Earlier this week, Gareth Williams, 19 of Kelowna, British Columbia, had no idea what to expect in his first Junior Worlds Championships race. Was top 20 realistic? He’d soon find out.
Williams, of the Telemark Race Team, which, he explained will soon be known as the Okanagan Racers, raced to 20th to lead Canada in the men’s 10 k freestyle on Wednesday.
“Now that I have a taste of what it’s like here at Worlds, I can adjust my goals for the coming races,” Williams wrote in an email after Wednesday’s race. “I hope [Friday’s] skiathlon can go equally as well, if not better.”
He hadn’t raced a skiathlon in three years, so again, he wasn’t sure what to expect in the men’s 20 k classic-and-skate race. But he liked the idea of a top 15.
Out of the start, Williams played it safe to avoid any broken poles.
“Early in the race I lost a lot of positions due to a typical Jr Men’s race, lower ranked skiers attacking from behind,” he said.
Throughout the 10 k classic leg, he chipped away at the places to come close to the front of the race, within sight of the leaders. He came into the transition with a group fighting for the top 10, and proceeded to pick off three or four more places in the 10 k skate leg, which is usually his stronger technique, Williams explained.
“I had a better kick at the end of the skate leg to try gap the group I was with, but France’s Martin Collet had an amazing last half kilometre and passed me with on a few hundred meters to go,” he wrote. “Being so close to a top 10 and seeing it slip away at the last second was tough for me.”
Williams finished the skiathlon 11th, 4.4 seconds behind Collet in 10th and 1:24 minutes behind the winner, Russia’s Vladislav Vechkanov (who finished in 49:40.5 for his second-straight gold in as many distance races this week).
“I am very pleased with this result today,” Williams noted. “It is exciting to ski that I have the speed to ski with the best Juniors in the world. Being so close to to the top 10 is my only disappointment.”
Finishing 12th, 18.7 seconds after him, Wyatt Gebhardt (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club) achieved a Junior Worlds career best as well as the top American. Considering Friday was his first-ever skiathlon, Gebhardt explained his goal was to have fun.
“From the start of the race I was able to move up to the front group early on … I was just trying to keep close to that group in the classic portion,” he wrote in an email. “[During the skate leg] I was able to pass two people and I was close to the guys dropping off [the front group], but I think I ran out of time to catch them.”
He finished 12th for his second-straight top 20 in his first Junior Worlds, after placing 19th (just ahead of Williams) in Wednesday’s 10 k skate.
“I am very happy about all my results I don’t think this week could of gone better,” he wrote.
Hunter Wonders (Alaska Pacific University) was the second American in the top 20 of the junior men’s skiathlon, racing to 18th (+1:57.9) after placing 16th in the 10 k skate.
Canada’s Philippe Boucher, of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) finished 22nd (+3:15.7) for his first top 30 at his second Junior Worlds. Ryan Jackson (Team Hardwood) placed 31st (+3:52.5) and Remi Drolet (Black Jack) 49th (+6:57.3) out of 61 finishers.
Also for the U.S., Kam Husain (SMS) finished 50th (+6:59), and Logan Diekmann (University of Utah) was 53rd (+7:47.3).
At the front of the race, Norway and Russia led the charge along with Italy’s Simone Dapra during the classic leg. Russia’s Egor Kazarinov, the silver medalist in Wednesday’s 10 k, was first into the ski exchange, followed closely by Vechkanov and Norway’s Harald Østberg Amundsen.
Dapra set the pace early in the skate leg before Vechkanov made his move to the front and never relinquished first, holding it to the finish for a 1.9-second win over Norway’s Thomas Helland Larsen. Amundsen was the second Norwegian on the podium in third (+2.2), Kazarinov placed fourth (+9.4) and Dapra fell off the pace to place fifth (+30.7).
“Two medals — it sounds unreal for me,” Vechkanov told the U.S. Ski Team in a post-race interview. “When I did the first race in the sprint, I didn’t feel so well. So I had a bad feeling for this week.”
He finished 10th in the classic sprint to start the week. Then he notched back-to-back wins, which were his first at Junior Worlds.
“I didn’t have a real tactic other than to do my best to stay in the group,” the 19-year-old Russian said. “The course is tight with a lot of athletes on one course so I was worried about falling. I also tried to save the tempo — not maximum — to save energy. On the last lap I increased my speed but I tried to control everything and look at the athletes around me to see how they felt. On the last lap, I tried to build a maximum gap to win this gold medal for Russia.”
“I have to admit it was the hardest race of my life,” Larsen told the U.S. Ski Team. “The Russians are so strong and are always amazing in the skating portion. It was so hard but I managed to stay with them almost to the last hundred meters.”
“I didn’t expect a medal today,” Amundsen said. “Today I felt really strong and on the skate I tried to go fast but I wasn’t strong enough on the finish but third place is really good. The last lap was tough. Me and the Russian had a gap for maybe five seconds but he was really strong in the finish.”