The U.S. Ski Team men’s squad touched down in New Zealand on Tuesday afternoon. Imagine racing in the land down under, a 16-hour time difference from Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton’s base in Vermont and 18 hours from Colorado, where Noah Hoffman primarily trains, two days later.
Newell and Hoffman did just that (Hamilton ran into major baggage woes on his way over), and Newell came out on top of a relatively stacked, if not small, field on the opening day of Winter Games NZ.
The ninth-ranked competitor, Newell not only crushed the qualifier of the 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint at the Snow Farm in Wanaka, but he went on to win his quarterfinal, semifinal and eventually the final over Russia’s Alexey Petukhov and Canadian Devon Kershaw. Top seed Nikita Kruikov of Russia ended up fifth after teammate Anton Gafarov in fourth.
After spending most of his summer with the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team, Newell clocked a time of 2:52.96 over what he considered a fast course, which was “fairly hard packed,” he wrote in an email. “The course was really fun with a super fast rolling downhill and lots of turns. … Neither of the two climbs on course were too steep.”
Petukhov was the second-fastest qualifier nearly four seconds later in 2:56.54 and Kershaw qualified third in 3:00.10. Their positions ultimately held steady, with Petukhov placing second and Kershaw third in the final.
“I felt a lot better than I thought I was going to racing,” Newell explained of his first time on snow in a couple months. “The travel is tough to get down here but adjusting to the time change is actually pretty easy. A lot easier than Europe. So racing two days off the place isn’t that big of a deal.”
Still, he didn’t feel exactly the same as he would on a World Cup morning.
“I wasn’t too eager to race in the morning having only had one day on snow but as a warmed up I started feeling pretty good,” Newell wrote. “The sun came out so I had plenty of energy in Qualification. Obviously all the Russian guys here are fast sprinters so I didn’t have any goal for the race other than to make the final.
“It’s August so we just use these races as training opportunities and use them to gauge how our bodies are responding to the summer training and also identify things that we need to work on technically,” he added. “Especially with sprinting it’s helpful to jump in races like this so you can stay sharp when it comes to heat tactics and race-like accelerations.”
Newell specifically tried to work on fast accelerations, over the tops of hills and during the final stretches of each heat.
“I think it worked out well and I was happy with the result,” he wrote. “I was stoked with how the body felt pushing hard. We spend all summer long running, biking, rollerskiing, just training a ton and its good to remind yourself of why you’re putting in all the hard work. It’s good to remind yourself that you’re a ski racer and this is what you’re trying to get faster at.”
Primarily a distance skier, Hoffman finished ninth ahead of a Russian and six Korean skiers.
In the women’s skate sprint, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk was the fastest qualifier in 3:27.25, more than 5 seconds ahead of Olympic gold medalist biathlete Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia. Canadian Perianne Jones qualified third in 3:36.42.
Kowalczyk went on to win her semifinal and top Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova in the final for the overall victory, telling race organizers, “It was a good race on a very good track. I am very happy and racing here at Snow Farm and the Winter Games is very important for me for Sochi,” she said.
Gaiazova was second, but could not be reached for comment, and Kuzmina placed third. Jones finished fourth in the A-final, topping Japan’s Michiko Kashiwabara and Chisa Obayashi, who were first and second, respectively, in the B-final. New Zealand’s lone entrant and first Olympic biathlete, Sarah Murphy, ended up seventh of eight women. Murphy is trying to qualify for her second-straight Olympics after “a lot of back luck last year,” including illness and a broken rifle, she told the Otago Daily Times.
“These Winter Games are really very important for me and my bid for the Olympics,” she said.
Although Thursday marked the start of the Games, it was essentially the only day of true-blue racing for the Americans at the Snow Farm. “We are hopefully going to do a distance time trial with the Canadians later in the camp but that will be the only other racing,” Newell explained.