FIS kicked off its winter race season in Munio, Finland and Rybinsk, Russia this weekend. In Muonio, the first race of the year was a classic sprint, contested Sunday morning in frigid temperatures, which drew a variety of athletes from around northern Europe. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project was the only American team in attendance, but they turned heads as Ida Sargent, racing in her U.S. Ski Team suit to avoid an NCAA violation, qualified second and skied through to the final. Sargent is enrolled at Dartmouth College, where she has been training this fall.
The course was unusual in several ways. It started at the base of the alpine area at the Olos Hotel, and finished further up one of the alpine trails in a different location. Both the men’s and women’s courses were short – 780 and 1,100 meters respectively – and featured sharp turns, with the women’s race climbing up an untracked cutoff culminating in a sharper-than-right-angle turn and the men’s field negotiating a hairpin turn around a branch in the snow.
One of the technical delegates asked the American women if they approved of the shortened courses. While Sargent would have said yes, Lauren Jacobs and Chelsea Little responded that the course was a bit short for their liking.
“Yes, I think this too,” the T.D. replied. “I asked them last night why they had to make the women’s race shorter. There is no reason to make the two races different, if even the men’s race isn’t so long.”
In the morning, the women’s qualifier was won by Estonia’s Triin Ojaste, who only edged Sargent by 0.05 seconds. They were followed by Russia’s Svetlana Bochkareva a mere half second back.
In the men’s qualifier, another Estonian took the win: Kein Einaste, who beat teammate Peeter Kummel by nearly two seconds. Behind them were Kazakhs Alexey Poltoranin and Nikolay Chebotko.
The real excitement started after lunch with the heats. Because of the cold conditions and sharp turns on the course, the organizing committee opted to reduce the number of heats to four quarterfinals, each of which included only four competitors. As such, Sargent was the only American to advance. Had the race been run with a full schedule of heats, Hannah Dreissigacker and Patrick O’Brien also would have contested the quarterfinals after finishing 20th and 30th in their respective races.
As it was, though, only Sargent faced an afternoon of competition. It was something she wasn’t exactly looking forward to, after having arrived in Finland late on Friday night. “Today I increased the amount of time I spent on snow by about four,” she said.
Sargent led her quarterfinal from start to finish, turning a few heads in the process. In her semifinal, she was in third place coming into the final downhill corner, when the Kazakh in front of her, Tatyana Rochshina, snowplowed to the outside. Seeing her chance, Sargent took the inside line and ultimately finished an easy second, advancing to the final.
In the final, Sargent was up against Ojaste, Slovakia’s Alena Prochazkova, and Kazakhstan’s Elena Kolomina – Olympians all of them. She trailed from the start, the jet lag and lack of on-snow training finally catching up with her. Nonetheless, making the final was a big accomplishment, and an encouraging start to her season.
At the finish, Ojaste and Prochazkova battled right to the line, finishing with a toe-slide. In the end it was Ojaste who ended up first, just like in the qualifier and every other heat she had contested. Kolomina was a distant third.
In the men’s rounds, more Olympians packed the heats, among them World Champions Andrus Veerpalu of Estonia and Vassili Rotchev of Russia. In the end, as in the women’s race, the winner of the qualifier also won the final: Einaste led Kummel into the finishing chute, followed again by the same two Kazakhs in the same order. But unlike in the women’s final, where the competitors gave it their all from start to finish, the men’s race was tactical. From the start, all four men paused to merge single-file into one set of tracks, and at the finish, they were still scarcely five meters apart – but it appeared that the race had already been decided, and three men were in the same finishing lane without a sprint to the line.
- The Estonian men celebrate after finishing first and second in the final.
Muonio will host more FIS races next weekend, which will probably draw even more competitors, including athletes from the U.S. Ski Team and a trip run by the Maine Winter Sports Center.