With Kikkan Randall earning frequent flier miles for her trips to the podium, and the likes of Andy Newell, Kris Freeman, Devon Kershaw, and Alex Harvey battling for the top-10, it can be easy for the younger North American skiers to get lost in the shuffle.
Simi Hamilton (USA), Len Valjas (CAN), and Phil Widmer (CAN), all members of their respective nation’s B-Teams posted strong results in Sunday’s World Cup sprint in Davos, Switzerland.
The trio qualified for the heats, led by Hamilton in an impressive 11th.
Hamilton’s time of 2:53.99 was 3.29 seconds off the pace set by top qualifier Federico Pellegrino of Italy, and better than Dario Cologna (SUI) and Fulvio Scola (ITA), both of whom advanced to the finals.
“He skied his qualifier really well—to be only 3 seconds from first was incredible,” said US Ski Team Head coach Chris Grover of Hamilton. “It’s just an absolute breakthrough result for him…He was just floating out there.”
Hamilton looked smooth in his quarterfinal, and skied a strong first lap before getting tangled with another skier just before the last big hill.
“He suffered in the rounds a little bit just from not having enough World Cup experience,” said Grover. “He hasn’t had enough time skiing with these guys to know when people are going to try to pass you, or when to step out to create room around you.”
“I learned a lot of valuable things for the next World Cup heat I ski,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “I made a couple of really good moves on a corner and climb on my first lap, and was in a good position heading into the climb the second time around, but just got pinballed around and ended up losing ground on the front three.”
He kept his focus and battled back into fourth place, regaining contact as the heat moved into the homestretch.
“I knew that I was in a potential lucky loser position and that every place counted, so I fought hard and was pretty psyched that I hung onto fourth in my heat,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton ended the day in 16th, easily the best World Cup finish of his career.
He has struggled with skating this fall, in large part due to a knee injury. Grover said that Hamilton has had to limit his skating in training, so the result today was a good sign.
“I’m really psyched with where my fitness is right now and know it will just keep getting better,” Hamilton said. “I would definitely say that if had been able to keep clear of the tangle on the hill, I think I would have had enough gas in the tank to throw down in the last 100 for a spot into the semifinals.”
Hamilton’s first fall World Cup swing has now come to an end. His next big competitions will come at the US National Championships in Rumford.
Canada’s Valjas was just one place behind Hamilton on the final results sheet. He qualified in 22nd, and skied a strong quarterfinal.
He described his heat as “so much fun,” saying “it’s great to battle head to head with some of the world’s best sprinters.”
And battle he did, giving those sprinters a run for their money.
After spending the first lap locked in second right behind Cologna, Valjas made a mistake that may have cost him a chance to advance.
“I could hear Modin [Jesper of Sweden] and Gloersen [Anders of Norway] trying to pass me on the right,” Valjas wrote in an email. “I should have immediately shut the door and moved over before they skied passed me.”
But he didn’t and found himself back in fourth. He stayed strong over the hill and sprinted to the line, just behind the leaders. Gloersen, third in the heat, earned the final lucky loser spot in the semifinals, leaving Valjas less than half a second from the semis.
“I would have never expected finishing 17th in a World Cup,” Valjas said. “I am feeling better and better with every race…and am so much more confident for these races because I know now that I can compete with these guys.”
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth was pleased, saying “He was skiing fast and I think he did a good job—he’s just learning, and for his first few World Cup experiences he’s done quite well.”
This was Valjas’ first World Cup heat appearance, and by far his best result.
His teammate Widmer made it three North Americans in a row, placing 18th after qualifying in 23rd.
“It was nice for him to get a good one under his belt,” said Wadsworth. “I was really pleased. He skied really smooth in his qualifier, and skied well in his heat too.”
Wadsworth continued, “We’ve had shining moments in a lot of different places. Most people on the team have had top-10, top-20 results. Especially with Len being so young, for him it’s pretty exciting.”
This was Widmer’s seventh time in World Cup sprint heats, and while he managed a 13th in Canmore in 2008, Sunday’s result was his best in a full European field.
While Valjas will head on to La Clusaz to get some distance racing and, according to Wadsworth, take the opportunity to work on his pacing for U23 Championships, WIdmer will head back to Canada, and may race the NorAm mini-tour in Rossland next weekend.
And while the performances by the two Canadians don’t guarantee anything at this point, they are in good position to qualify for World Championships.
Currently a World Cup top-20 does meet Canadian criteria, but ranks below World Cup Red Group, World Cup top-12, and the winner in Rossland.
So at this point Widmer and Valjas have met the standard, but could still end up not going if enough other athletes make it on the other criteria.
Brent McMurtry, Stefan Kuhn and Devon Kershaw, the other Canadians in the sprint did not fare as well. McMurtry and Kuhn placed 53rd and 68th respectively, while Kershaw stabbed his foot with his pole during qualification, losing any chance to advance.
“There’s a hole in his boot,” said Wadsworth. “It just kind of threw him over. He said his legs felt really good, so it was kind of frustrating.”
On the American side, Chris Cook showed significant improvement, placing 66th, while Kris Freeman placed 74th.
“Kris said he went as hard as he could but that’s all that was in the tank,” Grover told FasterSkier. “He felt like he had a great first lap, but kind of came apart a little bit on the second lap.”
The first World Cup period ends next week in La Clusaz, but with no sprint on the schedule, sprint standings are now final for the period.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.