Ask any athlete what their favorite race is, and nine times out of ten their answer will be: “relays.” The four-person event fittingly caps off the World Junior Championships every year — the preceding individual races identify new world champions, but the relay is where athletes go to truly ski for flag and country.
It was with awareness of this fact that the American 4 x 5 k and 4 x 3.3 k relay teams lined up together for their final races of the week on Sunday in Liberec, Czech Republic. On a fast, hard track the U.S. women placed tenth, matching their 2012 performance in Turkey, and the men finished twelfth.
Is it what they were hoping for? Yes and no. A few standout individual legs highlighted the group performance while a mishap or two dashed greater team ambitions. But sometimes racing is a mixed bag, and at the end of a week of high profile skiing most athletes were riding the high of competing against the best in the world.
One of the standout performances came from Heather Mooney (Middlebury College) in the women’s relay. She scrambled for the U.S. on classic skis to put the team in ninth at the first exchange and within nine seconds of third place.
Skiing in her favorite relay position, Mooney held on to the leaders for a good while. Russia’s team led the pack through the first leg, and Mooney kept the blue suit within her sights for longer than she expected to.
“My skis were really fast, so I’d gain a lot on the down hills, and also on the double pole parts I was able to pick up some time,” she wrote in an email. “3 k races are always the most difficult for me, definitely the most painful races out there. Coming up the big hill, about three minutes to go, I was hurting a lot, and just out of contact with the pack.”
Through the pain Mooney noticed the Russian scrambler, Alisa Zhambalova, not too far away, and the sight gave her a second wind.
“I really wanted to give our team a chance, so tried to really dig deep to tag off in that pack,” she said.
She nearly succeeded, and came through the tag zone just behind the Norwegian team at the back of the chase group.
“Knowing your teammates are counting on you, it makes it a little easier to find the truly painful gear,” Mooney said. “My goal was to get there today, without blowing up, so although I wasn’t able to bring it in with the pack, I’m happy I was able to ‘roll my eyes back,’ as Pepa [Miloucheva] tells me!”
Mooney tagged off to Mary O’Connell (Dartmouth College) 29 seconds behind the leaders, and from there O’Connell sought to reel the Norwegian team in.
“Heather had a great leg,” O’Connell said. “I left the exchange zone and saw Norway right ahead of me and tried to bridge the gap. But then I sorta just died.”
She gave everything she had, but felt tired during her leg.
“I just felt…a little off my game,” O’Connell said. “I was pretty disappointed with my leg. Relays are hard because you’re not just racing for yourself but for your team, but I can say that I gave everything I had all the way.”
She posted the 11th-fastest split to hand off to Emily Hannah (Harvard University) in tenth place, 1:23 down to the leaders. The U.S. would hold the position for the remainder of the relay. Hannah and Corey Stock (Dartmouth College), the American’s anchor, skied the rest of the race by themselves and finished 2:43 off Sweden’s winning time.
Hannah also said she felt off after a week’s worth of racing.
“I did not feel very good today, I just felt flat and tired, like I didn’t have anything extra to give,” she said. “Even though it wasn’t my best race, though, I had a lot of fun… I am really glad that I got to see the level that international skiers my age are at; it gives me a more definite sense of where I need to be.”
At the end of the day, the team focused on positives from the team camaraderie and a hard-working support crew.
“Again, the team is great here,” O’Connell said. “Everyone is so supportive and the coaches and wax techs just did an amazing job.”
Mooney agreed, adding that it was eye-opening simply to be in Liberec against the best U20s in the world.
“It is really motivating to be here, to see what the best looks like,” she said. “I’m excited to go home, into the rest of the season and next year, really knowing what I need to try and get there.”
Junior Men’s Relay
Like the women, American men’s squad approached the race on Sunday with an extra sense of higher purpose. On top of all the usual relay excitement they wanted to redeem themselves of disappointing individual results from earlier in the week, and to it together on the dramatic team stage.
The Americans’ second man, Ben Saxton (F.A.S.T. Performance Training), put it this way: “We were super mentally ready to hang with the big dogs, to suffer and hurt and be in the hunt.”
Such a mentality can be powerful, and perhaps it was that desire to suffer with the leaders that propelled Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) to position the American team just behind the leaders early in the scramble leg, right around fourth place.
Things were looking good for the U.S. until bad luck struck on Hanneman’s second lap. He fell on an inopportune downhill and the pack got away from him with the lost momentum. The race suddenly became a matter of catching up for the remaining three and a half legs.
“My leg was going really well, until I fell on the second lap on this huge downhill,” Hanneman said. “So I lost a lot of places. So that wasn’t so great, but I was right with the leaders until then.”
He tagged off to Saxton in 14th, 34 seconds behind Russia at the front of the pack. Hanneman was, understandably, frustrated with the end result, both from his relay and from earlier in the championships.
“The week was interesting. I know I can ski better, however I played the cards I was dealt,” he said. “That’s racing. It was another great experience though.”
Out on the course, Saxton did his best to catch back on to the pack. He skied the seventh-fastest split out of the second-leg skiers to do it, passing five teams along the way to bring the U.S. back in the hunt for a top-10. Though happy with that kind of feedback, Saxton noted that attempts to ski well from that far back were difficult.
“I went pretty hard out of the start and tried to relax on the hills the first lap,” Saxton said. “The problem wasn’t the fitness, it was that when we weren’t in the top group the pace was just slower and we proceeded to lose time. Trying to bridge that gap was suicide, but we were losing time staying there so it was a weird situation.”
In addition to the physical challenges of closing the deficit, it was a tough spot to ski from mentally, particularly because the team had been so fired up before the start.
“That fall could’ve happened to anyone, it was just a very unfortunate fall,” Saxton said. “Everyone just went their hardest. It was really just such a bummer because we were more mentally ready than I’ve ever seen us.”
Saxton tagged off to Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University) in ninth, who skied the first skate leg on “pretty tired” legs. He skied with a Japanese athlete for most of the 5 k and handed the race off to Sawyer Kesselheim (Bridger Ski Foundation) in 11th, 1:22 down from the leaders.
Kesselheim skied with Japan’s Tomoki Sato skied and caught up to another skier on the last climb before the finish, only to get passed again in the final stretch.
“I pushed hard up the last hill and created a gap but got out-sprinted in the finishing zone,” Kesselheim said. “I wish I could have saved more for the end but it was fun and a good experience.”
Though unhappy with their result on paper, the team was able to focus on highlights from the week at the conclusion of the race. They’re more motivated than ever, and for at least one athlete the best part of the week was that the individual competitors came together as a team by the end of the week.
“The greatest part of the week was the people,” Saxton said. “The friends I got to know better from America and those new ones I met just this week will never really leave and in cross country skiing, which is a sport that’s incredibly people-driven, that’s quite the gift to take from any trip, especially this one.”
Special thanks to Eric Packer for his photos.