To follow up a strong first day of junior racing at the 2013 Junior and U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, the U.S. team posted another set of personal-best results in the U23 classic sprint. Sophie Caldwell (SMS T2) and Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) made the semifinal round to finish ninth and tenth, respectively, in strong fields that included several regular World Cup skiers.
“They looked really good,” said USST development coach and trip leader Bryan Fish. “Erik and Sophie both in the top 10, that’s awesome.”
Caldwell and Bjornsen have both been to the World Junior/U23 championship event several times before. More importantly to them, however, they have each qualified for the sprint heats on multiple occasions but were always stopped in the quarterfinals. That track record that didn’t sit well with either of them going into Tuesday’s race in Liberec. With another chance to get the monkey off their backs the Americans set the record straight: they can compete with the best sprinters in the world.
Caldwell has been to three World Juniors before but has never attended the championships as a U23. Her previous best at was 17th in the sprint in 2009, but as she has already shown throughout the first half of the season, Caldwell is skiing on another level this year. With a ninth place now in the bag in her first race of the week at U23s, she’s feeling pretty good.
“I’ve very happy with the result,” Caldwell said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the day but saw that I was ranked tenth so I thought top-10 could definitely be a possibility.”
Qualifying tends to be her strong point in classic sprints and Tuesday was no exception; she started off in fifth place in the prologue and knew after that she had a good shot at doing well in the heats.
“I’m better at striding than I am at double-poling but Gus [Kaeding] and I worked a lot on double-poling the other day and my double-pole finish felt pretty good in the quarterfinal so I was psyched about that!” Caldwell said. “I had qualified in the top 30 all three times I went to World Juniors but never made it past the semis, so once I had a good qualifier I really, really wanted to make it to the semis.”
To leave no doubt she would make it to the second round Caldwell pushed hard in the quarters, winning the heat outright. The effort, combined with the qualifier she’d just completed, nearly made her sick.
“I basically went as hard as I could go in my prelim and I was really tired after both my prelim and my quarterfinal,” Caldwell said. “Like, ‘I think I might throw up’ tired (but I didn’t).”
In the semifinals, she positioned herself well in the beginning against women like Hanna Kolb (GER), who ended up third, but ran out of gas in the end to finish fifth in the heat.
“I wished I had relaxed a little more [earlier] because it was easy to tense up and waste energy that way,” she said. “There were three pretty big hills so it was easy to get tired.”
At the end of the day, Caldwell couldn’t complain about a top-10.
“My confidence is good right now — I’ve had a lot of solid results this year that I’ve been really excited about,” she said. “But I definitely still want to build off them. I’m thrilled about the World Champs nomination and feel very lucky and honored, so I want to do everything possible to try to be as fast as I can in late February.”
After Caldwell, three women finished just outside the top-30 cutoff. Liz Guiney (University of New Hampshire) was 36th in the prologue, 2.5 seconds out of the heats, Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was 38th and Annie Hart (Dartmouth College) was 39th, five seconds out of 30th.
Guiney, in her first U23s appearance, had mixed feelings about 36th.
“I was pretty happy with my result today,” she said. “It was for sure a little frustrating to be within 3 seconds of qualifying, but I’m happy with the way I skied… I didn’t really know what to expect going in, and there are some really fast girls here!”
Hart was also happy with the way she raced, even if it didn’t produce a top 30.
“I feel pretty content I think with the result,” she said. “Results wise I was only a little bit out of qualifying so that’s encouraging for sure. You know, it’s kind of weird to feel good about a race where the whole point is to make the heats, but coming over here and racing against the very best U23s I think it’s really important to focus on how the race felt and not so much on the result (although obviously getting a good result is better than not).”
On the men’s side, the history leading up to Bjornsen’s performance was almost a mirror of Caldwell’s. He, too, had been to the championships many times but never made the semifinals. Bjornsen, like Caldwell, has come on strong in the U.S. this year to establish himself consistently as one of the best in any given distance.
With a 10th place at U23s, he feels he can confidently ski with the best in the world, too.
“I was pretty excited,” Bjornsen said. “I’m feeling good right now, I keep surprising myself as the weeks go by and I keep getting fitter, it seems like. It finally feels like I have my finish speed back.”
Bjornsen began the heats wearing bib 16 after qualifying with a time four seconds behind Federico Pellegrino’s (ITA) winning mark. To leave no doubt he belonged in the next round Bjornsen his quarterfinal by half a second.
“I just went into it with the mindset that I’ve been in three quarterfinals at these championships and I got knocked out there, and I wasn’t going to let that happen today,” he said. “I felt like I was in a good mindset, like I was going to go out there and fight.”
It actually turned out to be a bit of a real fight, as some aggressive skiing by his competitors in the quarterfinal forced him to be aggressive right back. Many athletes commented on how important positioning and choosing the right track was to the outcome, and Bjornsen had to defend his right to his line.
“I kind of got pushed around by an Italian kid who took my position, so I went over the top of the second hill really hard,” Bjornsen said. It happened twice, but the second time Bjornsen was ready. “He tried to ski right into me but [that] time I didn’t let him do it. I pushed back and it was really crucial.”
Perhaps on the adrenaline of the jockeying, Bjornsen wanted to win the heat decisively.
“I hammered out into front, just like, ‘I’m gonna do this, not gonna let this get away from me,’” he said. “So I pinned it the whole way to the finish. If it was at a US Nationals race I would have tried to be more conservative, but I think these races here you just have to hammer every heat you’re in. I threw up my arms; I was really excited. I think I won it by a solid five to ten feet. That was sweet.”
He beat the eventual runner-up, Juho Mikkonen (FIN), by half a second.
In the semis Bjornsen was matched up with Evgeniy Belov (RUS), who wound up third, and Tomas Northug (NOR), Sindre Skar (NOR), Alexander Wolz (GER) and Amund Bygland (NOR) — a group Fish described as “a really solid field.”
Bjornsen started up the first steep climb in second postion, but got unlucky with positioning on the descent down the other side. Belov and Bjornsen both wanted the inside track and as they both moved to take it they lost the opportunity to double-pole off the top of the hill, and the lost momentum cost them at the bottom. Belov won the best line while Bjornsen was left on the outside, and Bjornsen finished fifth in the heat.
“The guys like to push around out there, I don’t know what the best thing to do is,” Bjornsen said. “You’ve got to choose times where you think you can win that little — I don’t know — conflict, and sometimes skip it and maybe take the slower track if you have to.”
Though slightly different positioning could have moved him to the final round, the 21-year-old was happy to have made it further than he had before and to learn over the course of the day that he could ski competitively with some of the guys who were in the final.
“I feel like I could ski with any of the guys out there, so it’s sweet,” Bjornsen said. “Pellegrino and that Finnish kid, they were looking really good and Pellegrino is a great sprinter, but [Belov] I was skiing with in my semi so that was really cool.”
After Bjornsen, Eric Packer (SMS T2) was the first American to just miss qualifying for the rounds. He was 34th, 2.68 seconds out of 30th. David Norris (Montana State University) was in 36th and Skyler Davis (SMS T2/USST), who was sick, was 53rd.
Packer, who was 26th in the freestyle sprint in Turkey, was not quite happy with the result.
“I’m definitely bummed to have missed out on qualifying,” he said. “I was hoping for a top-15, and I feel like I could have been in there on a good day, but just didn’t piece it together quite right. You have to be on form and ski the course well to qualify in this field. I knew the pace I needed to ski to qualify, and was on track until the last 45 seconds when the wheels started to come off.”
The men’s course as particularly brutal. At 1.6 k it was slightly longer than the women’s, with an addition over the very top of the first climb to make a hard hill even harder.
“The hills were definitely bigger than anything we’ve raced in a sprint domestically this year,” Packer said.
To put the biggest climb in context, Fish said, “the guys were able to diagonal stride right up it, but candidly, it was the type of hill that I couldn’t, physically.”