The day of sprints started at 5pm with two women’s prelims, each taking five teams straight into a single final. The first heat of women was uneventful with enough gaps between the lead pack of the CXC and USST teams, and a trailing APU team that none had to ski very hard to ensure a spot in the final.
The second womens’ semi was a bit more compelling. Kristina Strandberg, Nicole DeYong, and Kate Arduser were the top three racers, and with each tag, Kristina Trystad-Saari, Morgan Aritola, and Becca Rorabaugh would come back as if their spots in the final were in jeopardy.
As the day drew on, though, so built the action accordingly, as if by planned by the organizers. The men’s semis began quickly after the womens’ finished, and while the first five spots were secured early in the first heat, the second heat was a struggle from the beginning with a train of ten teams that charged out from the start and held strong almost to the end.
Peter Kling of APU lost just enough ground behind the fifth and last qualifying spot on his final leg to pass on a tough but closable gap to his teammate Bart Dengle, who hammered hard off the tag and caught the group half way through the first climb. But David Chamberlain was also in the hunt and made contact with the group at the same moment as Dengle. Chambo eventually took that last qualifying spot in a photo finish with Dengle.
The easy work was clearly over once the womens’ race began, and the excitement was in full swing. While spectators can view 90% of the 4 minute course and with only two prelims and a final, the program moves very quickly.
Strandberg took an early lead while Morgan Smyth, Caitlin Compton and Katie Ronsse hung in for the ride up the first climb and finishing out the first leg. Kristina Trygstad-Saari held her team’s lead through the second leg, and Kikkan Randall closed a small gap to retain a strong third position in the pack up their first climb. The racers exchanged leads often; Liz Stephen took the lead returning into the stadium followed by Randall and then Trygstad-Saari.
Compton, Smyth, and Strandberg continued to fight and exchange leads, before tagging to a rabid fourth leg. Here Stephen put an impressive hammer down out of the tag zone to gain an advantage on her competitors, but Trygstad-Saari and Maria Stuber were able to hold on through the climb to close the gap again before re-entering the stadium. All the while, Kikkan Randall continued to close the gap on each leg posting the second fastest lap on this, her second leg.
Morgan Smyth continued the attack after a tag from leading teammate Liz Stephen, but was followed by yet another attack from Strandberg on the second climb for a small lead on the following CXC team. The final “sprint” for the finish between a returning Maria Stuber resembled a slow lactic acid death match across the finish line, each giving all they had, and Stuber collapsing across the line. “Wasn’t that the best race ever? Doesn’t it hurt so good?!?” Caitlin Compton was overheard saying as she came to support her teammate in the finish chute.
Matt Whitcomb recalled an obvious strategy for the US Ski Team. “We knew Stephen and Smyth needed to get away from Kikkan, because she’s dangerous if she’s within reach.” The strategy clearly worked, as Kikkan skied ten seconds slower on the final lap after putting in a good effort to make up time on her’ last leg’s large climb.
“It was a tough competition and we had to do what we had to do,” recalled Morgan Smyth on her team’s win. When asked if the race fulfilled her expectations, she replied “Everything went kind of how we planned. You never know, but you just go for it and hope it works out.”
Liz Stephen raved enthusiastically about the experience “It was a freaking BLAST. [Teams sprints] are the most painful, and the biggest blast. Everything went as planned and it was great!” “We especially want to thank all of the volunteers for all of the great work. It was a great race.”
The men’s race had fewer attacks and withdrawls throughout, but the entire field held in a tight but very fast moving pack, pushing the pace all the way. Lars Flora, Chris Cook, and Stefan Kuhn of Canada set the pack’s pace up the first climb, while all of Koos, Gelso, Kuzzy, Haugen, Flaharty, and Sinnot rounded out the contentious lead skiers in the second leg. Although Haugen and Sinnot tangled their skis around their first corner, it was well under the lactate line to directly affect their position and ability to catch the pack again.
Garott Kuzzy of the USST/CXC initiated the first move on the pack pushing the pace up the first climb of their second leg, and continued his endurance-laced attack through the second climb. While the rest of the pack reluctantly followed, both Chris Cook and Kuzzy were nearly in a low-angle jump skate flying into the second climb before dropping fast back down into the flat stadium.
Kuzzy’s Surge and Cook’s quick reaction proved successful, as the pack finally started to break a bit. Haugen and Kuhn both lost a critical draft on that down hill and fell back about 15 meters.
Tagging into the anchor leg, Lars Flora managed to make an incredibly strong come-back to make contact with Torin Koos and Leif Zimmerman who were leading the final along with Canada’s Garaham Nishikawa (who had skied a very tactically smart race up to this point). But Koos and Flora broke cleanly away across the first and second climbs continuing back into the stadium, and either Koos had the skis or the leg mojo to continue the surge ahead of the chasers while Flora slowed a bit and was caught by brick-wall-syndrome gliding into the stadium.
Koos crossed the line comfortably in first place, Zimmermann opened the gap on Flora for an easy second, and Flora managed to out sprint Nishikawa for third.
Lars Flora looked very strong but went lactic a bit early before re-entering the stadium. “Things were looking pretty good, then I just hit a brick wall. I could feel the lactic acid building.”
Chris Cook was enthusiastic, but not surprised today. “I tried to ski towards the front and worked with Kuzzy to build a gap. I was a little nervous [putting it down] like that, but we had to work hard and I was confident coming in.” Cook came directly from Europe to Faribanks, and managed to miss the perils of travelling through a region currently full of volcanic activity. “I was a little tired after of coming over from Europe, but everything worked out today. I’m looking forward to a good week.”
“Torin has been getting in better and better shape after coming right over from [Europe], so he’s really looking good,” commented USST development coach Matt Whitcomb. “Lars can be dangerous in a sprint. Torin was right off the plane, but he did well.”