Estonia has been good to Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova.
One year after notching a career-best 12th place in the Otepaa classic sprint, Gaiazova did herself four places better in the same event on Sunday, finishing fourth in her semifinal heat and eighth overall.
The result netted Gaiazova $750, and a big confidence boost as she heads home to prepare for the 2011 World Championships in Oslo. The racing in Otepaa wrapped up an exceptional two-week stint in Europe, which also included a fifth place in last week’s team sprint in the Czech Republic with her teammate Chandra Crawford.
Capitalizing on a strong double pole over the marathon homestretch in Otepaa, the 27-year-old Gaiazova came from last place in her quarterfinal all the way up to second place behind Sweden’s Hanna Falk, guaranteeing her a spot in the semis.
There, she made a similar charge on the home stretch after another slow start, but couldn’t quite make up the lost ground, ultimately finishing fourth. She had a chance to advance to the finals as a lucky loser, but the second semifinal included Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), and was faster.
“I work a lot on my double poling, and for sure I can tell that here, my efforts are paying off,” she told FasterSkier. “This is my first semi of the season, and I’m happy that my time at home over the holidays is paying off with better skiing and better speed.”
Crawford, her teammate, qualified 17th and got off to a great start in her own quarterfinal. But coming into the first small climb with speed, she stepped out of the track to move up, and couldn’t find any space to get back in.
“There was a whole line of people, and then it was tricky to get purchase outside of the track,” she said afterwards.
Crawford slipped back in the pack, and couldn’t close the gap on the ensuing downhill, ultimately placing last in her heat. She finished 27th on the day, for a close to her own trip that left her “not really satisfied.”
In last weekend’s sprint in the Czech Republic, Crawford saw a similarly promising start evaporate in a crash.
“I like the start,” she said Sunday. “I’ve just got to keep it for the last three quarters of the race. I learned a lot last weekend and this weekend.”
Like Gaiazova, Crawford will also head home to Canada for the leadup to Oslo where, she said, “at least there won’t be expectations on me.”
“I haven’t made it through a single quarterfinal this year,” she said.
Crawford had made several B-finals in classic sprints in 2008, but since an injury-plagued 2009, she has yet to crack the semis in the event.
At this point, Crawford said, she’s taking things “one step at a time.”
“Making it through a quarterfinal is the new definition of success, for me,” she said.
Ultimately, Crawford continued, she needs to compete a bit more, since, as she put it, she loses her “racing mojo” easily.
“Sometimes if I just spend a month, say, visualizing, by the time I get to the race, it’s like an out-of-body experience,” she said.
Back in Canada, she said she might try to compete in a Nor-Am in Kelowna, BC, or perhaps just “bang out intensity.”
Two other Canadian women took to the start on Sunday; Alysson Marshall was 33rd, and Heidi Widmer was 50th.
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.