FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah – The whole tactics and ‘let’s see if I can outsmart you’ game was pretty much out the window by the start of the women’s freestyle sprint final at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Tuesday.
Or so it seemed.
With every passing quarterfinal and semifinal, six competitors per heat shared the task of completing the 1.3-kilometer course the fastest and smartest way possible. Play your cards right – getting in any fighting position except first on the long downhill – and you could make the final. Do that in the final, and you should make the podium.
It was too easy, and Caitlin Gregg – one of the shorter ones in the bunch – knew it wouldn’t work for her. The 32-year-old Central Cross Country (CXC) skier had watched US Ski Team (USST) member Tad Elliott use his small stature to his advantage in the men’s final just before. He stormed out of the gate and tried to drop the field, building a gap by the first straightaway. But Gregg never saw the finish.
Oh well, she thought. Might as well go for it, too.
“Look at how much taller are these girls are than me,” Gregg said. “I’m a little [makes sound effects] meep, meep, meep. I had to go where my strengths were. I pretty much just hammered as hard as I could.”
The rest of the women’s finalists simply followed her lead. The pace was much different than they were used to, but it was a welcome change to the typical jockeying game that came about later in the heats.
Sadie Bjornsen, of Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the USST, didn’t stress.
“Kudos to Caitlin for charging from the start,” Bjornsen said. “That’s a scary thing with this course. … I was afraid it was gonna be a cat-and-mouse again.”
Instead, she followed Gregg and Sophie Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) up the short, steep climb known as the horseshoe at Soldier Hollow, putting herself in third for the downhill.
Meanwhile, Caldwell just ahead in second was getting nervous.
“It’s just really stressful coming down the hill because positions could change so much and always felt very flustered,” said Caldwell, who placed third in the preceding classic sprint at nationals.
“The position I came into the stadium wasn’t ideal,” she added. “It wasn’t terrible, but Jennie [Bender] and Sadie [Bjornsen] both flew by me in the draft on the downhill.”
Rounding the corner into the stadium, it was all Caldwell could do to challenge Bjornsen to the line. The two lunged in a photo finish, and Bjornsen took the win for her second straight national title and first in a sprint. Caldwell was second, and Bender finished just behind in third.
“This time, I remembered to lunge at the finish,” Bjornsen said, after taking second to Bender in the classic sprint last week.
Caldwell also lunged, but longed for a few extra meters to catch up.
“I was pretty sure when I finished that Sadie had gotten the win,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know if I looked over or just felt that she was a little ahead.”
For Caldwell, it was her best finish at nationals this year (following two third-place finishes) and tied her skate-sprint result from last year’s U.S. championships, where she was second to USST member Jessie Diggins.
For Bjornsen, 23, two victories and two silvers in four races were as much as she could’ve asked for following an injury filled offseason.
“For all of us who got a win this week, it’s a dream come true of course,” Bjornsen said. “But this wasn’t even in my hopes and plans two months ago before the season. Today was a real test of my fitness because I was exhausted, as was everybody … It’s just a good feeling to be able to finish a fourth race in a big week like that strong.”
One step behind a repeat sprint victory, Bender (CXC) nearly made it into the mix for first or second after winning the classic sprint last week. After the finish, she couldn’t remember if she lunged or not, but was wishing she did.
Regardless, she was excited about her national showing after a bout with mono and Lyme disease last summer.
“The podium definitely gives me hope for the rest of the season,” Bender said. “I had no idea how today would go really.”
Given the women’s course was identical to the classic sprint, she knew what was coming. For her, it was perfect.
“It’s definitely a super-tactical course and you never really knew what was going to happen,” Bender said. “I had to go into it with that mindset that whatever happens, happens. Each race is different.”
In the semifinal, she fell behind on the final climb and was nearly out of contention to advance. Making up time on the downhill, she slingshot back into position and won the heat. For the final, she worked her way up on the outside of the hill, scooting into fourth for the descent. There, she passed Caldwell and Becca Rorabaugh (APU), who ended up fourth.
“I was like, ‘OK, just stay in the pack, just stay there, just stay there … I’m lost again,’ ” Bender recalled thinking. “Coming down this hill I just got super low and made sure I pushed really hard off so that I could catch up and it worked. Each time I came flying around the outside and I was like, ‘Sweet! All right, let’s go for this!’ ”
Following Rorabaugh in fourth, Annie Hart (Dartmouth College) also slipped by Gregg for fifth. Gregg ended up sixth, but remained satisfied with her effort. Earlier in the day, she had qualified in second just 0.63 seconds behind Caldwell, who won in 2:55.07.
Gregg thought that was great considering she suffered a mild concussion a few days before when she hit her head on a beam.
“I didn’t do the classic 20 k because I’ve been having a lot of concussions this year,” she said, referring to one suffered in the Engadin ski marathon in March. “[Monday] I felt better and today I felt fine. I’ve kind of learned the drill with how bad it is and how long it takes now [to recover]. It’s probably not great, the doctors say, but it’s kind of a low-risk sport.”
Looking back, she’s not sure she would’ve changed her strategy for the final.
“Every other heat I went out in the pack and I did that signature slingshot, but then I was like, ‘Gosh these girls are so good,’ ” Gregg said. “I just thought, ‘What if? I gotta just try it I guess. Why not?’ ”
The third-fastest qualifier, Hart was regret-free after notching a career best at nationals. Two years ago, she was 17th in a classic sprint.
“I’ve been having an OK week, nothing bad by any stretch of the imagination, but also nothing that was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s really what I wanted,’ ” Hart said. “And today was just so perfect. I could not have asked for a better day, just like, skis were great, course was great. I just stayed really relaxed, and it was just a blast.”
After falling slightly behind on the last climb, Hart reunited with the group on the descent.
“We were just all in this huge glomp coming around the turn and then it was just like, everyone’s yelling and you’re just zoned into the lane you want and someone’s in your lane,” she said. “But it was just so much fun. I would not have done, I don’t think, anything differently.”
Rorabaugh was also thrilled with a nationals best of fourth after notching two sixth-place finishes earlier this week. Not feeling well to start the day, she considered calling it quits after qualifying in 17th.
“I’ve been kind of sick the last couple races and I was like, ‘Man, this just isn’t smart. I’m not trying to make U23’s,’ ” Rorabaugh said. “This morning I was pretty sure I wasn’t racing, coughing stuff up, total mess and so then I was like, ‘I’ll try the prelim, see what happens.’ Debated after that for a long time and then I was like, ‘Whatever I’ll just ski, it’ll be fun,’ and it was!”
In the heats, Rorabaugh stuck with a similar tactic: don’t lead.
“It works out better to try to come from behind at the end with the big corner and the fast finish,” she said after advancing second in her quarterfinal and third in her semi.
Rorabaugh took the inside lane to the finish, edging Hart on the outside behind Caldwell.
“So now I’m fourth!” Rorabaugh said of breaking her streak. “Now of course I’m like, ‘Oh, I was so close to top three.’ ”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting