The feeling was beyond déjà vu. Simi Hamilton remembered the exact moment so clearly: almost exactly 13 months ago, he had led the World Cup men’s freestyle-sprint final in Toblach, Italy, into the last climb and ensuing descent into the stadium. There he was, leading the six-man final and racing for first place. Italy’s Federico Pellegrino took it from him after taking advantage of the downhill draft, slingshotting from second to first, while Hamilton secured second. It was the second podium of Hamilton’s career and first in a non-stage World Cup.
Great moment, but on Saturday, the U.S. Ski Team member was out to make it even better on the same 1.3-kilometer sprint course in Toblach.
In an instant, Hamilton recalled his positioning on that last hill and how those final seconds played out last season as he approached the last hill of Saturday’s final. Hamilton charged from behind to put himself in second by the top, right behind Pellegrino.
“I remember thinking coming down that long downhill, ‘This is awesome because this is exactly what Federico did to me last year,’ ” Hamilton said on the phone after Saturday’s race. “He got a really good draft off of me coming down that downhill and he was able to slingshot through the corner and into the finish stretch so I was really psyched. I was like, ‘This could be a really good thing right now.’ ”
His observations were spot on as the U.S. sprinter — who has worked to improve his distance racing as well — slingshot around Pellegrino to lead into the final curve before the finishing straight. There, he skied over a pocket of softer snow, which caught him off guard and put him back on his heels, he said.
“It kind of it messed with my head a little bit,” Hamilton said. “So I think it took me a second to recover from that, and I was just focusing so hard on not doing anything really stupid in the last 100 meters with the snow conditions kind of being a little funky there.”
At the same time, he knew he had as good a shot at ever at winning.
“I knew that I was fighting for first right there and fairly confident I was going to be on the podium at that point, but I really wanted that first spot, especially with having gotten second last year,” the 29-year-old Colorado native said.
Behind him, Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar had also taken advantage of the draft, as well as Hamilton’s slight bobble under the archway banner 100 meters before the finish, and came up on Hamilton’s left side to challenge him for first place.
The two went stride-for-stride to the line, which ended in a photo finish for first. Skar celebrated across the line, holding one arm high, while Hamilton teetered out of exhaustion and face planted alongside him. It took several moments to determine the actual winner. Finally, the results revealed that the 24-year-old Skar had taken it by three-hundredths of a second (winning the final in 2:47.91 minutes) for his first individual World Cup victory. For Hamilton, second place marked his first podium this season and the fourth of his career.
“He had a really really solid last 100 meters,” Hamilton said of Skar. “We both threw for the line and he was just coming up a little faster than I was. … It was a little frustrating, for sure, to be second again for the second year in a row, but at the same time he skied really well, and all of those other guys in the final. It is great to share the podium with a bunch of other really talented, strong skiers, who are the best sprinters in the world.”
Norway had two on the podium with 20-year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo in third (+0.66).
Pellegrino missed out on the podium by 0.61 seconds in fourth (+1.27), Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger placed fifth (+1.84) and another Norwegian Håvard Solås Taugbøl was sixth (+3.77).
For Skar, who turns 25 on Jan. 22, the victory (which was his third podium this season and his career) was another check mark on his list of season goals.
“Getting my first World Cup victory and then qualifying for the World Championships was one of my goals this year and it seems like that’s going well,” he told NRK after.
After qualifying in fourth (0.78 seconds behind Taugbøl, who won the qualifier in 2:47.38), Skar went on to win the first men’s quarterfinal in a photo finish with Hediger, then placed second in the first semifinal. Taugbøl won that semifinal by just six-hundredths of a second over Skar, while Hamilton was just another 0.05 seconds back in third and Hediger 0.03 seconds behind Hamilton in fourth. All four advanced to the final, where Skar positioned himself in the middle of the pack for much of the two-lap race, skiing in third up the second-to-last climb.
“It was almost like a lottery,” Skar said of the frequent change of leaders in the final during a post-race, televised interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “I just tried to stay calm and to have a good sprint.”
He had a feeling that he had the edge on Hamilton, but “it was very, very tight,” Skar said.
For Hamilton, who qualified fifth (+0.83), the podium confirmed what he had been searching for. So far this season, he has only competed in six World Cup races. Three of them were sprints, and his best result before Saturday had been 18th in the skate sprint at the Tour de Ski’s first stage in Val Müstair, Switzerland. After leaving the Tour after Stage 2, Hamilton competed in two OPA Cup races last weekend in Planica, Slovenia. There, he won the skate sprint and finished fifth in the 10 k skate.
“That definitely increased my confidence and I felt much better about where I was fitness-wise and speed-wise with those races last weekend,” Hamilton said. “And I knew that I have skied this course well before and I really enjoy racing here. It is a great place and I love it, and I was just psyched to see what I could do today, and fortunately it ended pretty well.”
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said it was “incredible” that Hamilton has placed second in Toblach’s sprint two years in a row.
“It’s been fun watching him train on this course this week,” Grover said on the phone Saturday. “He did a big intensity session on the sprint course on Thursday, and when you watch him do it, he just looks like somebody who could be on the podium in this race, and of course he looked like that last week when he won the OPA Cup, too. He was able to go out there and make moves at will and see an opening and take it.
“He’s shown a mastery of this course, and his fitness is quite high,” Grover added. “It’s also worth mentioning that we had incredible skis today. Athletes kept coming back saying, ‘My skis are incredibly fast!’ That’s a key part of the equation.”
As for Hamilton’s form leading up to World Championships late next month?
“I’m hoping that I am not peaking right now because obviously we have quite a bit more time to go before Lahti, but I am definitely feeling like things are still going in the right direction,” Hamilton said.
All 7 Americans Advance
Men and women combined, five Americans and two Canadians started Saturday’s sprint — held less than a week after the nine-day Tour de Ski (TDS) ended last Sunday. Three of those Americans were women; the two Canadians were both men. Just one of them completed the Tour. Most of the competitors in Toblach this weekend did not compete in this year’s TDS.
Of those seven North Americans, all of them finished in the top 30 of their respective qualifiers on Saturday to advance to the heats.
Hamilton led the group in fifth, and just another 0.27 seconds back, his U.S. teammate Andy Newell qualified in sixth, 1.1 seconds behind Taugbøl.
Canada’s Alex Harvey qualified eighth (+1.73) and Len Valjas 23rd (+4.16) out of 70 starters. (Of note: Russia’s TDS winner Sergey Ustiugov finished last in the qualifier in 70th, nearly 42 seconds off Taugbøl’s time.)
In the first men’s quarterfinal, Newell took third at the finish, 0.38 seconds behind Skar in first. Their quarterfinal time wasn’t fast enough to put Newell through as a lucky loser, and he ended up 13th on the day for his best result this season. In his fourth World Cup sprint this season, Saturday marked Newell’s first time qualifying in the top 30.
“Skate skiing and I haven’t been on great terms the last year or so haha,” Newell wrote in an email. “But in all seriousness I knew this year was meant to be a rebuilding process for me so I’m happy to be back on track.
“I finished last season not ever wanting to race a sprint race again, so I knew mentally and physically it was going to take some work to build back up to being a medal contender again,” he added. “I have to keep reminding myself that it’s still just January and to be patient and continue to try to make small gains and build throughout the season. Points and standings aren’t important to me at this time, just staying healthy and strong and building toward the World Championships and especially the Olympic year.”
Harvey raced to fourth in the second quarterfinal, 0.42 seconds behind Hamilton, who won that heat. The Canadian ended up in a photo finish with Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli for third in that quarterfinal and missed it by 0.08 seconds. Neither Fossli nor Harvey advanced to the semifinals, and Harvey placed 17th overall (moving him up to fourth in the overall World Cup standings).
“I think that was my best qualifier in two years so I was a bit surprised,” said Harvey, who was coming off a career-best seventh in the TDS and had originally planned to skip the individual sprint to rest up for Sunday’s freestyle team sprint, according to a Cross Country Canada (CCC) press release. “It was such an easy trip to come down to Toblach. I just felt if I’m doing race prep I might as well put a bib on and see what happens. I felt a lot of speed today and was quite happy.”
Harvey noted the precise tactics of the Toblach sprint with a “good course here that has you always turning left,” he told CCC. “You need to keep on the inside lane because it is a little quicker, especially with the fresh snow, so if you took the lead it was hard for someone to go by you. I was just not quick enough from the start.”
Valjas also finished fourth in his quarterfinal, 1.58 seconds behind Pellegrino who won that heat, to place 20th overall. While Valjas remained in contact with the leaders throughout, he found himself at the back of the group early and moved up slightly to secure fourth at the finish.
Three U.S. Women in Semis
Meanwhile in the women’s race, the three U.S. entrants — Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent and Kikkan Randall — qualified for the heats in 15th, 16th and 27th, respectively.
Caldwell’s 15th-ranked qualifying time was 4.82 seconds behind the qualifying winner, Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, who completed the 1.3 k course in 3:10.89.
Sargent was another 0.27 seconds back in 16th (+5:09), and Randall was 7.52 seconds off Falla’s qualifying mark.
All three U.S. women reached the semifinals, with Caldwell and Sargent automatically advancing after taking second in their quarterfinals. In the first quarterfinal, Caldwell finished 0.18 seconds behind Sweden’s Hanna Falk, and Sargent was 0.23 seconds behind the winner of the fifth quarterfinal, Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan. Randall reached the semis as a lucky loser, after placing fourth in the fourth quarterfinal, 1.42 seconds behind Germany’s Sandra Ringwald in first.
For Randall, it marked her first semifinal appearance in two years (she took last season off to have a baby).
“I am feeling a little closer to my normal sprint gears every race,” Randall wrote in an email on Saturday. “Today’s qualifier was a good start. In the quarterfinals I was in a really fast heat and just tried to stay relaxed in the pack. We had really fast skis today and I was able to be strong in the finish so it was really exciting to advance to the semis.”
In the first semifinal, Randall and Caldwell squared off against a stacked heat with Norway’s Falla, Sweden’s Falk and her teammate Ida Ingemarsdotter, and Russia’s Natalia Matveeva. During the first lap, Caldwell positioned herself in third and trailed Matveeva and Falla on the descent before the start of Lap 2. There, on the downhill, Randall rode up into Caldwell and both tumbled to the ground and out of contention before the second lap.
“Our skis were incredibly fast today and that was actually a little bit of the problem,” Randall explained. “When our pack came down the hill that first time in the semi, everyone came together into the corner. The other girls went right so I could really only take the inside. I came up on Sophie faster than expected and tried to sneak by on the inside. But there wasn’t much space and I think I may have knocked her boot with my ski.
“When she lost balance there was nowhere to go and my skis went underneath her as we fell,” she continued. “I feel really bad because I think I caused the crash. It was a real bummer because I think both of us were feeling good and ready to mix it up. But luckily we are both OK and there was no broken bodies or equipment.”
In what appeared to be a slow-motion tangle, both Randall and Caldwell appeared to smile at each other as they realized their misfortune. Caldwell particularly had trouble freeing her ski. The two finished fifth and sixth in that heat (Randall 22 seconds back in fifth, and Caldwell a minute back from Falla as the winner of that semifinal in sixth).
“[Kikkan] asked if I was okay and apologized,” Caldwell recalled. “It’s a bummer, but it’s unfortunately part of ski racing and there are no hard feelings.”
“We’ve had problems with that same thing before,” Grover noted. “Everyone from behind runs up on everyone who’s in front, and then, depending on if you’re pinched on the inside, or if you can make some space on the outside, you can end up making it through or you can end up in some trouble. It’s a pinch point, a tough point on the course, for sure.”
He added that Randall “took full accountability” for the crash, and there were no hard feelings.
“She felt quite bad about it, and Sophie bears no grudge about it because she knows that’s the kind of thing that happens in sprint racing all the time,” he said. “Those guys are good and they are going to be sprint teammates tomorrow, so we’ll start looking forward to the next day.”
Grover said his staff had to make the tough call of picking two women out of three for Sunday’s team sprint.
Sargent raced to sixth in the second semifinal on Saturday, just 0.86 seconds out of first. She had moved up to third on the final climb, trailing Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Germany’s Ringwald, respectively, and held her position on the final curve into the finishing straight. There, both Jacobsen and Sargent were overtaken by Slovenia’s Fabjan (who came on strong for second place) and Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff (third), following Ringwald in first.
At the end of the day, U.S. women occupied 10th through 12th place, with Randall in 10th, Caldwell in 11th and Sargent in 12th.
“I tried to stay relaxed in the heats, but I felt really good so I just tried to ski near the front of the pack,” Sargent wrote in an email. “The course is really frustrating though with a long downhill with a draft that brings everyone back together but I just tried to stay out of trouble. I thought that I was in a great position in the semifinal going into the finish but then I hit something and I’m not really sure what it was, but it stopped my ski dead and I almost fell. After that bobble it was hard to get going again and so I was really bummed to lose all the places and not advance.”
For Sargent, 12th was her best result in over a year.
“I felt really strong today so I’m happy with my fitness at this point in the season,” she wrote. “We had a small staff this weekend but they did an amazing job and I’m very thankful for such awesome skis!”
In terms of how the U.S. coaches made the call for between those three for Sunday’s team sprint, Grover said it wasn’t easy.
“… As luck would have it, we had three athletes finish 10, 11, 12 on the day today, which did not make it any easier,” he said. “You actually had three athletes who are fairly evenly matched in a lot of respects right now, in terms of how they’re skiing. In the end, we decided that we really wanted to have Kikkan’s experience, in team sprint in particular and in closing out a team sprint, and in the second leg, we wanted Sophie to be able to rely on her aerobic conditioning at the moment … It was a very hard decision for us … I really wish we had a fourth woman here, so we could start two teams.”
Matveeva Gets First Win in Nearly a Decade
While the three U.S. women missed Saturday’s final, Russia’s Matveeva — who hadn’t won a World Cup race since 2007 — went on to outlast Falla for her 12th-career individual podium. Eight years ago, Matveeva tested positive for EPO was was suspended from competing from December 2009 to March 2011. After that, she reportedly had two ACL tears. Now 30, Matveeva captured her second-career sprint win on Saturday by eight-hundredths of a second over Falla.
“I’ve waited a lot of time to be [here],” Matveeva told FIS in a post-race interview. “I’m very happy and the Russian team is very happy. Thank you very much my service team. Good job today.”
Matveeva charged to an early lead in the final, while Falla challenged her on the first of two climbs on the second lap. Matveeva followed her closely leading into the last climb, where Falla beat her to the top with a quicker-tempo V1. As the two descended into the stadium with a slight gap to Falk in third place, Matveeva drafted Falla then rode up alongside her, taking the outside line around the turn. The two sprinted toward the line, with Matveeva getting one extra push in for first place in 3:04.13.
“I don’t feel particularly well so second place is all right, but of course it’s frustrating to be beaten in the final stretch,” Falla told NRK. “I knew she would be fast in the final stretch. I’m a little lighter than everyone else, and that’s not an advantage.”
At the same time, Falla wasn’t bitter.
“It’s good that more people are fighting for the top spots before the World Championships; it’s more exciting then,” she said. “We have to see the positive in it all.”
Falk took the final spot on the podium in third (+2.41), and Ringwald was one second shy of it in fourth (+3.46). Ingemarsdotter finished fifth (+5.88) and Fabjan was sixth (+19.39).
In Sunday’s 6 x 1.3 k freestyle team sprint, Caldwell and Randall are teaming up in the first women’s semifinal, while their men’s team of Newell and Hamilton will be in the second men’s semifinal. Also in that second men’s semifinal are Canada’s Valjas and Harvey.
— Jason Albert, Ian Tovell, Jake Ellis, and Aleks Tangen contributed