Those who follow Liz Stephen’s career know her to be one of the grittiest skiers in the world. Look no further than her hill climb results; one has to have a certain affinity for pain to do so well skiing up mountains. It was no surprise, then, to see Stephen’s form emerge near the front of the pack in the first few minutes of the 15 k skiathlon in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday. The grueling course at the 2014 Olympic venue has been much discussed, and the six minute-long climbs jutting out on the skate course profile are right in Stephen’s wheelhouse.
Forty-seven minutes later Stephen crossed the finish line in eighth place for the best regular-season World Cup result of her life. She skied comfortably with the leaders for the first 7.5 k on classic skis in warm, snowy conditions, and when the pack began to break up after the switch to skating she fought through no-man’s land to regain contact with the group of podium contenders.
Her finish time, 47:03, was ultimately 45.3 seconds behind Kristin Stoermer Steira’s (NOR) winning mark and 25 seconds off the podium. On a challenging, slow, powder-laden course that difference was close enough to touch as the finish line drew near.
Such a performance may have been satisfactory some other season, might have even exceeded expectations, but at several years into her World Cup career the sight of the podium ever closer, yet still out of reach, left Stephen wanting more.
“It was definitely her best ever distance race, other than the Alpe Cermis, but it definitely wasn’t her best performance,” U.S. Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb said. “The result was awesome, but the synopsis of the performance was: just kind of an OK day. But when eighth is an OK day, we’re happy with that, for sure.”
Stephen’s classic leg went well, but she’d hoped her skating would be closer to the kind of prowess she demonstrated in the Tour de Ski final climb this January.
“The race today was very challenging for me,” Stephen wrote in an email. “The classic portion went really well, as I probably had my best ever start in a mass start, getting myself to the front of the group right away and staying in the top 10 or the whole classic portion of the race. Once the skate started, though, my legs were not up for the hills today, and I was not able to ski the way I was hoping to.
“That said, I skied my heart out trying to stay with the lead chase pack, and I am certainly happy with my eighth place finish today.”
When Stephen came around the final corner into the finish straight, each push off her skies looked labored through the freshly accumulated snow. She wasn’t the only one to collapse in exhaustion upon crossing the line; within minutes the finish area was strewn with worn-out athletes.
On a weekend loudly touted as an Olympic warm-up, Stephen noted that eighth on a sub-par day was a big step forward in gaining the confidence she needs to believe she belongs on a World Cup podium.
“The best part of today was proving to myself that on a day when I feel really good, I can have a podium finish in a World Cup,” she said. “Getting myself to truly believe that has been an ongoing process and a tough mental barrier for me to break into, I think. After racing for quite a few years now on the World Cup circuit and slowly making gains each year, to finally see the podium as the next step, man, it’s hard to get your head around it in order to fully believe that I can be on one of those steps in the near future.
“But it is also the most important part of getting onto the step. Believing fully that you actually can do it. So, days like today help in that process.”
Stephen headlined a group of three American women in the top 30. Sadie Bjornsen produced her best distance result in 24th, 1:46 behind the winner, and Jessie Diggins came through just 13 seconds behind Bjornsen in 26th.
On the way to a new career-best Bjornsen found herself closer to the front than she intended. Wearing bib number 25 she somehow wound up in the top five in the first few minutes of the race, an experience she said brought brief panic along with some confidence.
“All I could think was, ‘Oh my gosh, Sadie, you are so far over your head right now, you’re going to blow your legs right away.’ But then I was kind of enjoying it at the same time,” Bjornsen laughed. “Like, this is what it’s like to ski at the front of a World Cup field. And honestly it was better, because I know in the back it was total stop-and-go traffic.”
Bjornsen was in 16th after the classic leg, and at 7.5 k was still with a lead group that was crammed into the same 10-15 seconds. The first lap of the skate portion was more of a challenge — “I was just trying to keep it together; I think on my first lap maybe six people passed me,” she said — but towards the end she could sense the finish line and skied a strong final lap.
“I’m definitely super happy, for a pursuit that’s pretty good for me,” Bjornsen said. “And it’s always nice to be in the points of course, because every race last year I was right outside of it.”
Right behind her, Diggins characterized her pursuit as “an OK day.” She got off to a slow start, which is something she’s working on, and had to move her way up from near the back of the 51-woman field to reach the top 30 by 6 k.
“My body definitely did not feel as good as it did the other day, which was a little bit, like, ‘Oh, rats,’” Diggins said. “It wasn’t a bad race; I definitely struggled in the classic portion and I need to work on my mass starts. I was just not aggressive at all and I just got skied all over… I was just working my way up through the skate.”
Though the pursuit was not what she was personally looking for, Diggins was happy to have seen two teammates skied personal bests.
“The highlight of the day was definitely seeing Liz take off and seeing Sadie ski so strong,” she said. “That was really cool for me.”
Even with Kikkan Randall sitting out, five American women started the skiathlon; Ida Sargent followed up her sixth-place finish in Friday’s sprint with a 37th the next day, 3:02 back from the leaders. Like Diggins, she experienced frustration in the crowded mass start and took a few spills to boot later in the race.
“I was really excited after yesterday and hoping for a top 30 today, but [it was] not my day,” Sargent said. “I felt like I was playing catch up the whole time.”
When she fell on a high-speed downhill she lost critical momentum and skied the remainder of the race by herself, which left her feeling frustrated at the finish.
“The worst crash was when I got spun around on the bottom of the downhill coming into the stadium at the end of the first skate lap, and lost the pack that I was skiing with as well as getting passed by a bunch more people. But, great experience to race on these courses,” she added.
Holly Brooks, on the heels of a spectacular sprint qualifier and 16th on the final results, had also been expecting big things in the skiathlon. She ended up 41st, well off her expectations, and is currently trying to reconcile her great sprint results with concurrently poor distance skiing.
“I’m not sure why I’m feeling good sprinting and bad distance racing,” Brooks said. “I’ve always identified myself as a distance racer. I’m working with the coaches to try to figure this out. Maybe I’m still holding onto fatigue from the Tour de Ski, I’m not sure.”
Erik Flora, her coach at Alaska Pacific University, will join the USST in Davos, Switzerland, next week.
“I am really looking forward to meeting with him in person,” Brooks said. “My distance racing gear seems to be a little out of wack.”
With a bear of a skiathlon race now in the books, and the Olympic course a well-known quantity, the Americans are excited about the events set to take place there next year. Stephen now knows what to picture in her head over the next twelve months when she thinks about the Games.
“Skiing and racing the courses gives me ideas of what I should work on this summer to be ready to ski the best I can here next February,” she said.