The best U23 skiers in the world are often the best skiers of any age category, and this year’s field at U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, is as strong as ever. World Cup regulars Federico Pellegrino (ITA) and Elena Soboleva (RUS) won the classic sprint on Tuesday, the first event of the week for the older age set.
Pellegrino, in particular, has been on form this year. With multiple top-10s on the World Cup in his pocket, including a second place in the freestyle sprint stage of the Tour de Ski, he out-lunged runner-up Juho Mikkonen (FIN) and Evgeniy Belov (RUS) by hundredths of a second in the A-final.
“I am finally the World Champion!” Pellegrino said happily in the post-race press conference. “Last year I could not compete in Erzurum; I was ready and in a very good shape but it did not work out. So today is my big satisfaction. I’m very, very happy.”
Mikkonen’s only World Cup experience from this year was in the sprints at this venue two weeks ago, where he was 37th in the individual event. The Finn was fourth in the junior sprint in 2010 but only reached 29th in the freestyle sprint in Erzurum last year. Needless to say, he was pretty excited with a medal in his last year as a U23.
“I am very happy about the medal today,” Mikkonen said. “It is my fifth Junior/U23 Championships. It was my last chance to claim a medal. The final was quite good for me. I started well and tried to go my way. I also managed to save some energy for the last 200 m. The silver medal is very important for me as it gives me motivation and energy for the next training.”
The top three were so close it could have been anyone’s race to win, and Belov was none too pleased to come out on the losing end of the photo finish. He finished second in the freestyle sprint in Erzurum.
“I am not very happy about third place,” Belov said. “I wanted to be the winner today.”
Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) was the top North American finisher in tenth place.
In the women’s race, Russia’s Elena Soboleva took home the gold in another photo finish. She began the day as the first qualifier and ended it in the same position with a slightly superior lunge to edge out Germans Sandra Ringwald and Hanna Kolb, who took second and third, respectively.
This is Soboleva’s first year as a U23. As a Junior in Erzurum she was twelfth in the freestyle sprint and second in the individual classic.
“I am so happy,” Soboleva said. “I’ve been feeling very strong since this morning. I was fast in the qualifications and went to the quarter-finals with the fastest time. In the heats, I always tried to be in the front to gain control of the race. I believed I could go for a victory in the final. It is a dream come true for me.”
The German duo were pleased to put two from their team on the podium.
“It was so amazing to compete here today,” Ringwald said. “It is awesome to get silver. In the morning, I was very tired, but then I thought it could be my competition today. I am so happy that the silver and bronze medals go to Germany.”
Kolb agreed, as she competed in a close race with Daria Godovanichenko (RUS) until the very end. She ended up finishing three seconds ahead of the Russian.
“I am not disappointed at all about the third place,” Kolb said. “I hoped for a medal in the sprint. It is great that Sandra is on the podium as well.”
Sophie Caldwell, after qualifying in fifth on Tuesday morning, led the North Americans on the results with a ninth-place finish at the end of the day for her best career result at the World Junior/U23 level.