The North American performance in Saturday’s U-23 classic sprint certainly wasn’t embarassing. Behind a dominating victory by Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen, Canada’s Alysson Marshall was 12th, cracking the semifinals for her first time as a U-23. And the U.S.’s Sadie Bjornsen was 11th in the prelim, ahead of one of the podium finishers.
But none of the three American women who qualified for the heats in Otepaa, Estonia, made it past the quarterfinals, and there was no hiding that the U.S. wanted more.
“We showed that we have some great sprinters…but I don’t think we met our expectations,” said Matt Whitcomb, one of the American coaches in Otepaa.
Of the three U.S. women who qualified for the heats—Jennie Bender also made it into the top 30—Ida Sargent had the most potential, given her strong international results early in the year and a fourth place in the same event last season. But in retrospect, the odds were stacked against her.
First of all, she was stuck in a quarterfinal with Niskanen, which didn’t help, as the Finn pinned the heat from the start.
Second, Sargent was in a car accident in December, and endured a concussion and neck injury that has plagued her in races for the last month. While she said she’s been feeling much better at these races in Otepaa, Estonia, if she’d been fully healthy, “she would have been Batwoman today,” Whitcomb said.
Instead, Sargent had to contend with a relatively flat course that had little striding, her strength, and a big dose of double-poling—an area she has struggled with since her injury.
“If you’re talking about striding, Ida is skiing among the best U-23’s in the world,” Whitcomb said. “If you’re talking about double-poling, you’re looking at somebody who’s still recovering from her car accident.”
Boxed out early in the heat, Sargent never had a chance to make a move on the climbs, and couldn’t hang on the flats. She ultimately placed fifth in her heat, leaving her 23rd for the day.
She was downcast afterwards, telling FasterSkier that she was “pretty bummed.”
“Not going to lie—that’s a pretty bad day,” she said.
Whitcomb, though, said that there were still some encouraging signs. While it has been more than a month since Sargent has shown her best form, he still wasn’t too worried about her participation at the 2011 World Ski Championships in Norway in late February.
“Today was a bit of a, ‘let’s go out and see what happens. Let’s feel out the neck, let’s feel out the energy.’ The neck was pretty good; energy was pretty good. Some rust was chipped off,” he said. “Today, we got what we got, and she skied fine. She has two races next week in Scandinavia, and plenty of races building into World Champs.”
For her part, Bender said she also got boxed out in some key spots, while Bjornsen, who was in the same quarterfinal as Sargent, couldn’t match Niskanen and Emma Wiken, the Swede who took second in that heat.
Like in the men’s race, conditions on Otepaa’s 1.2-kilometer course made for some tricky skiing, if not tricky waxing. With patches of windblown snow slowing the tracks in some areas, lane selection was crucial—Sargent said that she chose a powdery one for the homestretch in her qualifier, and at one point ended up coming to a complete stop.
Marshall was the lone bright spot in the heats for the North Americans, advancing to the semis by passing Germany’s Sandra Ringwald in the closing stages of their quarterfinal. She looked fluid and controlled, but was left behind in a fast semifinal that included both Niskanen and Jennie Oeberg, the eventual third-place finisher. Like her compatriot Len Valjas, Marshall said she was stymied by a slow lane heading into the homestretch.
“I was a little disappointed in the semifinal, but not much I could do about that,” she said. “I tried to make a move at the back of the stadium, but the other track was a lot slower, and that wasted some energy there.”
Last place in her semi left Marshall in 12th overall, matching her result from the same event in 2009. But that time, Marshall had actually finished 13th, and moved up when the race winner, Russia’s Nina Rysina, was later disqualified after testing positive for EPO.
“I have a 12th spot on my resume, even though I didn’t actually get to race the semifinals,” Marshall said. “It’s nice to actually get in this time”
The variable conditions may have stymied some of the other athletes, but they did nothing to stop Niskanen, who obliterated the U-23 women’s field the same way that her teammate Krista Lahteenmaki did in Thursday’s 10 k freestyle.
She led every single one of her heats from start to finish, with Norway’s Britt Ingun Nydal and Jennie Oeberg taking second and third in the finals.
After her second place in last weekend’s World Cup in Otepaa, Sweden’s Hanna Brodin was expected to be a favorite. But an expected showdown with Niskanen fizzled when Brodin’s tank was empty in the finals—she finished a distant fifth.
Niskanen is a stronger distance skier, according to Glenn Lindholm, the Finnish team leader. But she’s not a great skater, which explains her comparatively anemic ninth place in Thursday’s 10 k. Still, Lindholm said, Saturady’s course wasn’t ideal for Niskanen.
“There’s too much double pole. She likes uphills,” he said.
Her performance in the sprint, then, was a good sign, according to Lindholm. There’s a good chance, he added, that she’ll make an appearance at the World Ski Championships in Oslo, in February.
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.