Sure, sprinting is sprinting. But try telling that to Russia’s Elena Soboleva and Germany’s Hanna Kolb.
The two were all but guaranteed medals in Friday’s classic sprint at the World Junior Championships when both went for the same track, taking a tumble that cost them the race.
As the two struggled to untangle their skis and poles, Kolb’s teammate Lucia Anger skied by with two Norwegians, Kari Oeyre Slind and Ragnhild Haga. Those three took gold, silver, and bronze, while Kolb and Soboleva were left with nothing but tears at the finish.
“That’s sport,” said Karl-Heinz Eppinger, the German team leader.
Kolb was the clear favorite for Friday’s race in Otepaa, Estonia, with starts at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and top-15 finishes on the World Cup.
She qualified first, taking more than a second from Soboleva, with both women winning their quarter- and semi-final heats in dominating fashion.
In the finals, the two broke away almost immediately, with only Anger able to keep pace.
Through the course’s main climb, and back down through the stadium, the three were glued to each other. On the final short rise before heading into the backstretch, Soboleva and Kolb started to pull ahead, and over the top, they both wanted the same line. They collided and went sprawling, and needed several seconds to extricate themselves.
“It took such a long time to get up again,” said Jan Wuestenfeld, the German team doctor. “[Kolb] couldn’t get up…otherwise she would have had a chance, still, for the bronze.”
Anger narrowly escaped, just slipping to the left, with Slind and Haga coming past as well.
“I saw two girls screaming, and they never got to their feet,” Haga said. “I saw the opportunity, and I just went as fast as I could.”
Anger had enough of a gap to ski essentially unchallenged to the win, though some quick double-poling by Slind on the homestretch cut the margin of victory to three-tenths of a second. Haga followed in third, with Finland’s Maria Grundvall in fourth.
Kolb beat out Soboleva for fifth, and held it together for long enough to high-five her winning teammate before breaking down in the finish pen.
In broken English, Eppinger still put it best.
“What shit. And glad for Lucia Anger,” he said.
Anger, a 20-year-old, is from the German ski hotbed of Oberstdorf, and already has three World Junior medals from 2008 and 2009.
At last year’s championships, though, in the Black Forest town of Hinterzarten, she failed to crack the top 10, which Wuestenfeld chalked up to the stress of racing at home.
“Everybody expected her winning a medal,” he said. “The pressure was too high.”
In Friday’s race, though, she had just enough—and of course, everything fell into place.
“In sprint,” said Wuestenfeld, “you always have to have a bit of luck.”
The Canadians managed to put two of their women in the heats, with Janelle Greer qualifying 20th and Heidi Widmer in 27th.
Neither of them, though, was able to advance out of the quarterfinals. Both struggled to stay in contact with the leaders of their heats; it didn’t help that Greer had to face Kolb, while Widmer was stuck with Anger.
Greer had to fight her way back into contention after a poor start, and wasn’t able to respond when the pace accelerated later in the heat.
“They picked it up in the finishing stretch, and I didn’t really have much left,” Greer said.
She said she was still satisfied with her final result, 21st, which represented an improvement of 13 places over her last World Juniors sprint, in 2009 in France.
Widmer, on the other hand, wasn’t pleased with 28th. She had been competitive with her country’s best seniors in sprint races in the early-season, and said that she was shooting for a top-12 on Friday—even if her preference is freestyle, not classic.
She had won three of the qualifying races for Canada’s junior team, and arrived in Otepaa with “a lot of confidence,” especially since it was her fourth career trip to World Juniors.
“But, Europe is always full of curveballs,” she said. “I was happy with my double-pole, but my striding—I just didn’t have it in me today…Those girls are strong, that’s for damn sure.”
Sixteen-year-old Heather Mooney was the top American woman in the dreaded 31st spot, just three-tenths of a second from qualifying for the heats.
“I guess that’s just where you learn—couple stumbles here and there. It’s what we’re here for, experience,” Mooney said, noting that a fumble with one of her poles at the start likely cost her a spot in the heats.
At just 16 years old, though, Mooney was the top finisher from her age group, and sporting a huge grin just after the race, it was clear she wasn’t disappointed.
“I felt great…I definitely went as fast as I could,” she said. “It was a good race.”
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.