While the likes of Emil Joensson, Alexei Petukhov and Dario Cologna dominated the headlines, Andy Newell likely had the best disappointing day in the freestyle sprint in Davos.
Placing 13th for the second week in a row, Newell missed out on a spot in the semifinals by two inches at most.
Newell was his usual self in qualification, posting the fourth fastest time, and easily advancing to the heats.
“I felt good [in the qualification],” said Newell. “It is a little bit of a leg burner here at altitude.”
With the loaded field, there was nowhere to hide in the quarterfinals. Newell matched up against Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR), Fulvio Scola (ITA), and Robin Bryntesson (SWE) among others.
Newell got off the line well, and settled into second place behind Bryntesson. Riding fast skis he glided into the lead on the descent to the stadium with Hattestad drawing even on the outside.
Hattestad dropped back into second, and Newell led out for the second lap. The two hit the big climb side by side and attacked over the top, opening a small gap on the field.
As was the case all day the rest of the heat closed on the descent, but with Hattestad in front, the two leaders looked in control.
They accelerated into the finish stretch and charged toward the line. Scola moved up on the outside, making up a good three meters, and bested by literal inches with a lunge to the line.
“I thought for sure I got him,” Newell told FasterSkier in an interview. “Even when we crossed the finish line I thought I had it.
“I skied the heat really well…and feel like I am in great shape,” he continued.
From the standpoint of an observer, Newell appeared to do everything right, staying toward the front, out of trouble, and relaxed.
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover speculated that Newell may not have seen Scola moving up on the far side of Hattestad as the three approached the line.
“I think he may have gotten caught off guard,” Grover said, but also noted that Newell controlled the heat well.
When asked if he would have done anything different, Newell responded, “maybe the only thing would have been to pole a little harder on the last two poles when I put my lunge in.”
Staying at the front was key given the tight corners. “If you aren’t in the top-3 skiers coming into the final corner, you don’t really have a chance,” Newell said. “I came in right behind Hattestad ready for the final sprint, but Scola had a great last 20 meters and put in a better lunge.”
This was the second consecutive sprint that Newell was the first man not to make the semifinals.
“I’m definitely feeling good enough to make it to the finals in all these sprints,” Newell said. “Its just a matter of getting through the quarterfinal.”
Newell feels that the quarters are actually the most challenging part of the race.
“Once you get through [to the semis], it can actually be easier to make the final,” he said.
This makes sense given that only 12 of 30 skiers advance from the quarterfinals, while half the semifinal skiers will earn a spot in the finals.
Today, fours skiers from one semi advanced to the final.
But Newell was not one of them.
“This was definitely a heart breaker and he’s for sure frustrated because he feels like his shape is good, but he hasn’t been able to demonstrate it,” said Grover.
He continued, “I think it really will come together, and the key right now is to be patient because it’s a very long season.”
With World Championships two-and-a-half months away, Grover said that Newell will be doing some significant training blocks, the first of which starts Monday.
With not enough Americans to field a relay team next weekend in La Clusaz, and the other race, 30km freestyle, Newell will have some time to train, before racing starts up after Christmas with the Tour de Ski.
“We’ve come into the season planning on achieving a top form a little bit later,” Grover explained.
Kikkan Randall, Newell’s teammates who has two podium finishes in the last ten days, feels for him, saying “I can definitely empathize with him, because today he got beat out by the size of his big toe.”
“While I know it’s probably frustrating for him to have been so close so many times, obviously what he’s done this year is working, and there’s a lot of racing left this season.”
Randall has experienced her own tough periods, and has found it can provide extra motivation.
“I’ve found that sometimes when the start of the year doesn’t work out quite as well as I want, it’s just good fuel and good momentum for the later half of the season,” she said. “And if you had to pick being strong at the end versus the beginning, I think skiing fast in Oslo will make up for all of it.”
Despite the disappointment and early end to his day, Newell is still 9th in the Sprint Cup standings, one podium result out of the top-3.
In three sprint starts this season, he has finished 6th, 13th and 13th. It speaks to Newell’s level that these are not satisfactory results. Last season, on his way to 4th in the Sprint Cup, Newell competed in 11 World Cup sprints qualifying for the heats each time.
He made the finals 3 times, and was outside the semis on four occasions.
His start to the 2011 season is on par with those numbers, but at this point it is clear that Newell will settle for nothing less than the podium.
— Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.