QUEBEC CITY – For someone who’s never raced a World Cup individual skate sprint before, Sophie Caldwell of the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team didn’t show it.
The 22-year-old from Peru, Vt., started off Saturday’s 1.6-kilometer sprint by making the top-30 qualifying standard in 26th (13.85 seconds behind winner Mona-Lisa Malvalehto of Finland). Caldwell later led her quarterfinal out of the start and settled into third position. As the group began its second loop, Caldwell closely trailed Swedish leader Ida Ingemarsdotter and Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, who would go on to place third and fourth, respectively, in the final behind U.S. winner Kikkan Randall.
Wearing the American race suit for the first time in her life, Caldwell ended up third in the heat ahead of Russian Anastasia Dotsekno, 0.6 seconds behind winner Ingemarsdotter. It wasn’t quite enough to advance to the semifinals and Caldwell ultimately placed 14th.
“It was really fun,” Caldwell said after the round. “I had a good start so I was lucky to get out in third.”
She quickly realized it was difficult to pass on the barricaded sprint course, an 800-meter loop on the grounds in front of Québec’s Parliament building. She tried to make her move on the finishing stretch, but couldn’t get the inside lane and held her own for third.
“No one got in front of me and that was the same order of finish, I think,” she said.
Pleased with her performance, she said the crowd helped pull her through.
“Especially in the beginning when they zoom in on each person,” she said of the TV coverage. “For Sadie [Bjornsen] and me, the crowd roared and for everyone else it was pretty quiet.”
Also in Caldwell’s quarterfinal, Bjornsen of Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the U.S. Ski Team (USST) finished sixth for 27th overall in her first World Cup race of the season while healing tendonitis in her foot. After qualifying in 15th, Bjornsen trailed her quarterfinal from the start, but held her own and remained in contention for most of the race.
“When you’re skiing in the back of the pack, you have to surge really hard and then snow plow … it’s funny back there,” Bjornsen said. “But it’s easy to get boxed out.”
Halfway through the second lap, she avoided colliding with Dotsenko, who nearly fell. Bjornsen treated the race as a learning experience in how to move around people.
“It was good practice for me,” she said.
As for her foot: “It’s actually doing really well,” Bjornsen said. “I got some new boots and that helped a lot.”
Also representing APU, Becca Rorabaugh qualified in 22nd and placed fifth in her quarterfinal after a getting caught up with Germany’s Hanna Kolb and Switzerland’s Bettina Gruber on the first uphill corner. Locking ankles with Gruber, Rorabaugh spun around and spent several seconds trying to free her ski.
“I definitely got a pretty good start and then I got a little tangled up and then, like, super tangled up,” Rorabaugh said with a laugh. “I mean, that’s how it goes. Next time.”
Regardless, Rorabaugh placed 24th overall for her best individual World Cup result by 31 places.
“I am incredibly stoked,” she said. “I love this! I love the crowd. I love the course. I’m having the time of my life and this morning I may have had the race of my life so I’m pretty happy.”
After winning her first World Cup title with Randall in the team sprint Friday, Jessie Diggins (SMS/USST) qualified in 17th and went on to place 27th overall after falling on top of the bridge during the first lap of her quarterfinal.
“It was a little heartbreaking,” Diggins said. “It was really hard for me to balance, seeing as the snow was no longer a soft sandpit [compared to the qualifier]. I just wasn’t quite stable on my feet. … I didn’t give up, I worked as hard as I could to catch back up, but I just didn’t have enough left.”
She placed sixth in her heat, 6.1 seconds behind German winner Denise Herrmann.
“When your expectations are raised, not making it on is definitely, like, a let-down,” Diggins said. “[But Friday] was such a cool thing, and my teammates qualified so I’m super psyched, you know? The fall was my bad. It wasn’t the equipment or the skis or anything.”
In the end, it was the experience that she’ll remember.
“The crowd is just fantastic,” Diggins said. “I don’t even know how many people are here; there’s a lot. It was so cool to have all these American flags waving out there and that was definitely really sweet.”
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting