In the men’s classic sprint in Canmore on Saturday, there were all kinds of tactics in play. In the women’s version, there was just one: go like hell, and leave everyone else in the dust.
That was Justyna Kowalczyk’s M.O. today. Using the massive engine she’s developed by racing every event in her path, the Polish dynamo crushed her competition in every single heat she skied on Saturday. In the final, she had more than seven seconds on her nearest challenger even after an easy cruise over the last hundred meters—enough time, in the words of the announcers here, to eat a sandwich before crossing the finish line.
“There is only one tactic, and that is Kowalczyk going,” said Jochen Behle, the head coach of the German team.
Ida Ingemarsdotter of Sweden was second, edging hometown hero Sara Renner (CAN), who took the final podium position. But the big story today was Kowalczyk—or, more specifically, the degree of domination she demonstrated.
Her first two heats unfolded identically: get off the start first to stay out of trouble, build a big lead over the first two hills, and then continue to open the gap before cruising easily into the finish. The closest anyone came in either of those heats was three and a half seconds.
Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova had the misfortune of drawing Kowalczyk in her semi.
“She’s been crazy fast this year, and just shows no sign of fatigue,” Gaiazova said. “Just superhuman powers.”
The Canadian ended up thirteen seconds down in that heat for a twelfth-place finish—and that was on a good day.
In the final, Kowalczyk had just one small hitch—she was slow off the start. After trailing going up out of the stadium, she quickly passed the leaders on the outside going over the top of the first hill, then put it into overdrive on the course’s main climb. She came into the finish with a gap of what looked to be thirty meters—made all the more impressive by the fact that it only took her half a lap to build it.
Renner, who lives in Canmore, took advantage of a little home course knowledge to help garner her first World Cup podium in four years. There was a tricky righthand corner on the final descent into the stadium—which claimed favorite Petra Majdic (SLO)—and each time through it, Renner found the perfect line around the ice patch in the middle.
In the final, she moved into third on the last big climb and stayed there until the finish. On the home stretch, it looked like she might be able to claw her way back to Ingemarsdotter, but she couldn’t quite do it, even buoyed by the boisterous crowd here.
Those fans got to cheer on a grand total of four Canadian women in the heats—Perianne Jones and Chandra Crawford qualified in addition to Renner and Gaiazova, though neither advanced out of the quarters.
Out in droves on another crystal-clear Canmore day, the Canadian spectators packed the stadium and lined the switchbacking sprint course, clearly giving their women a boost. Renner acknowledged them by skiing back out into the middle of the stadium for a bow after the finals.
While the Canadians were able to mix it up with the Euros here, the gap to the Americans was a little wider. After a sub-par qualifying heat left her in 22nd, Kikkan Randall struggled through two heats, advancing to the semifinals as a lucky loser. Though she ended up with a respectable tenth place, she still seemed to be missing the top gear she had at U.S. Nationals in early January.
While it’s a tough place to be psychologically—Randall looked very disappointed after her qualifier—her club coach, Erik Flora, said that the Alaskan is still not quite at her peak. According to Flora, these races are still just preparation for the Games for Randall, after a block of altitude training here in Canmore.
“A little bit of the training camp is still in her,” Flora said.
The rest of the U.S. women were further back. Holly Brooks was the only other to make the heats, and she finished fifteen seconds behind Kowalczyk in her quarterfinal—a stern reminder of the distance between even the strongest American women and the rest of the world, and one that Flora said he’d be taking home with him.
“Every time we come here, we leave with a lot of good ideas,” he said. “To be here and to look and watch and feel it—it’s great.”
As the circuit moves from Canmore to the Olympics, the question that must be on the minds of the top international women is whether Kowalczyk can be stopped.
She was untouchable Saturday, but there were a few women missing who could challenge Kowalczyk in Whistler. The Finns and the Norwegians took a pass on the Canmore races, and though Majdic was M.I.A. in the finals today, she will be a force to be reckoned with in the Olympic sprint. And Kowalczyk said that the Canmore course is one of her favorites.
But after today, the Pole looks like she will be tough to beat. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that she’s racing more and training harder than everyone else, according to Behle, the German coach.
“She’s doing more than the rest,” he said.
—With reporting by Topher Sabot
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.