Sixteen-year-old Stephen Schumann knew the drill when it came to Nordic Junior World Championships. He had been to his first Junior Worlds last year in Rasnov and Cheile Gradistei, Romania, and competed in three events: two individual and the team 4 x 5-kilometer relay.
This year, he’s on his home turf in Park City, Utah. And while most U.S. nordic-combined up-and-comers migrate there to train with the U.S. Ski Team at Utah Olympic Park, Schumann grew up just down the road in Salt Lake City.
So you could say he had an advantage or at least a good feeling about 2017 Junior World Championships at home in Park City and Midway, Utah. In the first nordic-combined competition of the week, Schumann jumped to 28th on the 100-meter “normal” hill on Tuesday.
While that didn’t ‘wow’ him, what he did in the 10-kilometer race that followed on Tuesday did — at least for those watching and following along at home.
Schumman started 1:23 minutes out of first and posted the fifth-fastest time to clinch 10th at the finish, 55 seconds behind the winner, Finland’s Arttu Mäkiaho. Schumann’s goal going into the championships had been a top 15.
“This was the event I really wanted to do well in,” Schumann explained in an email. “This course suited me with the amount of climbing in it. … Going into the jumping I knew I was going to need a good jump to have a chance. Then if I had the jump I needed I knew I was going to need to race fast to stay in the running.”
Jumping to 28th (out of 48) wasn’t exactly what he had been hoping for.
“I didn’t go as far as I knew I needed to go to start in the top 20. However I got compensation points for the wind and was starting in 28th position,” he explained. “Luckily the points after the jumping competition were tight and I was starting only 1 minute and 26 seconds behind the leader. Looking at the start list I noticed the name right behind me and knew that he was a fast skier. So going into the race my goal was to hang with him if he caught me.”
The man who started behind him, Austria’s Mika Vermeulen, raced up from 29th and 1:28 back at the start to second at the finish, 21.6 seconds behind Mäkiaho. Vermeulen skied the fastest 10 k time of the day in 24:48.1 (Mäkiaho’s winning time was 25:54.5 and Schumann’s was 25:26.5).
Schumann recalled “feeling great” for the first of two laps, “not working too hard while making up time on the people in front of me.”
About halfway through, Vermeulen caught him.
“I skied with him for about a lap or two and then he took off,” Schumann wrote. “After he was gone I was able to settle into my own pace and keep picking people off in front of me. Going into the fourth lap I knew I was leading a train with some fast skiers so I tried to pick up the pace and space it out. This worked and and I was able to drop some other athletes but I was still in a group with three or four skiers so I sprinted as hard as I could over the last hill and managed to give myself some room over the finishing stretch. Overall I felt good and was able to pull in 18 people in front of me which I was extremely happy with.”
Schumann led the four U.S. men competing on Tuesday, with Ben Loomis finishing 18th (+1:38.5) after jumping to 15th, Koby Vargas placing 37th (+3:44.0) after jumping to 36th, and Grant Andrews in 44th (+4:25.6) after jumping to 41st.
Previously, Schumann’s best individual result at Junior Worlds had been 31st in the normal hill/10 k last year in Romania.
“I was very happy to have a good race and have my family and friends there to see it,” he wrote. “But there is still one more individual event and a team event, so I’m still hoping to improve on the tenth place from today. As well as have a good race as a team and improve on our 6th place result from last year.”
In his fifth Junior Worlds, 19-year-old Mäkiaho achieved his first gold and podium on Tuesday. He had previously placed fourth with Finland in two team events, and had a best individual result of 13th in 2013.
Mäkiaho started Tuesday by jumping to ninth and started the race 35 seconds behind France’s Laurent Muhlethaler, the jump leader. While Muhlethaler slipped to 17th by the finish (+1:23.7), Mäkiaho skied the third-fastest 10 k to take the win.
“Being Junior World Champion simply feels fantastic,” Mäkiaho said, according to a U.S. Ski Team press release. “I’ve been dreaming about this for so long. My jump was good and I expected the cross-country skiing to be a lot harder than it really was. That’s why it just feels great.”
Vermeulen finished second, and Germany’s Martin Hahn reached the podium in third, finishing 25.6 seconds behind Mäkiaho. Hahn started 16th, 55 seconds out of first, and skied the fourth-fastest 10 k.
“I’m absolutely speechless,” Vermeulen said, according to the press release. “Everything went good and the way I wanted it to go; so it was roundabout a perfect day for me. The course is so hard and it’s a lot of suffering, but that’s just what I like.”
Hahn was pleased with his jump, which put him in a position to reach the podium.
“After a good jump onto 16th place I could close the gap to the guys in front and ended up on a third place, which I’m very happy about,” he said.
The Nordic Combined Junior Worlds continue with competitions Thursday (team event) and Saturday (normal hill/5 k).