The American athletes at Junior World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, this week started things off with a bang in the classic sprint on Monday, qualifying four athletes for the heats. Two men and two women made it as far as the quarterfinals; Ben Saxton (F.A.S.T. Performance Training) and Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) headlined the day in 14th and 16th, respectively. Heather Mooney (Middlebury College) led the way for the U.S. in the women’s heats in 19th and Corey Stock (Dartmouth College) took 24th. For a team that didn’t qualify anyone at the championships last year, it was a big step up for the group overall.
“I’m super excited about the result,” Saxton said. “A top-15 at World Juniors was definitely one of my goals and to do it emphatically and show I belonged there was really important.”
U.S. Ski Team development coach and trip leader Bryan Fish was also pretty pleased with the first competition day in Liberec.
“I thought today was a very strong start,” he said. “This is a huge step forward and they skied well. It was a pretty tough course with tricky conditions; we had some new snow this morning… So although it was a tricky day, it was definitely a good day.”
Saxton, who turned heads at U.S. Nationals earlier this month by making the A-final in the classic sprint, had big ambitions for the opening event of the week. In the qualifying round he started in the spot 15 seconds in front of Hanneman, and it must have helped both athletes, as Hanneman qualified 10th and Saxton 11th, just four seconds off Vadim Korolev’s (RUS) top time in 2:54.
“We rocked that qualifier,” Saxton said. “They read our names with a plus 4 seconds I did a double take and it was so cool!”
In the quarterfinals Saxton and Hanneman met again. The sprint course consisted of three climbs followed by descents, with the last hill feeding into the finishing stretch. Saxton and Hanneman finished third and fourth in the heat and didn’t advance.
“I skied like such a fool on that opening climb and cost myself a lot of energy, I’m still kicking myself for that,” Saxton said.
For the athletes, the improvement in team results was cause for excitement as well as a desire for more. Fourteenth and sixteenth out of the best U20s in the world is not too shabby — it’s Hanneman’s best Junior Worlds result and Saxton’s first one on the books — but in another sign of how far the juniors have come, neither was perfectly happy with the results.
“I’m not totally satisfied,” Saxton. “To show myself and the world that I was supposed to be there and then get bounced from the quarters really doesn’t sit well with me. I loved today and I’m not sad, but I know I’m capable of more and I’m disappointed I didn’t get to show it.
“I think Logan kind of feels the same way, really wishing we could’ve thrown down our absolute best and not made certain decisions in our quarter.”
In his writeup for the National Nordic Foundation, the non-profit providing a significant amount of funding for the Liberec trip, Hanneman essentially concurred.
“Unfortunately, we both raced slightly chaotic races in the heat and failed to move on,” he wrote. “We were close though… This was a great showing for us. It showed that we were right in the hunt, but just need a little more experience when it comes to head to head racing.”
Outside the top 30, Tucker McCrerey (University of Utah) was 42nd, less than four seconds out of the rounds, and Sawyer Kesselheim (Bridger Ski Foundation) finished 45th a fraction of a second behind McCrerey.
“I was excited for all the races but the 10 k skate is the one I believe I can do the best in,” Kesselheim said. “This is my first trip to Europe for racing and I came into it not knowing where I stand. Given that, I am hoping to be top-20 in the skate race.”
On the women’s side, Mooney came into the sprint with plenty of international experience to her name. She competed in the Youth Olympic Games in Austria last winter and at World Juniors in Estonia in 2011, and she took pride on Monday in no longer being intimidated by foreign turf and unknown competition.
“I’m definitely excited with the day!” Mooney wrote in an email. “I knew if I had a perfect day I maybe could make the semi finals, so I just focused on the details I could control, my skis, my warm up, and skiing the course well, and it turned out pretty well.
“There are definitely things to improve on, but I’m happy that I felt comfortable with the racing scene here, and didn’t feel like the idea of racing in Europe threw me off this time. It was cool to see USA qualify 4 people for the heats, we’re definitely contenders over here, so it’s fun see us holding our own. Proud to be an American!”
Mooney described the sprint course as “really hard, definitely the hardest I’ve ever raced,” and likened it to Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine — “crazy, but it makes it comfortable I guess!”
The classic sprint is one of her favorite events but she also has high hopes for the pursuit, and if she skis well there, the relay, too.
Stock’s 24th was also a personal improvement from her first Worlds appearance last year, where she was 41st in the freestyle sprint. The Dartmouth freshman qualified in 25th and moved up a place in her quarterfinal.
Sloan Storey (University of Utah) was 45th, 9 seconds out of qualifying, and Anika Miller (Payette Lakes Sports) finished 52nd, 11 seconds out of 30th.
The athletes that didn’t make the heats said they were looking forward to the distance races throughout the rest of the week and felt more motivated to improve upon Monday’s result.
Storey and Miller also made first-time World Juniors performances in the sprint. Storey considers herself to be more of a distance skier and was perfectly happy with her result.
“Today was a pretty great day,” she said. “My result was 45th so I didn’t qualify for the heats, but I was fine with that considering sprinting isn’t my best event and these girls are insanely fast!”
Miller was disappointed not to move on in the sprint, which she considers one of her stronger events, but is looking forward to another shot in the 5 k.
“I didn’t quite perform to expectations today and I struggled a little bit out there, but I think I have a better chance to perform in a skate race so hopefully Wednesday will go well,” she said. “I am a much stronger and more consistent skate skier so hopefully I can represent the team well on Wednesday and put down a big result.”
All told, she was excited to be part of the American group on a successful day.
“So far we’re off to a good start as a team and I am very excited to see what team USA can bring to the table for the rest of the week because this is a very talented team,” Miller said.
The individual improvements on Monday combined to make for a big step up for the U.S. showing as a whole, and the amount of international experience on this year’s team reinforced the idea that experience leads to success. According to Fish, fourteen out of the 22 juniors and U23s on the team have raced internationally before.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Fish said. “Fourteen of these guys are returning in some fashion from international experience and the more they get that opportunity and experience the better they are. I attribute it to their preparation and a good camp, and they’re working well together.”