For the North Americans, Thursday morning’s classic sprint qualifier was a day of inches and almosts.
Out of 15 U.S. and Canadian starters at the World Junior Championships in Estonia, just three cracked the top 30 and qualified for the afternoon heats: Erik Bjornsen (USA) in an impressive 10th, and Canada’s Janelle Greer and Heidi Widmer in 20th and 27th, respectively.
But two more were painfully close, and ended up occupying the dreaded 31st position: Canada’s Andy Shields on the men’s side, and the U.S.’s Heather Mooney on the women’s. Three additional skiers cracked the top 40, two of whom were less than two seconds from qualifying.
“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.
But with a huge grin plastered on her face just minutes after the race’s conclusion, the 16-year-old Mooney didn’t seem too disappointed with her result—and for good reason. She was the highest-placing athlete in her birth year, 1994; all 30 women who qualified were born in 1993 or earlier.
“I felt great…I definitely went as fast as I could,” she said. “It was a good race.”
Unlike Thursday’s U-23 races, both of which included fewer than 70 starters, the junior fields were significantly deeper—the men’s with 96 athletes and the women’s with 87.
“It’s incredibly competitive,” said U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb. “We’re seeing senior-level competition in this event.”
In 10th, Bjornsen was just over six seconds behind the men’s winner, Norway’s Sondre Fossli. Greer and Widmer were some 12 and 13 seconds back, respectively, from Germany’s Hanna Kolb, an experienced World Cup sprinter.
All three will have their work cut out for them in the afternoon heats, while the rest of the North American contingent will have to head home after a short outing.
Besides Bjornsen, the U.S. had two more strong hopes in Tyler Kornfield and Skyler Davis, but neither had good days in Estonia.
“It can be three-and-a-half minutes of race time in your premier event, but that’s the tough reality of being a sprinter, even on the World Cup,” Whitcomb said. “They know just as well as anybody that in order to be in the top 30, you’ve got to throw down your best stuff.”
Just two of the men ended up double-poling the qualifier—a Russian, and a Swede—and it was unclear whether the technique was faster. With slick conditions, though, it wouldn’t be surprise if skate skis made an appearance in the afternoon heats.
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.