burned it out a little,” he said. “For sure it’s not the best feeling in the world. It was a tough day trying to keep your race nice and light and kind of feather up the hill, and I always struggle with that, although I think it’s getting better. It’s hard for sure but we’ll see how the rest of the week goes.”
Bjornsen, 51st in his first World Championships, summed up his race by hoping it would kick him into gear for the skiathlon and the 15 k.
“Physically I think I’m feeling really well,” he said. “I don’t know, I haven’t done a ton of racing the last two weeks…I’m hoping to get to race another three times this week so this might be just what I need to spark the body.”
In summation, Grover knew his athletes had better races in them than their results showed because he knew how much hitting the wax mattered.
“It was one of those classic days you encounter where the weather pattern changed” he said. “We knew it was going change, it had been forecasted to snow all week starting weds night. You can test and test but you know coming up on race day it’ll be different… We were testing continuously on kick and on glide but for whatever reason we just did not hit the bullseye today. And that happens, and its really nobody’s fault because everyone was working as hard as they could but it just did not come together for us today.”
Despite their lackluster debut at these World Championships, Grover added that the team atmosphere was optimistic on Thursday afternoon.
“I think we’re all feeling like we’re left wanting more, but at the same time everybody is doing a great job,” he said. “The athletes were extremely professional about it, everybody kept their head held high, and everybody knows during the rest of the week there’s better stuff to come.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.