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 — Liz Stephen has wanted a top five on the World Cup for years. All week at World Championships she and her coaches have talked repeatedly about how fifth was a reach goal, but not an impossible one.
“I want a top-five for sure; if I got a top-ten I would be over the moon,” Stephen said after her unsatisfactory skiathlon earlier this week.
Demonstrating once again the power of a goal and unwavering belief in it, Stephen achieved exactly what she set out to do on Tuesday in the 10 k individual freestyle by finishing fifth, 41.2 seconds off Therese Johaug’s (NOR) winning mark. Riding the high from the remarkable bar her teammates set in the team sprint on Sunday she produced a headliner performance of her own. The personal-best has been a long time coming for Stephen, and it was made that much sweeter by arriving when it mattered most at the premier event of the season.
“To get the top-five goal, which was a far-reaching one, I’m pretty ecstatic,” Stephen said after the last 10 k finisher had come through. “And I couldn’t have done it without the team behind me. The first person to give me a hug was Holly [Brooks] and in the finish zone the entire team was there afterwards. I’m so lucky to be a part of something so big right now.”
Stephen has a history of doing well in Val di Fiemme, where the climbs are taxing and frequent and the air is thin. She was second here in January for the final climb of the Tour di Ski and knew that the 10 k course, which took athletes twice around a 5 k loop, would suit her comparably well. It features six significant hills per lap, and as Stephen is known to jump-skate during distance races it set the perfect stage for her to ski the race of her life.
“Her goal today was to tell herself, ‘I’m ready, I believe in myself,’ and just unload it,” said U.S. Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s a perfect course. She can skate on just about any course, but this one was hard. And the harder the challenge, the better the course for Liz.”
When she woke up on Tuesday morning, Stephen had a good feeling about the race to come. Inspired by watching teammates Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins stand atop the podium two days before, she walked into the stadium feeling the momentum of their energy.
“I was psyched to skate up those hills and just kept channeling the Tour de Ski energy and vibes,” Stephen said. “Heck, it’s World Championships! There’s pretty good vibes here. Kikkan and Jessie getting the win the other day, the mood on the team is outstanding right now. Lots of energy kicking around… Something about when they walked home with those World Chamionship bibs — uh! I want one of those! And to have two on the team, I don’t know, it kind of changed my mood of the whole week. Just flooded me with energy. I’m so fired up right now, I can’t wait for the relay!”
As the 52nd out of 78 starters in the 10 k, Stephen had the second-fastest time when she came through the finish, eight seconds behind early race-leader Mirriam Goessner (GER). It took a few more minutes for the very top seeds to come through, but only three of them ended up beating her. Even before she finished the race Stephen knew she was having the race of her career based on the splits she heard on the course.
“They were good splits. Like, ‘You’re in first with 60 through!’ I don’t ever get those kind of splits so that was exciting,” Stephen said. “I felt the body kind of coming this week; new feelings I hadn’t really felt all season. I woke up today thinking it was going to be a good day and I’m glad it was.”
Her teammates could see a good result coming for Stephen from a mile away.
“Liz can skate like crazy; we call her the team spider-monkey,” said Brooks. “The hills here really suit her well. I mean, she can jump-skate in distance races, so no one wanted to jinx her by saying, ‘This is going to be an amazing race for Liz,’ but we all knew it… Liz is a great team player and she’s really been there for everyone. Everyone’s cheering for her and it’s good to see her put her best individual result out today at World Championships. If there’s a time and a place you want to ski fast it’s today.”
Whitcomb, who has coached Stephen since she first picked up the sport at Burke Mountain Academy, said he’s believed her to be capable of a top-five for years. He’s seen a noticeable difference in her approach to training and racing the past few seasons and knew her breakthrough would be just around the corner.
“It’s a day that I feel like we’ve known could happen in a normal World Cup for the last couple years, and she’s just kind of been on the outside of things for a while now,” Whitcomb said. “Making jumps each year, but that elusive top-ten, that really elusive top-five, is no longer elusive. I’m really happy about today. Unsurprised, but ecstatic.”
Of all the reasons Stephen was excited about finally reaching the top-five in the world threshold, she was perhaps equally energized about what might be possible for the U.S. in the women’s 4 x 5 k relay in two days, the team lineup for which has yet to be named.
“I’m thinking we need to go really hard and really fast and try like hell to get a podium,” Stephen said with a smile.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.