Sure, it’s only August. Sure, it’s the Southern hemisphere. And yeah, okay, the Americans and Canadians have been training over 20 hours a week during their camps in New Zealand.
But all this notwithstanding, most people would still agree that winning a skate sprint over Andy Newell is a great way to start your rookie season on the U.S. Ski Team. And that’s what Simi Hamilton did on Saturday, nipping Newell by inches at the finish on a stormy day at the Snow Farm.
“We came to the line side-by-side, and he put on a good lunge—he got me,” Newell said in an interview.
Canadian Chandra Crawford got her own sprint season off on the right foot, staying out of trouble and skiing to a convincing win over Australian sprinter Esther Bottomley and American Liz Stephen. Crawford’s toughest challenger, Kikkan Randall (USA), was out with a cold.
In the men’s race, Newell managed to dredge up enough quickness to top the qualifier by roughly five seconds over Hamilton, despite a heavy load of training over the past few days—Newell said he’ll have logged over 24 hours for the week ending Sunday.
As the heats got underway, the sunny skies that had graced the qualifier were replaced by storm clouds dumping snow. That slowed down the course considerably, making the heats more of a slog, Newell said—especially since the Americans were pushing hard through each round to ensure they were getting a good workout.
“We try to really go hard for each heat, because that’s the best training for a World Cup,” Newell said. “Not just, like, sandbagging it, so that you’re rested for the final.”
After taking the top two spots in qualifying, the American duo blew through their four-person quarter- and semi-final heats to the A-final. Joining them there were Canadians Alex Harvey and Stefan Kuhn, both of whom are formidable sprinters. (Kuhn qualified 10th at the sprint in the Vancouver Olympics, and went on to finish 15th.)
According to Newell, the course was ideal for “playing a little bit of tactics on, so that’s what we were doing.”
Newell said he put in a few quick accelerations throughout the heat, then managed to sneak around Harvey on the last climb. But Hamilton got by, too, setting up a drag race between the two that occurred while most Americans were tending their barbeques on Friday evening.
“We just tried to hammer to the finish, and it came down to a lunge,” Newell said. According to U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover, Hamilton’s
advantage at the line was about 20 centimeters, while the distance back to the two Canadians amounted to a “good gap.” Kuhn also managed to get by Harvey before the line to take third.
While the result was a good one for Hamilton, he didn’t ascribe it too much significance.
“[Newell] and I have been pushing each other a lot, but that said, it’s August right now,” he said. “It was just a great opportunity to really dial in some sprint tactics, and look at it as just a good training race.”
But training race or not, he added, there’s still no discounting the value of showing the Canadians who’s boss.
“Yeah, that always feels good,” he said, laughing. “It’s been awesome having them here.”
Despite the American domination on the men’s side, the news wasn’t all bad for the Canadians. Crawford, a sprint specialist, put in a hard move near the finish to pull away from Bottomley and Stephen and take the win.
Randall, who made the podium in a World Cup sprint race in March, had been feeling fatigued, and she scratched from Friday’s distance race in hopes of recovering in time for Saturday’s sprint. But in an e-mail, she wrote that she had come down with a cold and was “taking it easy until we travel on Monday.”
That made Crawford, a World Cup and Olympic sprint winner, the clear favorite, but it took her a little while to get warmed up. With the race distance set at 1.6 kilometers—slightly longer than normal for a women’s sprint—Stephen tapped into her distance ability to top the qualifier by five seconds over Bottomley,
with Crawford another second back.
The final consisted of Bottomley, Crawford, Stephen, and Chisa Obayashi (JAP). After some tactical racing and position shuffling over the first part of the course, Stephen tried to take control of the race, taking the lead and holding it all the way up the final climb. At that point, though, she said she “lost some steam,” allowing Crawford and Bottomley to get past.
In an e-mail, Crawford said she had tried to stay relaxed all the way through the final, “to save jam for the end.”
The longer course, Crawford added, had been tough—and she said she still has some work to do to prepare for the winter season.
“It’s a good thing it’s August, because I can see that my fitness for a 3:40-plus sprint is not there yet,” Crawford said. “I will continue to tailor my training to building capacity and endurance for the long sprints these days on the World Cup.”
Saturday’s sprint was the last of the major action at the Snow Farm; one more race will go off tomorrow, but Noah Hoffman (USA) will be the only member of the U.S. and Canadian teams competing, according to Grover. The Americans return home on Monday, while the Canadians leave shortly after. Members of both teams spoke highly of the opportunity to do some collaborative training.
“I missed my fabulous friend Kikkanimal out there today, but have gotten so much out of our sweet training together this past week and am totally full of inspiration to carry me through to Oslo,” Crawford said, referring to the 2011 World Ski Championships. That inspiration will be necessary: there are still 200 days until those races begin.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.