MIDWAY, Utah — One and done. That was the case Thursday for the U.S. Cross Country Championship’s freestyle sprint at Soldier Hollow (SoHo), where only a prologue (i.e. sprint qualifier) was held to determine the final standings; no heats were contested. For the fifty women who set off at 15-second intervals onto the no-place-to-rest 1.3-kilometer course, it was a study in energy expenditure. The main lesson was elementary: push up to the limits, tempt the blowup, empty the tank by the finish line.
The women raced in just-under-freezing temps and lightly falling snow. Simply another nationals-week weather and snow conundrum wax technicians have puzzled with throughout the week.
Albert World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Canadian National U25 Team member Dahria Beatty was the seventh starter and raced to the fastest time on the day, winning the prologue in 3:13.60. Sugar Bowl Academy and U.S. Ski Team Development Team member Hannah Halvorsen took second (+3.15), and Team Gregg’s Caitlin Gregg third (+4.80).
In fourth was Beatty’s AWCA and national U25 teammate Maya MacIsaac-Jones (+5.40). MacIsaac-Jones has been recovering from sesamoiditis, which caused pain in her forefoot, earlier in the season. Another Canadian, Mathilde Petitjean of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH), finished fifth (+7.22).
The third-fastest American was Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Chelsea Holmes (+7.24) who took sixth overall, two days after winning the 20 k classic mass start.
The 22-year-old Beatty started this race season in Europe after earning Period 1 World Cup starts as the Continental Cup (NorAm) leader at the end of last season. On her recent Euro-stint, Beatty earned coveted World Cup points: she placed 25th in the Davos, Switzerland, skate sprint on December, and finished 26th a week later in the 10 k skate mass start in La Clusaz, France.
Beatty prequalified for U23 World Championships, which will be held at SoHo from Jan. 30-Feb. 5.
“I was actually qualified coming into these events, but I … came to try give myself that home course advantage,” Beatty said of her reason for coming to U.S. nationals. “It’s also nice when you know you’re prequalified so you can kind of take risks and see if they pay off. You don’t have to be afraid to blow up or anything.”
Not only will Beatty have a leg up when it comes to a formulating a mental and physical map of how to ski the U23 sprint course, she’ll have a better idea of how to select her skis if another stint of helter-skelter weather descends on SoHo for U23 World Championships.
“We had every snow condition, so that was good. I got to test my ski bag a lot,” Beatty added. “I learned more about my skis, which is a good thing.”
At 18, Halvorsen qualified to represent the U.S. at Junior World Championships. Like Beatty, she understood it would be a near full-throttle effort in the sprint.
“I thought there is nothing really to lose I am just going to go for it,” Halvorsen said after the race.
On a course where fast downhills diminish any rest time, and the ups command tempered pacing, Halvorsen played it right despite her junior status.
“I would say I am still young and not quite tuned into that so I am working on [the pacing],” Halvorsen explained. “I think it worked out well today, but most of the time I am a little too slow or a little too fast in a qualifier to start it off. I think for me, I’m working on finding the right balance between power and tempo.”
Soon enough, the fastest junior skiers from around globe will descend on SoHo. Halvorsen may have an ace-card advantage having succeeded this week.
“I’ll be back here in about two weeks for World Juniors, and I think I learned a lot about the terrain here and skiing here and I think a big mental take away is just skiing with confidence and not worrying about who is who or what other people are doing and just believing in it and believing in my training.”
More on the line than a 1.3 k sprint for Gregg
Gregg has perhaps the most complex story of the three skiers on the overall podium. The basics are she had a two-podium week. She won last Saturday’s 10 k skate and was third in Thursday’s skate-sprint prologue. But that’s about as simple as this narrative gets. On Wednesday, Gregg disclosed via Facebook she’s troubleshooting an injury that’s compromising her classic skiing. She chose not to enter Tuesday’s 20 k mass start classic race.
“I’m at the point right now where the injury is … not in a super-bad place,” Gregg told FasterSkier. “I would say it’s a manageable injury at this point. I can skate without pain, I can do daily activities without pain. If I do classic race, it does get extremely painful and causes me to limp. It causes me to favor that foot.”
To be clear, Gregg said she can skate, and she’s skating pain-free. Yet the prospect of aggravating her foot classic skiing at the cost of not being able to skate, or even ski in the short term, wasn’t worth the risk.
“It was definitely one of those things where I was told by a lot of people, that without that race, I need that race for World Champs, and without that race I might not go,” Gregg elaborated when asked about the costs and benefits of skiing Tuesday’s 20 k classic. “And I also had a lot of people saying I’ve been in this position before, which honestly, it was very helpful to have people who’ve been there before and said they made the bad call and continued to push it and later were put into a boot, had to use crutches, and that’s something I don’t want to do.”
At 36, Gregg’s logic had as much to do with a trip to Lahti, Finland — the location of this year’s World Championships — as it does with being rooted at home in Minneapolis.
“My feeling was, if I didn’t make World Champs, I could at least go out and ski with my club team, Loppet Nordic Racing,” Gregg said. “I could go out and work with the kids, and I could skate to my heart’s content for the rest of the season. It was a tough call, but I really feel in my heart and in my gut that I made absolutely the right decision, and yeah, I’m going to stay behind it.”
Gregg is open about her season’s objective: the World Championships 30 k skate. Over the year, she’s honed her Level 3 pacing and focused on her speed over the last few kilometers in long running races. All with that 30 k skate in mind. With her years of training, she noted this year has been about fine tuning. Thus far, longer skate races have not been part of the platform upon which Gregg can demonstrate to the U.S. coaches she’s ready for Lahti.
Here’s a breakdown of Gregg’s skate races this season: she qualified third in West Yellowstone’s SuperTour 1.5 k skate (she placed eighth overall after the heats), a fourth in SilverStar’s NorAm 10 k skate, her U.S. nationals 10 skate win, and Thursday’s skate sprint third place.
Despite not having the opportunity to display her long distance fitness beyond 10 k, and historically not known as a sprinter, Gregg had qualifying for World Championships front and center during the sprint.
“Today was a big day though because I want to show the U.S. coaches, you know, I informed them of my injury and my decision, but I said I’m healthy to skate. I can’t classic, I’m healthy to skate. I said, I’m not going to go for any races at World Champs with classic in them, but I’m 100 percent good to go for skating, and I’m healthy and strong and fast at this point.”
For certain, the U.S. coaches will be meeting to determine who’s in and who’s out. In a loaded World Championships schedule with seven races in 10 days for the women, it will come down to how the U.S. can maintain fresh skiers for each race — skiers who are likely to medal. Perhaps more so than ever, the U.S. women’s team has a good problem, with several potential top-five skiers on any given day. Sitting solidly in second on the SuperTour distance points list, Gregg will wait to see if her two-podium week put her in the running as a Lahti option.
— Gerry Furseth and Gabby Naranja contributed
(Above video by Kirk Nichols of The Utah Nordic Alliance)