Kuusamo, Finalnd – Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), the defending World Cup Champion upset Petra Majdic (SLO) in the first World Cup sprint competition of the year.
High humidity and a challenging course made for a tough day. Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) paced the field in the qualification round of the 1.2km classic sprint. Her time of 3:01 was one second faster than runner up Anna Olsson (SWE). Majdic qualified 3rd and Kowalczyk 5th.
Saarinen led the the overall World Cup for the first half of last season, before faltering, in part due to illness. She was overtaken by both Kowalczyk and Majdic. It was the same story today, with Saarinen dropping to 4th in the A-Final.
Alena Prochazkova (SVK) was 3rd, her third career World Cup odium finish.
While Kowalczyk won the overall World Cup title last year, Majdic held the upper hand in sprint competitions. Majdic won 7 of 8 World Cup sprint starts last season. Her lone loss came in Rybinsk, Russia, where she finished 7th. Kowalczyk was 5th that day – the only the second time she has bested Majdic head-to-head in a sprint in the last three seasons.
But today was the Pole’s day, and she showed that she will again be a force to reckon with this season. “I’m a little surprised with myself. Last weekend in Beitostolen was not good for me,” said Kowalczyk. This was her first World Cup sprint victory ever.
Majdic struggled from the start. “I felt strong yesterday but overnight I didn’t feel well and had bad sleep. This morning I was just tired and I was not smiling anymore – which I normally always do. I saw Justyna racing and I was sure she was the strongest today. She knew that physically I could not beat her, but I tried to beat the rest of the field with my tactics and experience.”
Despite qualifying 4 for the heats, host Finland was unable to do better than Saarinen’s 4th. No other Finnish woman made it out of the quarterfinals, including the always-dangerous Virpi Kuitunen. Kuitunen qualified 6th, but ended up 21st.
The US and Canada both struggled, with both nations failing to qualify anyone for the heats.
The US was led by Kikkan Randall in 36th, two seconds out of the top-30. Randall was coming off a career-best distance finish last week in Beitostolen, and has shown significant improvement in her classic sprinting over the last year. But she was unable to crack make the heats and her day ended early.
Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola also raced for the US, finishing 62nd and 79th respectively. Arritola was the last woman, but both young skiers are stronger in distance, and are still building World Cup experience.
Sara Renner paced the Canadians in 42nd, 4.5 seconds out of the heats. Teammate Chandra Crawford, in her first sprint after missing all of last season due to injury, was 49th, and Perianne Jones was 51st.
Kristina Strandberg (SWE) of XC Oregon and the defending SuperTour Champion, raced for her native Sweden, and finished 50th.
The Norwegian women were unable to match the success of their male counterparts. Maiken Caspersen Falla led the way in 6th place and Celine Brun-Lie was 11th. Norway did have 6 skiers in the heats.
The surprise of the day was 20-year-old Hanna Falk (SWE). In only her second World Cup start, she qualified in 4th and finished 7th on the day.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.