After a half hour of skiing Saturday, Kris Freeman had earned himself $500, 29 World Cup points, and one top-10 finish.
By his own account, Freeman’s ninth place in the season-opening 15 k freestyle in Gallivare was “a hell of a day,” and it was the top finish for the American men. Noah Hoffman followed with a stellar 31st, while Andy Newell and Chris Cook turned in lackluster results in 87th and 102nd, respectively.
Freeman finished in just over 33 minutes, some 45 seconds behind Hellner. He was enthusiastic about his own race, but he emphasized that he’s still getting started.
“I know what I feel like when I’m really able to dig down deep and hurt real bad, and it wasn’t today,” Freeman said in an interview. “It’s a different thing when you’re getting the absolute most out of your body…and I have to work a little harder in training to get to that point, which is a good thing.”
In the last month, Freeman has shown that his fitness is on the rise, with a win and a second place at competitive tune-up races in Finland, as well as a new record on Dartmouth College’s time trial course that ascends Mount Moosilauke, in New Hampshire.
In an interview after winning his first race in Muonio, Freeman acknowledged that he had some concerns about peaking too soon. And his coach, Zach Caldwell, said that his own response to the result was “a little bit of an uh-oh.”
“We were trying to use these races to let the form come up a bit, but the form was already there,” Caldwell said.
Afterwards, Caldwell canvassed a number of other coaches, including his cousin, Stratton Mountain School Head Coach Sverre Caldwell, as well as Pete Vordenberg and Chris Grover of the U.S. Ski Team (USST). He wanted their opinions on whether Freeman should contest the second race, or sit out.
Sverre, an experienced junior coach, told Zach that there was no reason for Freeman to hold back.
“He goes, ‘don’t be afraid of it,’” Zach said. “‘He hasn’t gone for great fitness, so accept it.’”
Freeman ultimately decided to compete, since, as Caldwell said, “he just hasn’t overreached.”
According to Caldwell, Freeman’s body assimilates hard efforts very quickly, and even a single interval session can make a big difference.
“He aIways responds really quickly to each impulse…I think he’ll have a little more next weekend in Kuusamo,” Caldwell said. “He’s just going to let it come.”
Freeman’s blood sugar has also been on-target throughout the last two weeks in Europe—he said that it was “spot-on” on Saturday.
Last season, his blood sugar consistently would plunge to problematic levels after competitions, which hindered Freeman’s recovery. But a new dosing regimen and a half gallon of Gatorade after the 15 k in Gallivare kept him from going too low, Caldwell said.
Hoffman, meanwhile, finished 1:19 behind Hellner—just two-tenths of a second away from World Cup points, which go to the top 30 finishers. The race was Hoffman’s best ever, as measured by points allocated by the International Ski Federation.
Hoffman has displayed flashes of brilliance on the domestic circuit, but he had yet to match those results at the international level before Saturday.
“It was important for [Hoffman] to have a strong race today for his own benefit,” USST coach Matt Whitcomb wrote in an e-mail. “He entered…confident, and is exiting the race with a hop skate in his step.”
In addition to coaching Freeman, Caldwell has also worked with Hoffman over the last year to hone his notoriously shaky technique. After the pair’s latest session, before Hoffman departed for Europe, Caldwell said he could tell that good results were in the cards.
“I’ve seen Kris enough that I know what top-30 fitness looks like. I told Noah he was capable of points,” Caldwell said. “Really, it was going to come down to [Hoffman’s] execution, and his ability to stay out of his own way.”
Just like Freeman, though, Hoffman still has room for improvement.
“He’s pleased and proud, but he knows there’s more there,” Caldwell said. “It doesn’t feel out of reach for him to be way better.”
One other man who knows there’s potential for improvement is Newell, who was the third American man, in 87th.
Newell was struggling from the get-go—he was already 50 seconds down on Hellner after his first lap—and things only got worse. By the finish, Newell was three minutes back.
“I didn’t have any expectations going into today, although I was really looking to do a lot better than I did…I kind of bonked out a little bit,” Newell wrote in an e-mail.
While it can be “hard on the confidence” for the sprinters to start the World Cup season with a distance race, Newell said that he’ll get his chance “to bust out the whap sticks next weekend—and I need some more practice pacing my distance events anyway.”
Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
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.