A little bump here, scratch there and the U.S. women are just fine coming out of Sunday’s classic team sprint at the World Cup in Asiago, Italy. It was just unfortunate they collided together.
With two teams in the same semifinal of the 6 x 1.25-kilometer race, the Americans were well aware of the risks. The anchor for the first U.S. team, Kikkan Randall had a slightly sinking reaction when she saw that her US Ski Team counterparts – Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell for USA II – were put in the same heat.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, of course the two teams are together in the semifinal,’ ” Randall said on the phone after Sunday’s race.
Oh well, better go out and see if they can go 1-2 to automatically qualify for the final.
The teams started the semifinal together with Randall’s teammate Sadie Bjornsen heading out with Sargent and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. All three made their way toward the front, and tagged off in good position through the first exchange. As Randall was about to complete her first lap, she rounded the final 180-degree corner with Caldwell.
Bjornsen was waiting for her on the outside lane; Sargent was on the inside.
“Sophie started to cut to the inside … and we ran into each other,” Randall explained. “I fell down, Sophie made it through and then a Czech girl [Karolina Grohova] came through and toppled over me. We had to ski our way back after that.”
Randall got up as fast as she could and skied into the tag zone, sending Bjornsen on her way.
“That probably put us 10 seconds back,” Randall said. “Sadie had to ski pretty hard on her second leg.”
But the 24-year-old Bjornsen caught the leaders and all was right again for Team USA. Led by Finland’s Anne Kyllönen, Caldwell and Randall broke away with her on the final lap, and the three finished first, second and third, respectively.
“Coming into the finish, I wasn’t too concerned,” Randall said of placing third, just short of automatically qualifying for the final in second. “I was pretty sure our heat was going to the be fastest. Most of lucky losers came from our heat.”
Teams like Canada didn’t fare as well. Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova raced to eighth of 12 teams in the second semifinal, beating Poland in ninth, but it wasn’t enough to get them into the final. In both the women’s and men’s semifinals, the first heats were considerably faster – a direct result of the deteriorating conditions on the 41-degree Fahrenheit morning.
Organizers salted the course that morning, making it firm enough to give Randall a raspberry on her hip when she went down in the semifinal, but repeated skiing on it ultimately broke the course down.
For Canada, the race was Jones’ second World Cup appearance this season after Saturday’s individual sprint. She spent the first period of the World Cup at home in Canmore, Alberta, managing a genetic condition that causes too much iron in her body. Jones said she changed her diet to more of a vegetarian base, which she was OK with, and she was gaining her energy back.
Third at last season’s pre-Olympic World Cup classic team sprint in Sochi, Russia, Jones and Gaiazova had to settle for 16th overall on Sunday.
Meanwhile, both American teams advanced to the final, where Finland once again set a blistering pace. Bjornsen moved to the front of the group of the first climb, with Finland’s Saarinen and Norway’s Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg, and Sargent tucked in directly behind Bjornsen.
“I’m pretty sure I skied every leg of both the semifinal and final either right in front, right behind, or next to Sadie,” Sargent wrote in an email. “She is such a strong classic skier so it was awesome to ski with her.
“The pace was fast from the start and it was probably the most aggressive race I have ever skied so kind of a battle the whole time,” she continued. “I never found a great rhythm and constantly felt like it was stop and go and finding room to move but definitely great experience.”
Once again, the Americans inadvertently tussled – this time getting tangled over the top of the climb – and they had to work their way back to the pack.
“I got caught out of the tracks skiing in the middle on the second and last climb of the course and went from at the front to dead last in the matter of a few meters,” Sargent wrote.
Østberg held a narrow 0.2-second margin on Saarinen through the first exchange, and Switzerland’s Bettina Gruber tagged in third (+0.4), Julia Ivanova of Russia II was fourth, Norway II’s Kari Gjeitnes fifth, and Bjornsen in sixth, 2.9 seconds off the lead. Sargent tagged another second back in ninth, with Sweden II’s Magdalena Pajala and Germany’s Katrin Zeller in front of her.
“I think both of our teams were in contact first leg, but kind of toward the back,” Randall explained. “I tried multiple times to look for a place to move up but it was hard because people were moving around a lot … The pace was really high through the whole race in the final.”
With the third-fastest lap time for her leg, Caldwell tagged Sargent in seventh, and Randall sent Bjornsen off six-tenths of a second later in eighth.
“We were right in the thick of things in the final, so it was a little frantic,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “There was a lot of changing of positions. … I tried to follow people stride-for-stride on the ups and then be smart about lane choice and push hard over the tops. There was a lot of really gradual striding and people like the Finns are really good at that, so it was cool to be able to try to chase them.”
On the second leg, the two teams lost contact with Finland and Norway up front as the leaders gapped third place by nearly five seconds. For the Americans, the fight would be for a podium as they chased Germany and Norway II.
Fourth through the last exchange, 2.3 seconds behind Norway II and 12.2 seconds behind Finland up front, Randall anchored the team to fifth. Norway II’s Celine Brun-Lie had put on a strong last lap to come within 1.5 seconds of third, putting USA I nearly 7 seconds back from fourth and 18.48 seconds off Finland’s winning time of 19:15.72.
With Caldwell, USA II finished eighth, 1.31 seconds behind Switzerland in seventh and 20.56 behind the winners.
“I was very happy with the weekend and we ended on a good note with two women’s teams in the final,” Caldwell wrote. “There weren’t very many countries who had two teams in the final, so I think that says a lot for how far we’ve come!”
“It was so much fun – and even more fun to ski with teammates out there!!” Bjornsen wrote. “I was really happy how it went – and I am confident that both teams could be in the runnings for a medal if everything went golden! But that is how we light the fire. First we find a possibility on a ‘perfect day,’ and then we have that perfect day, and the confidence brings even more!”
Randall said that she and Bjornsen lacked their top gear after Saturday’s sprint, where Bjornsen skied the fifth-fastest qualifier and ended up 16th and Randall placed 20th overall.
“We were a little tired and didn’t have full power to stay with that opening pace through the race,” Randall said. “We’re moderately satisfied with today, but we know we can [do] better.”
Perhaps the most exciting takeaway for the Americans was that they have two teams that can be in the mix and make the final.
“It was great to go through the motions today and it’s great that both teams skied so strong,” Randall said. “No matter what combination you put us in we’re going to be successful.”
As seven of her teammates prepare for the Tour de Ski (Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen, Holly Brooks, Noah Hoffman , Andy Newell, and Simi Hamilton), which opens Saturday in Oberhof, Germany, Randall is taking 2 ½ weeks for a training block in Davos, Switzerland. Sargent will join her, and neither will race the Tour. Randall learned last year that she needs to take time during the season to “make sure all the gears are there for Sochi.”
Despite feeling a little off this weekend, she said it’s been a solid first World Cup period with three podiums in four weekends.
“I think I actually skied a little bit better today; I felt like my double poling was stronger, my semifinal was stronger,” she said. “It wasn’t what I totally hoped for this weekend, but I know there is a little bit more when I’m feeling 100 percent.”
Bjornsen also opted for training over the Tour and arrived in France on Sunday night to spend the holidays with her boyfriend. She’ll train there for the next two weeks.
“It is my first holiday away from home – so it will be different – but nice to spend it with Jo!” Bjornsen wrote.
Caldwell plans to race the first three or four stages of the Tour, after spending the holidays with her family in Ramsau, Austria. Her parents, brother and sister all watched her in Asiago.
“It’s tough to be away from home for so long, but having them here is the best Christmas present I could ask for,” Caldwell wrote.