36 medals are up for grabs in cross-country, 12 in ski jumping, and 12 in Nordic combined. It has been 27 years since the Bill Koch won the only US cross-country medal at the World Championships, and a medal would be a major breakthrough. Canada also has only one World Championships cross-country medal – a bronze for Sara Renner in 2005.
A World Championship medal is second only to an Olympic medal in the ski world. Both the US and Canada have legitimate shots at bringing home some hardware.
There is currently plenty of snow in Liberec, though the courses are reportedly on the soft side. The venue is fairly exposed and often windy, presenting an additional challenge. The weather forecast is for continued cold temperatures and additional snow.
Universal Sports will show all cross-country World Championship races on same-day delay. This is a great opportunity to watch our top athletes compete for the gold. If you would like to maintain the suspense of the races, be sure to avoid FasterSkier until you watch the video on Universal Sports. We will publish a full schedule soon, but most races should be available by 5:30PM EST the day of the race. Visit the Universal Sports Nordic World Championship page
There will be no surprises here. The US foursome of Kikkan Randall, Andy Newell, Torin Koos and Kris Freeman have been well ahead of the rest of the US for some years, represent the hope for medals.
Freeman, suffering from compartment syndrome, can only race classic, limiting him to Friday’s 15km classic individual start and a leg in the relay. The 15km has been Kris’ best event over the years. He finished 16th last weekend in this event, only 46 seconds off the pace. Freeman is not a favorite, but in the tightly packed men’s World Cup field, anything is possible, and Kris is certainly a dark horse contender. He was in the top 3 last week, before running out of gas.
Writes Freeman’s coach, Zach Caldwell, on his blog after the 16th in Italy, “Today – right now – I believe that Kris can be on the podium on Friday. I’m writing it here, publicly, because I think it’s too easy to stop believing and start accepting when things have been going wrong. I’ve had several e-mails from people saying that today’s effort was really good, all things considered. Well, only the clock gets considered on Friday. I think Kris is good enough to be measured by that standard. I’m writing it here publicly because I’m willing to stand behind it. Kris needs to believe in himself in order to ski with the calm confidence required to finish the job. Today should have at least shown him enough to believe.”
The US will be fielding a relay team, and Freeman will likely ski the first classic leg if his health is good, but the lack of proven international distance skiers will prevent the US from competing for a top position.
With Freeman on the shelf for the skating events, the US has no chance for a medal in either the pursuit or the 50k, and those races will be looked at as development opportunities for less experienced skiers.
UPDATE: Kris has reported that there is a chance he will race the classic Team Sprint. The team selection will be based on how the week goes for all the athletes. If Kris does not race the Team sPrint, he will start the pursuit, despite the skating – it would be his last race prior to surgery, so there would be nothing to lose if he experiences problems.
Randall will race the 10km classic tomorrow. She posted a career best 23rd before Christmas in this race, and has shown improving distance results over the last years, but she hasn’t made the jump to the top level. A top 20 for Kikkan would be an excellent performance.
It is in the sprint where she has the chance to shine. Kikkan qualified for the A-Final last weekend and was in position to contest for the podium when she fell. The freestyle sprint is her strongest event – the one in which she became the first US woman to win a World Cup race. She appears to be rounding into shape after a slow start to the season. Without a World Cup podium appearance this year, she can’t be considered a favorite, but a medal would not surprise anyone, and Kikkan has demonstrated recently that she has the speed and fitness to compete for the win.
Randall will also race the classic Team Sprint. She paired with Liz Stephen in Whistler to finish fourth in the freestyle version of this event. The US has not picked their team yet, so it is unknown if Stephen and Randall will be matched again. A medal performance is unlikely, but the possibility exists.
Andy Newell is unquestionably one of the fastest skiers in the world. He routinely qualifies for sprint heats in the top 5. He has struggled in the heats this year though, suffering a number of crashes, and failing to reach the A-Final in all but one race. But last spring Newell finished second in a World Cup sprint, and once a skier reaches the heats, anything can happen. Like Randall, Newell is not considered a favorite, but a medal is a very real possibility.
Torin Koos joins Newell in the sprint as a very real threat. He is coming off a career best skate sprint performance, finishing 8th last weekend after qualifying 6th. He should be confident in Liberec. He will also team with Newell in the Team Sprint. The pair finished fourth in the event earlier in the season, and a strong performance could leave them in position to challenge for a top spot.
US Sprint Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier, “Things are coming together for many of the athletes. Kikkan is feeling the best she has this season and would have most likely been on the podium last weekend if not for a fall 150 meters from the finish. Torin skied very strongly. Andy was also skiing very fast but fell in qualification in the same spot Kikkan fell. Along with Freeman, any one of these skiers could medal here on the right day.”
The US is bringing a full team to Liberec and should be running the maximum number of skiers in each race. In addition to the four discussed above, these other athletes will be gunning for their best results, and valuable experience. Adds Grover “for some of our younger team members, this World Champs is about experience. Athletes like Morgan Arritola, Liz Stephen, and Morgan Smyth are here to race as fast as possible but more importantly, to gain high-level experience for the 2010 Games and beyond.”
The Canadian Team has more depth than the US, but realistically, only three skiers in position to challenge for a medal.
Veteran Sara Renner demonstrated she is in top form with a 5th place finish last weekend on the World Cup. Renner’s best shot is in the 10km classic tomorrow. She has not shown the speed needed to advance through the sprint heats this year, so it is unlikely she will repeat her 2005 performance in the sprint. Top 15’s are a real possibility in the other distance races, and if everything comes together, a podium appearance is not impossible.
On the men’s side, Devon Kershaw may represent the best North American shot for a medal – if only because he is strong in so many events. If he has an off day in one race, he will have another shot. He has podium finishes in both sprint and distance, and has been very consistent this year. Racing all events would be very challenging, so it will be interesting to see which starts Devon picks.
Ivan Babikov, 12th last weekend, and the winner of the Tour de Ski final climb will also be a potential force in the distance races. Babikov is not a great sprinter, leaving him at a disadvantage in the mass start pursuit and 50km events, where the finish often comes down to a bunch sprint of 15+ athletes. He has been a stronger skater in the past, but given the sprinting issue, the 15km classic may be his best shot for the podium.
The Canadian team could also field a strong relay team. Along with Kershaw and Babikov, they have George Grey, who has scored consistent World Cup points this year and was 20th last weekend. Teams have not been announced, but it is likely that 20-year old Alex Harvey would fill the final spot on the team. Harvey is skiing fast and cracked the top 30 for the second time this season in Italy at the last World Cup. They would need exceptional performances from Grey and Harvey, but a top 5 relay performance is attainable.
The choice for the Team Sprint will be tough for Canada. Grey and Harvey teamed up to finish third in Whistler, and it would be reasonable event for Kershaw to skip.
Grey and Harvey also have top 20 potential in the other distance events, but have not yet shown they are capable of the top spots.
Top Canadian sprinter Chandra Crawford has missed the entire season due to injury and will not compete. She is the defending Olympic Champion in the freestyle sprint.
Nordic Combined represents the best chance for US medals. Billy Demong has cemented himself as one of the top skiers in the world over the last few years. IN the last World Cup leading up to these Championships, Demong won, marking him as a medal favorite. Demong has six podium finishes this season, including 3 victories. An extremely strong cross-country skier, his jumping has been improving steadily. Demong won silver in the last World Championships and has a good shot to improve on that performance.
Demong is not the only medal hopeful in Nordic Combined. Johnny Spillane, a Gold medalist in 2003 has four top 10 results this season and has consistently scored World Cup points.
With Eric Camerota posting a career best World Cup finish of 25th last weekend, and comeback kid Todd Lodwick racing in the top 10, the US looks extremely strong in the Team competition. If they jump well, they will be in position to fight for the gold.
Canada has a very young and inexperienced Nordic Combined Team and if they are competing in Liberec, they will not be contesting for top spots.
The US women’s ski jumping team is extremely strong and should be in the thick of things for medals.
And what about everyone else? In women’s cross-country, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Petra Majdic (SLO) are both in top form. Look for Majdic to win the individual sprint, and Kowalczyk to be contesting every race she enters. The Finnish duo of Aino Kaisa Saarinen and Virpi Kuitunen are also considered favorites, and the Finns will have a very strong relay team. Norweigan star Marit Bjoergen has not race the World Cup recently and will be an unknown entering the Championships. But as usual Norway is deep and strong. The Italian women have also been skiing well recently.
The men’s field is even harder to predict. Dario Cologna (SUI), leading the overall World Cup and the Tour de Ski winner has been a bit further back in the pack lately. Axel Teichmann should be a force, as will the Norweigans, Italians, Swedes, and just about everyone else. The men’s field is so tight that on any given day 30 different men have a shot at the victory. This will make for exciting races!
77 athletes from 18 countries will participate in the Nordic Combined.
79 athletes from 22 countries will participate in the Ski Jump men.
39 athletes from 13 countries will participate in the Ski Jump ladies.
155 athletes from 60 countries will participate in the Cross-country ladies.
236 athletes from 60 countries will participate in Cross-country men.
For the complete schedule and more information visit the event website at http://www.liberec2009.net
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.