Two weeks after being officially selected to the U.S. team for 2017 senior World Championships, which will be held later this month in Lahti, Finland, 22-year-old Cole Morgan still felt like he had something to prove, goals to chase, races to qualify for.
That’s where U23 World Championships came in. For Morgan, a former University of Vermont skier who graduated last spring and began a professional racing career with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) in Sun Valley, Idaho, his goal for the one race he was competing in at his first U23 Worlds was to finish in the top 12 — which would secure his spot at 2017 World Cup Finals, according to the U.S. Ski Team’s selection criteria.
So he went after it on Tuesday at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, racing to 11th in the men’s 1.5-kilometer classic-sprint qualifier, 8.19 seconds off the fastest time set by Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov in 3:36.52. Morgan went on to take second in his quarterfinal, 0.85 seconds behind Bolshunov in first, and fifth in his semifinal for ninth overall.
“Coming into these championships already having qualified for World Champs honestly didn’t really take of any of the pressure to perform,” Morgan wrote in an email after Tuesday’s sprint.
He had drawn the attention of U.S. coaches and earned the final men’s sprint spot on the U.S. World Championships team in a tiebreak, based on his SuperTour results, according to U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover.
“If anything I feel like I put more pressure on myself because I felt that I had to prove that I deserve that spot and really wanted to show that I can mix it up with guys with World Cup experience,” wrote Morgan, who has never started a World Cup.
Once he had successfully achieved a top 12 by making the semifinals, “I just wanted to give it my best in the semi and see how far I could go,” Morgan wrote.
His quarterfinal strategy had been to stick behind Bolshunov.
“I had a really good start and was able to tuck right in behind him right after the start,” Morgan explained. “From then on I just skied behind him for the rest of the course and remained in contact over the last climb. I had some of the fastest skis out there today and was able to come around him on the outside into the finish but didn’t have as much left in the double pole finish.”
Bolshunov crossed the line first in 3:38.13 and Morgan followed in second to automatically advance to the semifinal. Behind him, Slovenia’s Miha Šimenc finished third (+1.2) and the second American in the heat, Paddy Caldwell was fourth (+6.17).
Caldwell, of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) and U.S. Ski Team D-team, was one of three U.S. men to reach the rounds after qualifying in 20th (+14.68). With his quarterfinal result, he ended the day in 18th for his best sprint result by 25 places at his third U23 World Championships.
Morgan’s Sun Valley teammate, Jack Hegman qualified 23rd (+15.59) and finished sixth in the last quarterfinal, 5.71 seconds behind Norway’s Chrisander Skjønberg Holth in first. That put Hegman 28th overall at his first U23 Worlds (after having competed in 2014 Junior Worlds). Cal Deline (Dartmouth) narrowly missed the heats after placing 31st in the qualifier, 0.14 seconds out of 30th.
In the first men’s semifinal, Norway’s Fredrik Riseth, who had qualified fourth and won the first quarterfinal, beat Bolshunov to the line in 3:35.21. The Russian finished 0.28 seconds back in second, Norway’s Joachim Aurland followed in third (+0.68), and Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin (who spent the better part of this season on the World Cup) was fourth (+2.8). Morgan finished fifth (+9.67), ahead of Sweden’s Axel Ekström, also a World Cup skier who finished 32nd in the Tour de Ski, in sixth (+10.74).
Morgan explained that he used his quarterfinal strategy in the semifinal and was in a good position until the downhill before the last climb.
“I was just too blown out from my quarter to push the last hill at all,” he wrote. “I was in sixth off the back at the top but was able to make up some good time on the downhill and the finish with my skis to move into fifth.
“I’m really happy with this result as I met my goal for the championships and felt good about where I’m at with my skiing,” Morgan added. “This is my only event this week so I was stoked to have a good one.”
Next on his agenda: the 34 k Boulder Mountain Tour on Feb. 4 in Sun Valley before leaving for Finland on Feb. 16.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the four men who finished ahead of Morgan in the semifinal plus Russia’s Andrey Sobakarev and Norway’s Holth (who placed first and second, respectively, in the second semifinal) advanced to the final. There, Riseth — who won the Junior Worlds classic sprint two years ago — beat Bolshunov again for the overall victory in 3:32.78. Bolshunov took silver, 1.05 seconds back, and Norway had two on the podium with Aurland in third (+2.3).
Canada’s Evan Palmer-Charrette (NTDC Thunder Bay) was 0.92 seconds out of qualifying in 33rd (+18.21). He led Canadian teammates Julian Smith (NTDC Thunder Bay) in 34th (+18.59), Scott James Hill (Team Hardwood) in 35th (+18.73), and Alexis Dumas (CNEPH) in 42nd (+30.79).