(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Americans Ben Loomis, Luke Jager and Gus Schumacher.)
Junior World Championships (Goms, Switzerland): Men’s and women’s relays
Two individual medals and a relay podium. That’s how the U.S. team fared this week at Junior World Championships in terms of a medal count, but the significance of its breakthroughs go way beyond the hardware.
Hailey Swirbul became the most successful American nordic skier at Junior World Championships with a silver and a bronze in the two women’s distance races. Then, on Saturday, the U.S. men took their turn in the spotlight, racing to second and almost first in the 4 x 5-kilometer relay for the best relay finish by an American team at Junior Worlds. Last year, the U.S. women placed third at 2017 Junior Worlds at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.
Luke Jager started the team off on Saturday as the first classic leg, putting the U.S. men in sixth at the first exchange, 14 seconds behind Sweden in first.
While Sweden dropped to second on the next leg, the U.S. continued to move up, with Ben Ogden racing to fourth, 8.5 seconds out of first, behind Norway, Russia and France, respectively.
On the first freestyle leg, Hunter Wonders held the U.S. in fourth and tagged anchor Gus Schumacher in fourth, 31.3 seconds out of first. Norway continued to lead with France, and Russia skied about 5 seconds back in third with 5 k to go.
Schumacher then skied the fastest anchor leg to race up to second, passing France and finally Russia in the finishing straight, as he crossed the line 2.2 seconds behind Norway’s Jørgen Lippert — who eased up in the finish and secured the Norwegian gold with a total time of 50:04.2 minutes.
The U.S. placed second, 3.3 seconds ahead of Russia in third (+5.5), and France finished fourth (+29.6).
Norway’s winning team included two men who won individual golds this week, Harald Østberg Amundsen (in the 20 k skiathlon) and Jon Rolf Skamo Hope (10 k classic), as well as Håvard Moseby and Lippert (who took bronze in two races).
Russia’s team was made up of Kirill Kilivnyuk, Sergey Ardashev, Yaroslav Rybochkin, and Alexander Terentev. Team France was Camille Laude, Hugo Lapels, Tom Mancini, and Pierre Tichit.
Canada placed 11th (+3:12.8) with Antoine Cyr, Ritchie Graham, Felix Longpre, and Etienne Hebert. Sixteen teams contested the men’s relay on the final day of Junior Worlds in Goms.
In an email, Jager, who turned 18 last month, explained that he was grateful for the opportunity to race at his first Junior Worlds.
“I barely qualified for this trip after a tough week in Anchorage so my options for starts were super limited,” Jager wrote. “I got the sprint start last week which was pretty horrendous and then a guaranteed spot on the relay team. So I had the whole week to prepare and rest. Watching the boys all week we realized that a medal could be possible and we started targeting that super closely.”
But over the last week, Jager hadn’t been feeling well.
“I was feeling really really bad in the days following the sprint and could barely get out and ski for 60 minutes each day,” he recalled. “I had actually told [U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan] Fish that if I continued to feel as bad as I had been I was gonna sit out the relay. But I started feeling better and better throughout the week and was feeling really good this morning.”
He had previously asked Fish if he could ski the scramble leg.
“Bryan was stoked about it too so that decision was easy,” Jager explained. “This group of dudes is perfect for each leg of a relay so we barely even needed to discuss order. I am definitely a stronger classic skier so I was stoked to be able to get some redemption for my poor form in the last month.”
Schumacher, 17, explained he found out the relay order on Friday night and “really started to get excited about it,” he wrote in an email. “We had some foreign friends say that they thought we could do well so that really helped confidence.”
From the gun, Jager expected a fast pace and pushed to put himself in the lead group while trying to conserve energy and avoid any tangles He locked onto Norway’s Amundsen and by the last climb on the second lap, found that the group was beginning to string out.
“I was thankfully able to hold on just enough to maintain connection with the leaders and put Ben in a position where he could do his thing,” Jager wrote. “I would have liked to be a little further up in the group when I tagged off to Ben but the Swedes’ first skier had done so much damage in the last minutes that we were all in single file and pretty much in survival mode up the last climb.”
Fast-forward to Schumacher getting tagged in fourth in the final exchange, 31.5 seconds behind Norway in first, 30.9 seconds behind France in second, and 26.2 seconds behind Russia in third. Despite the gap, he believed he could close it.
“I definitely thought those three were in reach, and I wanted to catch them, if for no other reason than to keep clear of 5th and 6th,” Schumacher wrote. “I focused on really holding steady for the first 2k, then starting to push more, and I was able to catch that lead pack and then recover with them for the last sprint, which did end up really hurting.”
While he had distanced himself from France and secured third by the final hill, he hadn’t anticipated catching Russia or Norway.
“By the time I got through the downhill corner, however, I was closing fast on the Russian and realized I was right there,” Schumacher wrote. “I popped around the last corner and was almost even with Russia, then after a few seconds of sprinting I pulled ahead and he slowed down and I knew I had it.”
While Jager explained he’s not one to get very nervous about racing, Saturday was completely different.
“… Watching the rest of the race progress was one of the most nerve wracking experiences of my life,” he wrote. “When Hunter tagged off to Gus I knew we were really really gonna be in the fight for a medal. I’ve been racing Gus for most of my life and I know when that kid is gonna throw down and produce a miracle and I could see it…
“This is something this group of guys has been dreaming of and training for for a really long time now,” he added. “To be able to watch that dream come into fruition today was indescribable. Probably the best day of my life since Cole Morgan added me on Snapchat. We came here this year to show the world that US skiing is the real deal and that we’re here to stay and I think we did that. To be able to be a piece of that history was an honor.”
“Experiencing the podium here has been so cool,” Schumacher wrote. “I thought it was possible, but actually getting it feels amazing. This whole trip has been really cool even without this success, it’s such an amazing place and the team is tight. I think individually I anticipated results maybe a little better, but this seems about right, and as a team I think we all surprised ourselves. Together we can make some big waves.”
Germany Wins Women’s Relay; U.S. 8th
In the women’s 4 x 3.3 k relay earlier on Saturday, Germany took the win by 8.6 seconds over Russia with a winning time of 39:17.4. Sweden finished third, 47.5 seconds out of first.
Germany (Alexandra Danner, Celine Mayer, Lisa Lohmann, Anna-Maria Dietz) improved from third on the first leg, to second on the second and third legs, and final first on Dietz’s anchor leg.
Russia (Polina Nekrasova, Hristina Matsokina, Nina Dubotolkina, Maya Yakunina) led the race from the first through the third and final exchange, before slipping to second at the finish.
Sweden (Tua Dahlgren, Frida Karlsson, Alicia Persson, Johanna Hagström) rebounded from 13th and more than a minute and a half back at the first exchange to tag in fourth and 28 seconds out of first thanks to Karlsson’s fastest second-leg time. By the final exchange, they were up to third and they held that position to the finish.
The U.S. placed eighth (+1:08.1) with Kathleen O’Connell, Swirbul, Molly Gellert, and Hannah Halvorsen. After O’Connell put them in eighth and about a minute back on the first leg, Swirbul skied them up to sixth with the second-fastest second leg, 30.1 seconds out of first. Gellert held onto that position on the first skate leg, but Halvorsen slipped two places on the anchor leg to finish eighth.
Canada finished 15th (+4:47.8) out of 16 teams with Hannah Mehain, Natalie Hynes, Annika Richardson, and Alexandra Racine.
Nordic Combined Junior World Championships (Kandersteg, Switzerland): Normal hill/5 k Gundersen
In the final nordic-combined competition of Junior Worlds, American Ben Loomis nearly notched his second podium of the week, missing it by one-tenth of a second in fourth place.
Slovenia’s 18-year-old Vid Vrhovnik won the individual normal hill/5 k Gundersen by 4.9 seconds over Austria’s Dominik Terzer. After posting the third-best jump on the 106-meter hill, Vrhovnik started the 5 k race 6 seconds behind Germany’s Luis Lehnert in first. Terzer jumped to second and started just 4 seconds behind, while the Czech Republic’s Jan Vytrval jumped to fourth and started 10 seconds back. Loomis jumped to seventh (just as he did on Tuesday before racing to third place) and started 27 seconds out of first.
“I was happy with my jump being closer in time to the front,” Loomis wrote in an email about his his jump, which put him about 10 seconds closer to the leaders than on Tuesday. “I didn’t feel quite as lucky with the wind. I was hoping to jump around the top 5, but 7th, only 27sec back was good, too.”
Over the two-lap 5 k, Vrhovnik battled with Terzer, while Lehnert slipped to seventh at the finish, 23.5 seconds behind. The Slovenian took the win by nearly five seconds over Terzer in 11:28.8, and Vytrval outlunged Loomis for third place (+5.4). Loomis placed fourth (+5.5), well ahead of Norway’s Einar Lurås Oftebro in fifth (+18.4).
“I was able to catch places 3-6 on the first lap and ski with them through the beginning of the second lap,” Loomis wrote. “Towards the end of second lap I closed down on second place (Jan Vytral) with Dominik Terzer. On the last corner we packed up in positions 2-4.
“The finish started with a sharp downhill corner followed by a quick stretch less than 100 meters,” he continued. “I came into the finishing lanes in second but unfortunately took the wrong line and was passed by Dominik and never quite caught Jan in front of me.”
While he had been hoping for another podium, Loomis acknowledged that he was pleased to ski the fastest race time and “be battling at the front”.
“Overall I am leaving Switzerland with my goals accomplished and feeling satisfied,” he wrote. “It would have been nice to walk away with a double podium but I am still very happy with how to week went. This week has been a huge confidence booster going into the Olympics next week. I am very excited to represent my country and enjoy my time at the games. I am looking to have fun, take in experience and not overthink the results.”
Also for the U.S., Stephen Schumann placed 18th (+1:18.6), up one place from 19th in the jump, Jared Shumate finished 40th (+3:05.7), up from 48th in the jump, and Tucker Hoefler was 55th (+5:50.5), after jumping to 55th.
Nordic Combined World Cup (Hakuba, Japan): Large hill/10 k Gundersen
Many of the winter-sports World Cups were off this weekend before the Olympics start in earnest a week from today in PyeongChang, South Korea, but not nordic combined, which had a World Cup stop in Hakuba, Japan.
There, local hero Akito Watabe took the win in 24:14.6 minutes, a whopping 1:12.6 minutes clear of Norway’s Jan Schmid in second. Germany’s Manuel Faißt placed third, 1:22 back, and Estonia’s Kristjan Ilves finished 52 seconds later in fourth (+2:14).
The lone American competing in Saturday’s 10 k Gundersen, Ben Berend achieved his first individual World Cup top 30, placing 23rd (+4:31.7) after jumping to 16th on Hakuba’s 134-meter large hill.
Watabe led from the beginning of the day after jumping to first, ahead of Ilves in second, Faißt in third, and Schmid in fourth. Watabe started the 10 k with a 16-second head start on Ilves, while Faisst started 52 seconds out of first and Schmid started 1:08 behind.
Berend started the 10 k with a 2:36 deficit to first, with five others within 10 seconds of him. His teammate Adam Loomis did not start the 10 k after jumping to 38th.
Another individual large hill/10 k Gundersen will be held on Sunday in Hakuba. The first nordic combined competition in PyeongChang, the individual normal hill/10 k, is set for Wednesday, Feb. 14.
NorAm Eastern Canadian Championships (Gatineau, Quebec): 10/15 k freestyle
Americans swept the podium in both the men’s and women’s freestyle individual starts on Saturday at Eastern Canadian Championships in races that count toward both NorAm and SuperTour standings.
According to unofficial results, Jack Hegman, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), won the men’s 15 k by 9.1 seconds over David Norris, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), in 35:44.9. Tad Elliott (Ski Club Vail) placed third (+38.7) just ahead of the top Canadian, Jack Carlyle, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), in fourth (+41.7).
The U.S. occupied eight of the top 10 in the men’s race, with Kevin Bolger (SVSEF) in fifth (+45.0), Ben Lustgarten, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in sixth (+52.3), Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/LNR/CXC) in seventh (+57.0), Rogan Brown (SVSEF) in eighth (+58.1), Canada’s Scott Hill (Barrie Cross Country) in ninth (+1:14.7), and Eric Packer (APU) in 10th (+1:18.6).
After placing second in a 10 k freestyle at last weekend’s SuperTour in Craftsbury, Vermont, Rosie Frankowski (APU) won the women’s 10 k freestyle on Saturday in Gatineau by more than 30 seconds in 27:07.3. Her teammate Becca Rorabaugh (who won the Craftsbury 10 k skate as well as Friday’s classic sprint in Gatineau) placed second (+37.1) on Saturday, and Erika Flowers placed third (+1:26.4) for the third-straight race.
Frédérique Vézina, of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, led the Canadians in fourth (+1:46.2), while America Liz Guiney (CGRP) placed fifth (+1:52.2), and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (Rocky Mountain Racers) finished sixth (+1:56.4).
Also in the top 10, Kaitlynn Miller (CGRP) placed seventh (+1:57.8), Felicia Geisor (CXC Team) was eighth (+2:18.5), Zoë Williams (Carleton University) ninth (+2:39.6) and Annika Hicks (AWCA) 10th (+2:43.4).
Eastern Canadian Championships conclude Sunday with 10/15 k classic pursuits at the Nakkertok Nordic Ski Centre.