When the U.S. women finished last in the 4 x 5 k two weeks ago in La Clusaz, France, it was first time all season that a major dent appeared in the otherwise sterling performances the team had maintained since November. Before that relay happened it had become increasingly difficult to think of new ways to frame the pileup of personal bests that seemed to accumulate every weekend.
Then the women faltered in La Clusaz, stayed as positive as they could, recharged in Les Saises, and on Friday came back to put five team members in the top 21 in the freestyle sprint in Sochi, Russia. Kikkan Randall won, for the third time this year, to generate ample excitement for the U.S. in the opening Olympic test event. The men joined in with two top-20s of their own. The Americans were clearly back in business in Sochi, just as pre-World Championships anticipation heats up.
U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said as much in a press release after the sprint: “It’s really exciting to have success like this in Sochi at our first test event here. It’s particularly telling of what our team can do in sustaining a beating in the relay two weeks ago in France. We didn’t spin our wheels at all, we just got back up and focused for this event.”
Freestyle sprint wins by Randall are now commonplace, but Friday’s win was certainly no guarantee. She’s been sick in bed for the past few days and was unsure of how she’s feel going into it. But even when she operates at sub-perfect health, Randall can put an entire sprint field to shame.
“It’s funny; I felt some catch in my lungs in the qualifying today, but I guess the adrenaline from the heats helped a little bit,” Randall said in a phone interview.
Randall’s win was as straightforward as they come. On a 1.2 k course blanketed with a fresh layer of snow, she basically skied from the front in every heat and didn’t let a single person by her. A few missed training days were clearly trivial, thanks to her solid base of training.
“I’ve done a lot of base work and I think there’s good fitness in the body, so right now it’s just a matter of sharpening specifically for the races we’re targeting at world champs,” Randall said. “I’m looking forward to finishing off a good weekend here, going to Davos, and getting in some good sharpening workouts before world champs.”
She will skip the skiathlon on Saturday to save up for the team sprint in Sochi.
Randall’s top performance wasn’t the only one the Americans celebrated on Friday. For the first time in her career, Ida Sargent made it to the A-final, placing sixth overall. The Vermonter came into her own this year in Kuusamo, Finland, with a ninth-place showing in the classic sprint. By topping that result in Sochi, and in her least favorite technique, Sargent is confident now that her skiing is in a good place.
“I’ve been feeling good in training and I had a good workout yesterday on the course,” she said. “I really like the course here, so I thought it could be a good day but it’s a sprint, so you never know what’s going to happen. I think this is definitely above my expectations, which is always great.”
Out of the five American women that qualified for the heats, Sargent was the fifth one to do so in 17th. Holly Brooks posted the seventh-fastest qualifier, Sadie Bjornsen was tenth and Jessie Diggins was 14th. With so many from one team making it through in the top-30, teammates are bound to get matched up in the quarterfinals, and in this instance three of them met in the first elimination round.
“It’s never great to be with all your teammates — you kind of want to spread it out so you all have a chance at moving on — but that didn’t happen today,” Sargent said.
She skied the smartest of any of them by taking control of the heat out of the start. The strategy that also worked so well for Randall applied across most of the women’s heats; Sargent was able to maintain her positoin up front while Diggins and Brooks struggled to move beyond third or fourth on a course with a narrow best line.
In the semifinal round Sargent made a few tactical errors to finish fourth in her heat, but squeaked through as a lucky loser. “I was kind of kicking myself afterwards and didn’t ski aggressive enough; I let some people get by me,” she said. “I just had a little left that I could have given in that heat so I was kind of bummed, but when I found out I made that lucky loser spot I was just so happy. I’d never made the final before today, so that was really exciting.”
The effort Sargent put into back-to-back laps of the sprint course took its toll at the end of the day. She has only made it past the quarterfinals three times before, and against a World Cup field that forces athletes to treat every heat like it’s the last one, Sargent was already exhausted by the time she lined up for the final time.
“I kind of let a little gap open over the top, but I was also pretty tired and didn’t have enough left,” Sargent said. “But it was just great to be there and see Kikkan win after she’s been sick this past week. So yeah, just a really fun day.”
Diggins and Brooks, eliminated after the quarters, placed 15th and 16th, respectively. Bjornsen wound up 21st from the first heat of the day. All three women felt a mix of satisfaction with a solid result and a desire for something more. Stuck on the losing end of the lead-from-the-start strategy that worked for Randall and Sargent, they each had something more to give at the end.
“It was OK,” Diggins said. “If I said I was totally satisfied with it that would not be true, because I feel like I had a lot more energy and a lot more to offer, and just never got the chance to use it. I didn’t have a fast start, and that was all on me.”
She and Brooks skied even with each other for most of the heat, unable to move around Mari Laukkanen (FIN) and Denise Hermann (GER) without moving wide into the much slower, fresher snow.
“It’s not my favorite course for heats, because it’s really hard to pass and I think anyone who watched the race saw that, at least in the women’s race, there was just no separation,” Brooks said. “There’s not enough terrain for anyone to get away… In my quarterfinal I had a bad start and was slow off the line and there was really nothing to do — nowhere to pass and nowhere to go.”
Bjornsen had a similar experience. As the tenth qualifier she raced in the first quarterfinal, and at the brand new Sochi venue she had no idea how to ski the course.
“I’d never seen anyone ski that course before so it was just an entirely new thing, and out of the start I missed the first pole plant I think so I had a slow start off the line,” Bjornsen explained. “I now know this course is difficult — you want to lead from the start and I just wasn’t too concernted.”
She managed to climb from sixth to third or fourth, briefly, before getting passed in the final stretch and crossing the line in fifth.
“I haven’t raced many sprints on the World Cup and I forgot you have to use your elbows and hold your position,” Bjornsen said. “I didn’t hold it strong enough… There were lessons to be learned, but I think today was about learning how this course is going to ski, and now I know it’s important to get off the line.”
In spite of the tactical mistakes, 21st is still Bjornsen’s best individual sprint result on the World Cup. And on a day where there were five U.S. women in the top 21, she celebrated the positives.
“On our team, everyone does so well all the time, it’s hard. You let your expectations get super high and then when you have a good qualifier, too, that’s another thing that makes it difficult,” she said.
The U.S. started six women in the Sochi sprint; five of them qualified, and Liz Stephen only missed by 1.59 seconds in 42nd. It was a short race for the distance specialist, but she approached it with the same focus she would a 10 k.
“I just tried to built all the way through it,” Stephen said. “With only one hill, I skied it strong, relaxed, but hard and then tried to really work the transitions and flats the rest of the course into the stadium… The venue has really challenging courses and it seems as though this will be a really fun site for the Olympics next year!”
Newell and Hamilton Post Top-20s
The men’s sprint course in Sochi was one of the hardest the World Cup has seen this year. Each quarterfinal interpreted this indifferent ways; some went out hot while others turned into a waiting game with a frantic finish. Americans Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton essentially had opposite quarterfinal experiences — Newell skied the fastest time that didn’t advance to place 13th, while Hamilton was 17th for his first best sprint result this year.
Newell entered the sprint coming off a similar chest cold to Randall’s and was unsure of how he would feel on skis. He qualified in sixth on Friday but the challenging course took its toll in the preliminary round.
“The qualifier went well but I think because I didn’t do any really hard training before, I was really fatigued afterwards and its such a hard course, and a long course at altitude, I didn’t feel great after the qualifier,” Newell said. “I had a hard time getting energy back up for the heats.”
Once his quarterfinal began he began to feel better, but a few strategic mistakes left him just out of moving on. There were several points where Newell had the opportunity to move past Petter Northug (NOR), the eventual winner, but he chose instead to conserve something for the end, where it turned out that early positioning was more important.
“For sure I should have gone around Northug and a Russian on the uphill,” Newell said. “That was where I needed to pass. I tried to save it for the last corner, which wasn’t such a good idea… I think if I had [moved earlier] I’d maybe have a little better result. So it was a little tactical error today, but I was still feeling pretty good.”
There was more than one way to make a mistake on such a difficult course. Where Newell wished he’d gone earlier, Hamilton regretted forcing his heat go out so fast. He started so quickly that the entire pack’s pace, with Hamilton at the front, was seven seconds up on the first heat of the day by the halfway point in the course.
“I made some tactically poor decisions in our quarter, notably getting to the front too early and pushing the pace too hard for the first k,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to ski comfortably and relaxed at my own tempo and technique, which is why I took the lead, but in hindsight I think it would have been better to slip into second or third and conserve energy for the last 800 meters. The course was ridiculously hard, and I just couldn’t hang on to [Dario] Cologna’s attack up the second long and steep climb.”
Hamilton looked strong out of the gate but on the grueling climbs he began to lose ground, and three skiers moved past him. He finished fourth in the heat, about a second off Cologna. Overall, however, Hamilton was pleased to feel back to normal after an early season plagued by illness.
“I am psyched that I feel like my speed is back after not such an awesome season so far,” he said. “It is always a learning process, so I am happy that I was able to take away some lessons for the future today. I think that I am right where I want to be at this point leading into World Champs — my speed is coming back to me and the training plan I have set up with my coach for the next two weeks I think will benefit my endurance throughout the heats.”
Noah Hoffman joined the two American sprint specialists on the starting line on Friday, and though he didn’t advance past the prelim, his 67th place produced his highest career sprint points.
“I was happy with my sprint today,” he wrote in an email. “The result was my best sprint points race ever. It is definitely a step in the right direction. My goal was to improve on paced performance in terms of FIS points and position in the field. I accomplished both of those goals.”
World Cup action continues in Sochi with a skiathlon on Saturday.