For fans of North American skiing, some of the last races of U23 and Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, proved beyond captivating, surpassing most expectations and previous results.
But for the U.S. junior women’s relay, a group of four that had set a goal two years ago at a U.S. development training camp, the podium was exactly where they had envisioned themselves.
Hailey Swirbul, Julia Kern, Hannah Halvorsen, and Katharine Ogden went out and achieved that very goal on Sunday, racing to third in the 4 x 3.3-kilometer relay on the final day of Junior Worlds.
According to Ogden, who became the first American to capture an individual bronze two days earlier in the women’s 10 k skiathlon, the foursome were at a camp two years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y., when they walked into a store together. In the 1980 Olympic village, they found red-white-and-blue tube socks — just like the socks the U.S. Ski Team women wear in World Cup team events — on sale. They each bought a pair and made a goal of wearing them together in the relay at World Juniors.
“The four of us have a group message, and it wasn’t unusual to open that message and see a note from someone who just couldn’t contain their excitement for this relay and had to share it with the rest of us… and this was up to two years ago!” Swirbul explained in an email. “We didn’t just think or hope we were capable of this result, I think we all KNEW we could do it deep down. It was kind of surreal to wake up on the morning of the race and think, ‘Today is the day, this is what we have been waiting for for so long! Let’s do this.’ ”
So just by getting to the relay start line on Sunday, they achieved their goal. But they knew they were capable of a top, even best-ever, result.
Swirbul started the team off by skiing to eighth in the first classic leg.
“My leg of the race started out fast — exactly what I had expected going into it,” Swirbul wrote. “The first kilometer flew by, and before I knew it, I was cresting the peak of the biggest climb of the course with legs that felt like they were made of lead! I tried to stretch them out on the downhill and hung onto the girls around me through the rolling last kilometer of the race. That 3k was tough!!”
She tagged off to Kern, who moved the team into sixth by the race’s halfway point. Kern came down with a cold last Wednesday and sat out Friday’s skiathlon to rest of for the relay.
“I was feeling a lot better today but definitely not 100% healthy,” Kern wrote in an email. “My goal was to go out and ski the best leg I could and fight hard to the finish because every second counts. I wasn’t really nervous until I was hanging around in the start pen waiting to see Hailey throw down a strong first leg. I was most nervous that I wouldn’t be able to ski well since I am not completely healthy and let the team down.”
She focused on skiing strong over the second half of the course, “since it played my strengths and I knew people would be hurting at the point,” Kern wrote. She tagged Halvorsen in sixth, about 25 seconds out of third and 45.5 seconds behind Italy in first.
Skiing the first skate leg for the U.S., Halvorsen focused on third place. She attacked on the climb known as “Horseshoe Hill”, passing Sweden and France to take that position, but France’s Laura Chamiot-Maitral passed her back on the downhill.
After the race, Halvorsen told the U.S. Ski Team media that she had learned a lot about pacing the 3.3 k after placing 13th in the 5 k freestyle earlier in the week (following Ogden, who fifth).
“I realized I just needed to trust myself and not start so fast — just be calm and slowly catch up,” she said.
Halvorsen tagged Ogden in fourth at the final exchange, just 2.1 seconds out of third.
“I knew that no matter what, I needed to catch up to third place,” Ogden reflected in an email. “I honestly didn’t even think about pacing myself and just went hard from the tag.”
On the long, sustained climb on the backside of the 3.3 k loop, Ogden passed France’s Lena Quintin to move into third. As she soared down the other side, within view of her teammates, Ogden continued to push the pace to lock up third.
“I know Katharine’s technique really well so when I spotted a black dot skiing along I knew it could only be Katharine,” wrote Kern, Ogden’s teammate for the last two seasons at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in Vermont. Kern, Ogden and Halvorsen are all members of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) development “D” team.
“I waited a few more seconds but still no one came and I knew she had third locked in!” Kern wrote.
“I was crying when I saw her all alone,” Swirbul told the USST.
“I came into the finish and saw the team standing there cheering for me and it was an incredibly special moment,” Ogden reflected.
She finished third, 25.8 seconds behind Russia in first and just 5.2 seconds behind Italy in second. France’s Quintin finished about 40 seconds later in fourth. The bronze was the first for a U.S. women’s relay at Junior Worlds.
“This week at worlds has been amazing,” wrote Ogden, 19, who left the championships with two bronze medals in her final year of Junior Worlds eligibility. “Wonderful skiing and good weather and unprecedented results for the whole team…”
“It was really incredible to stand up at the medals ceremony the other night,” she told the USST. “The only thing I can think of that would be better is standing up there with my friends.”
“This has been a dream for us for more than two years,” Swirbul, and 18-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage freshman, told the USST. “To see that dream come true — I was crying, happy, hugging and screaming — all in one emotion.”
“I was so happy but not in shock — because I knew we could do it,” Halvorsen, 18, of the Sugar Bowl Academy, told the USST.
Halvorsen, of Truckee, Calif., brought her little sister up on the podium with her.
“After having my whole family here: parents, grandparents, four brothers, and baby sister, it was special to bring the littlest one up to the podium,” Halvorsen wrote in an email.
“There is no one I would rather be on the podium with than my best friends and teammates,” Kern, 19, wrote. “Not only did I share the experience with my best friends, but on home soil with all my family and friends there to celebrate with us!
“I am just proud of our team because everyone skied so well and brought their A game today,” Kern continued. “And to have [USST development coach] Bryan Fish there to help us make it happen was amazing because he has worked so hard to help us become the fastest skiers we can be and this has always been a dream of his as well!”
“I am so lucky to be in this generation with these tough competitors that double as amazing teammates, and I think our country is just getting started with more exciting results to come!” Swirbul wrote.
Russia took the lead on the third leg and stayed ahead of Italy for gold, finishing first in 34:45.3 minutes, with Polina Nekrasova, Lidia Durkina, Anna Zherebyateva, and Mariya Istomina. Italy secured second (+20.6) with Martina Bellini, Anna Comarella, Francesca Franchi, and Christina Pittin, while France was fourth (+1:05.0) with Juliette Ducordeau, Flora Dolci, Chamiot-Maitral, and Quintin. Sweden finished fifth (+1:20.3), and Canada placed 12th (+4:41.3) of 12 teams, with Natalie Hynes, Lisle Compton, India McIsaac, and Annika Richardson.
In the junior men’s 4 x 5 k relay that followed, Norway eked out the win over Russia by 0.4 seconds, with Herman Martens Meyer, Jon Rolf Skamo Hope, Harald Østberg Amundsen, and Thomas Helland Larsen, in 49:36.1. After the first leg, which Germany’s classic-sprint winner Janosch Brugger led, the race was a Norway-Russia battle for first, with Russia leading through the second and third exchanges before Larsen outlunged Vladislav Vechkanov at the finish.
Russia took silver with Vechkanov, Egor Kazarinov, Kirill Kilivnyuk, and Yaroslav Rybochkin, ahead of France, which skied most of the race in third in finished in that position (+1:05), with Martin Collet, Camille Laude, Hugo Lapels, and Arnaud Chautemps.
Of 12 teams, the U.S. finished ninth (+4:28.8) with Bill Harmeyer, Kam Husain, Wyatt Gebhardt, and Hunter Wonders, after skiing in sixth during the first two classic legs, then slipping to ninth on the third leg.
Canada followed in 10th (+5:21.6), with Antoine Blais, Ryan Jackson, Philippe Boucher, and Gareth Williams, after skiing in ninth for the first two legs.
Another Ninth for Caldwell, Hegman 11th
The day before, in the last races of U23 World Championships on Saturday, American Paddy Caldwell matched his personal best from two days earlier in the 15 k freestyle, placing ninth in the men’s 30 k skiathlon.
Caldwell had been 10th at the ski change halfway through the race, following his U.S. teammate Jack Hegman in ninth by half a second.
“Starting off in the classic leg I was trying to stay relaxed and maintain position,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “For the first half of the classic I was at the tail end of the lead group then started to lose some time over the last part of the classic.”
He and Hegman started skiing together about 8 k into the 15 k classic leg, and remained together for most of the rest of the race. At the transition, they were about 44 seconds behind eighth place and 13 seconds ahead of 11th.
“I was really struggling with breathing during the classic leg so I tried to relax for the first part of the skate leg and maintain our position,” Caldwell wrote. “We put in a surge on the second lap of the skate to try to catch the group ahead of us (5th-8th) but they were just out of contact. On the last lap I put in one last push early on to break away from the French skier in 10th and got just far enough ahead to hold him off on the last climb before the long decent into the stadium.”
With the sixth-fastest skate leg, Caldwell (SMS/USST D-team) finished ninth, 9.2 seconds ahead of France’s Jean Tiberghien in 10th. Nearly 20 seconds after Tiberghien, Hegman finished 11th (+1:53.5) for a career best at his first U23 Worlds.
“I think I am slightly better at skating, but felt really good about my classic skiing today,” Hegman, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team, wrote in an email. “ I think I was able to gain some good time on the classic portion and then hold on in the skate. In the skate portion I tried to follow Paddy as long as I could and conserve energy. I lost quite a bit of time in the last 2k but thankfully didn’t lose too many places.”
With a top 12 at U23 Worlds, Hegman meets the U.S. selection criteria for 2017 World Cup Finals, which will take place in Quebec City in mid-March.
“For the entire skate leg, when I realized I was in the top 12, all I was thinking about was holding onto that top 12 position,” Hegman wrote.
The two led three U.S. men in the top 15, with Adam Martin (Northern Michigan University) not far behind in 15th (+2:23.3). For Martin, it was his first skiathlon in three years (he finished 40th in the 20 k skiathlon at 2014 Junior Worlds in Val di Fiemme, Italy).
“I wanted to go out hard enough to establish a decent position, but also wanted to conserve sufficient energy to ski a strong back end of the race,” Martin wrote of Saturday’s eight-lap race.
He skied most of it with the Czech Republic’s Petr Knop, who ultimately finished 14th, 1.4 seconds ahead of Martin.
“Sometimes I was following, and sometimes I led and tried to catch up to the skiers in front of us,” Martin wrote.
“I’ve never been top 20 at one of these competitions before, so top 15 is cool,” he added. “I think I’ve had very decent races this week!”
“It is awesome to see three of us in the top 15 today,” Hegman wrote. “I think having the momentum from this week with so many good performances helped us quite a bit today. Also our skis were awesome today (and all week).”
“I am really happy with my results all week,” wrote Caldwell, who notched top 20’s in all three races, including 18th in the classic sprint to start the championships. “It was an amazing week of racing for USA and I was really happy to end on a high note.”
Russia swept the men’s 30 k skiathlon podium with Alexander Bolshunov, Alexey Chervotkin, and Denis Spitsov, respectively, after the three skied together for most of the race, well ahead of France’s Jules Lapierre and Switzerland’s Jason Rueesch in pursuit of them. As the Russians descended down the final hill — clear of any outside contenders for the podium — they locked arms and coasted into the stadium together. Just before the finish line, they stopped to cross as one.
According to a USST press release, the competition jury had to review timing and scoring records, as well as consult photo assets and the finish referee to determine who finished first, second and third. Gold went to Bolshunov, who also won the 15 k freestyle two days earlier, with an official finish time of 1:15:31.5 hours. Chervotkin was listed as second (+0.2) and Spitsov third (+0.5).
Lapierre crossed 11 seconds later in fourth, about three seconds ahead of Rueesch in fifth (+14.3).
Evan Palmer-Charrette (NTDC Thunder Bay) led the Canadian men in 26th (+5:44.6). Alexis Dumas of the Pierre Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) finished 33rd (+9:02.7) out of 36 finishers. Several North Americans did not finish, including Canada’s Julien Lamoureux and Julien Smith, and American Cal Deline.
In the U23 women’s 15 k skiathlon earlier on Saturday, Canada had three in the top 30, with Dahria Beatty (Alberta World Cup Academy/Canadian National U25 Team) in 19th (+2:18.1) for her third top 20 of the week. Katherine Stewart-Jones (NTDC Thunder Bay/NST U25 Team) placed 21st (+2:29.3) for her best result at U23 Worlds, and Frederique Vezina (CNEPH) notched a personal-best 29th (+3:36.2). The team’s fourth skier, Jenn Jackson, did not finish.
Jesse Knori, of the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) led the U.S. women in 30th (+3:40.1). Alayna Sonnesyn (University of Vermont) followed in 31st (+3:42.5), Nichole Bathe (University of Alaska Fairbanks) was 33rd (+4:36.9), and Corey Stock (Bridger Ski Foundation) 36th (+5:42.1).
Another CU skier, Petra Hyncicova, who raced for her native Czech Republic, placed 22nd (+2:30.7) for her second-best result of the week after placing 20th in the classic sprint.
Norway’s 19-year-old Lotta Udnes Weng won the 15 k skiathlon for her first gold of U23 Worlds, finishing in 40:50.9 minutes and besting Finland’s Johanna Matintalo by 3.8 seconds. Russia’s Yana Kirpichenko captured third (+13.9), edging Weng’s twin sister, Tiril Udnes Weng in fourth (+15.6).
“On paper, this is not my best distance,” Lotta Weng, a six-time Junior Worlds medalist, told the USST. “But I knew I could do well in both classic and skate, and that if I had a really good day, I could ski for a gold medal … I knew I would have a good sprint and I was just trusting it.”
Ninth for Loomis
Also on Saturday, in the last individual competition of nordic-combined Junior Worlds, 18-year-old American Ben Loomis notched his first top 10 in his third Junior Worlds appearance.
Loomis started the day by jumping to 10th on the normal hill at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, his home training base. That put the U.S. Nordic Combined skier 58 seconds out of first and 11 seconds behind Finland’s Arttu Mäkiaho in ninth for the start of the 5 k race at Soldier Hollow. While Loomis didn’t catch Mäkiaho (who raced to second place for his second-straight individual medal after winning the normal hill/10 k to start the week), Loomis picked off one place to finish ninth, 1:22.3 minutes behind the winner, Germany’s Vinzenz Geiger.
“My goals for the 5k competition were to jump into the top ten, and to not lose any ground during the race,” Loomis wrote in an email. “I was able to do this, but was still hoping for a higher finish.”
He explained that a snow flurry during the jumping competition left the last 20 starters on the hill waiting for it to pass. Loomis was the fourth-to-last to jump, out of 49 starters.
“I was able to stay relaxed, focused and have my best competition jump of the week,” he explained. “The home hill advantage made a huge difference in my jumping. Prior to this week, I had little jumps on the hill this winter. Luckily, I know the hill well and was able to get in rhythm with the jump very quickly.”
Considering his starting position in the 5 k, which is half the distance of the usual 10 k in nordic-combined competitions, Loomis said he knew he needed to move up quickly, but do so in a controlled manner.
“5 k really places a big importance on the jumping,” Loomis told the USST. “It’s a lot harder to make up time, and these Europeans are really quick.”
He paced his first 2.5 k, and by the second lap, he worked with Norway’s Lars Ivar Skaarset — who had caught Loomis after starting 12th — to rein in Slovenia’s Matevz Malovrh, who started fourth and was fading. While Skaarset finished 17.4 seconds ahead of Loomis for eighth place, they both beat Malovrh, who placed 10th, 1.8 seconds behind Loomis.
“Overall, I am very happy with my 9th place result. I was hoping for a little more, but to be 9th in the world is very special,” Loomis wrote. “I am already looking forward to next year’s competitions and approaching them with even more experience.”
Earlier in the week, Loomis placed 18th in the normal hill/10 k and skied the third leg of the men’s 4 x 5 k team event, in which the U.S. placed seventh (with Elijah Vargas, Grant Andrews, Loomis, and Stephen Schumann). After Vargas tagged Andrews in 10th, Andrews skied them into ninth, and Loomis brought the U.S. up to seventh, which Schumann held during the final leg.
The U.S. had two in the top 15 on Saturday, with Schumann in 15th (+1:44.3), up from 20th after the jump. Grant Andrews placed 33rd (+2:40.0) and Tucker Hoefler finished 46th (+3:56.9).
Geiger won Saturday’s normal hill/5 k after jumping to first then starting with a 4-second lead over Japan’s Yuto Nakamura in second. Mäkiaho passed seven people to finish second, 22.6 seconds after Geiger, who won in 12:14.9 minutes. France’s Laurent Muhlethaler started fifth and captured third (+23.9), while Nakamura missed the podium in fourth (+42.8).
“It’s great to be on top of the podium today, after the 10k it was so hard for me due to some illness and an injury after I fell at the World Cup in Chaux Neuve,” Geiger said. “It just feels amazing to be Junior World Champion now.”
Results: Normal hill/5 k