If one of the races at the 2011 World U-23 Championships was a foregone conclusion, it was probably the women’s 10 k freestyle.
The top-seeded athlete on Thursday’s start list in Otepaa, Estonia was Finnish powerhouse Krista Lahteenmaki, a World Cup silver medalist—and the results were predictable.
In an effort that serves as a stark benchmark for the rest of the U-23 women, Lahteenmaki skied to the win by a full minute over Russia’s Mariya Guschina, with Norway’s Hilde Lauvhaug in third.
Only 15 athletes were within two minutes of Lahteenmaki’s time of 26:33. Canada’s Emily Nishikawa was the top North American in 16th, while Sadie Bjornsen led the Americans in 23rd.
After Wednesday’s junior races went off in cloudy weather, with moderate temperatures, Thursday greeted athletes with a beautifully clear, crisp, and frigid morning—the first time in a week that a color other than gray graced the Estonian skies.
The snow was squeaky and slow, and temperatures on the coldest areas of the Otepaa trails were close to the legal racing limit of negative four degrees Fahrenheit. The women raced wearing buffs, mittens, and even athletic tape on their cheeks to stave off frostbite.
Their course, three laps of a 3.3-kilometer loop, took the athletes out of the stadium and on much of the same terrain as last weekend’s World Cup here, through a pair of open fields on an expansive hillside.
Lacking on Thursday, though, was the brutally steep climb near Otepaa’s ski jump—as well as the spectators. No more than 25 viewed the race from the stadium, while farther out, the course was lined with more coaches than fans.
Lahteenmaki has raced in front of much larger crowds in the 2011 Tour de Ski and at the 2010 Olympics, but the setting didn’t seem to make much of a difference to her. By the end of her first lap, she was already 25 seconds up on German Denise Herrman, her nearest challenger, and never looked back.
“She can do this kind of performance when it’s needed,” said Ilkka Jarva, the Finnish U-23 coach—noting that part of Lahteenmaki’s success can be attributed to her health. This year, it’s been good; last year, she was battling an infection with Mycoplasma.
Still, Lahteenmaki’s victory almost didn’t happen. After her hemoglobin levels tested high before last weekend’s World Cup races and she received a five-day ban, she nearly decided to leave Estonia.
Instead, according to Heidi Lehikoinen, her spokeswoman, she did a 10 k time trial on the distance race course—recording a time, 29:12, that would have put her in the top 20 of the World Cup field. She had another hemoglobin test on Tuesday before the U-23 racing started, and passed.
“I was happy that I could ski today,” Lahteenmaki said in the press conference.
Fortunately for the rest of the field, the 10 k was the only event Lahteenmaki is contesting at U-23’s—she’s departing Otepaa for the Finnish national championships later this week, then competing at the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo.
After her podium finish in a stage of the Tour de Ski earlier this month, it’s conceivable that Lahteenmaki could crack the podium
in Norway—or at least at future Worlds.
“It’s just a question of time, I think, when she will take the big win,” Jarva said. “The potential is there.”
Nishikawa, meanwhile, recorded her personal best U-23 finish with a “really good race,” after warming up with a 46th place in last weekend’s 10 k classic World Cup, when she said she was feeling a little jet-lagged.
On Thursday, she latched onto Germany’s Monique Siegel, who was starting as Nishikawa lapped through the stadium after a controlled, conservative start. At 3.3 kilometers, she was sitting 25th, before moving up nine places by the finish.
“I didn’t want to start too fast,” Nishikawa said, noting that she doesn’t get “too wound up” for races.
U-23’s is often sparsely-attended, and on Thursday, a mere 42 athletes completed the women’s race. Many of Norway’s best athletes were racing at home at their national championships, and the field wasn’t quite as competitive as usual.
But with Lahteenmaki at the top, there was no question that the world’s U-23 women had a good barometer in the Finn.
“The U-23—it’s always a little bit thinner, for sure,” said Eric Bailey, one of the Canadian coaches. “But…obviously, there’s still some pretty nice-quality skiers here.”
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.