“I’ve been wanting to tell myself that all year, but until you finally do it you don’t believe it.”
So said Sadie Bjornsen on Saturday from Lahti, Finland, the afternoon of her career-best finish on the World Cup in the freestyle sprint. By ‘that,’ she means the self-assurance she was capable of skiing in the ten, and by ‘it,’ she is referring to the fact that, after wanting to do so all year, she placed ninth against a world-class field on Lahti’s 1.5 k sprint course. The performance is the best individual result of her career by far, and she’s feeling pretty good about it.
“On our team these days everyone is [skiing in the top ten] weekend after weekend, so it becomes almost normal,” Bjornsen said. “So it’s like, ‘Finally, yes. I can ski in the top-ten as well,’ you know?”
The personal-best came the same day her elder teammate, Kikkan Randall, won the entire race and secured a position as the best sprinter in the world for the second year in a row. That’s now a familiar position for Randall to be in, so Bjornsen’s break into the top-ten nearly felt like the day highlight for the U.S. team.
“She almost stole the show, in a way,” said U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb. “Kikkan’s win takes the day, but Sadie’s top-ten is putting her in contention for qualifying for World Cup finals here if things continue this way.”
What impressed Whitcomb most about Bjornsen’s skiing was the confident manner in which she skied through her heats.
“She controlled her heats and she didn’t get pushed around,” Whitcomb said. “She skied really aggressively.”
The aggression was partly fueled by a desire for redemption after a disappointing World Championships last week. Bjornsen knew herself to be capable of more than the 32nd and 37th she produced in Italy, and after skiing the 13th-fastest qualifying time of the morning she set out to ski the heats believing she belonged.
“I came off of world champs wanting more in sprint racing, so I was just looking forward to another skate sprint,” Bjornsen said. “The qualifier went well and I had the confidence. I’ve had several good qualifiers this year but haven’t yet put together a quarterfinal I was happy with, so today I just went off the start really hard.”
There were several daunting names in her quarterfinal, like Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). Bjornsen chose to see the competition as an blessing in disguise.
“When I saw who was in my quarter I was super-intimidated, but then I said, ‘you know, this could actually be good. We could have the fastest heat.’ So I tried to just jump in behind Kowalczyk and Bjoergen at the end, and I had a nice sprint-off with Kowalczyk.”
Bjornsen finished third in her quarterfinal, only 0.1 second behind Kowalczyk, and advanced as a lucky loser just as she thought she might.
In the semifinals the American faced Randall, Britta Johansson Norgren (SWE), Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Celine Brun-Lie (NOR), and left the stadium with Randall at the front of the pack. Bjornsen finished fifth in the heat after getting “quite pinched out” towards the end. She almost wanted more, but ultimately had to be happy with a personal best.
“At first it’s hard to not be disappointed with that, but I’m also incredibly stoked because I just got my first top ten!” Bjornsen said. “So it’s cool, but there’s more in there.”
Three American women out of seven-person sprint squad made the Lahti heats on Saturday. After Randall and Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins qualified in sixteenth and went on to finish 25th after placing fifth in her quarterfinal. Where her teammates were able to get out quickly on a course that was difficult to maneuver around, Diggins was last out of the stadium in her heat and was unable to move up in 1.5 k of course.
“I felt fairly good today and had a good qualifier, but in the rounds I got off to a slow start and was shot to the back of the pack,” Diggins said. “And from there I just couldn’t seem to get around people. I tried a couple times but then kept ending up on the wrong side of the pack and wasn’t able to move on. But every time I get a little more experience!”
In the aftermath of a demanding World Championships, Diggins says she is close to feeling back to normal on her skis. She is on the start list for the 10 k classic on Sunday.
“My body feels a bit tired still after the stress and emotion of the World Champs, plus a couple races in a row, but I think after another few days it’ll come right back around!” she said.
Four other Americans finished outside the heats on Saturday. Ida Sargent was 38th, Sophie Caldwell finished 55th, Holly Brooks was 65th and Rosie Brennan, in Europe as the U.S. Continental Cup leader, placed 71st.
“I’m disappointed with today but tomorrow is another day so hopefully it will be better,” Sargent said. “Flat and short skate sprint courses have always been tough for me and today was no different. There were a lot of gradual downhill and flat sections which I didn’t push hard enough.”
Caldwell, who was invited to stay on the World Cup circuit by the U.S. Ski team after a strong showing in the classic sprint at World Championships, was reminded on Saturday how easy it can be to move backwards on such a fast course.
“Today was not a good day for me,” she said. “It was pretty disappointing because I was excited to skate sprint again, but everyone is so fast here that if everything doesn’t come together perfectly, it’s easy to drop back a lot.”
Caldwell will compete again in the Drammen, Norway, city sprint on Wednesday before returning to the U.S.
Brooks was left feeling unhappy with her result on Saturday, particularly as she won’t race again this weekend.
“The race didn’t feel great today and perhaps more influential, I think I picked the wrong skis,” she wrote in an email. “With such a short, fast course you had to have some fast boards and a fast body. (Obviously our wax team did a great job considering we had some excellent results on our team!) The weekend is a bit of a bummer for me considering the fact that I don’t have a start for tomorrow. We have eight girls over here and not enough start spots. So, I will do my best to look ahead and cheer on my teammates.”
Likewise, Brennan wasn’t happy with 71st.
“I am not very pleased with my race today,” she said of her first European World Cup race. “I think there was just a combination of things that didn’t turn out the way I had hoped and, well, on the World Cup, that quickly turns into a horrible day.”
Though personally disappointed in her result, Brooks was quick to add how impressed she was with her teammates.
“Highlights of the day were certainly seeing Sadie get her first top ten and Kikkan taking the win for her 100th World Cup start,” she said.”