One of the best things about the World Junior and U-23 Championships is the potential for surprises.
Sure, sometimes there are upsets on the World Cup, like last weekend’s victories by Eldar Roenning and Eirik Brandsdal in Otepaa, Estonia. But even if those wins were unexpected, they still came from familiar names—both Roenning and Brandsdal are regulars on the circuit.
At World Juniors and U-23’s, which kick off Wednesday, there are likely to be title-winning performances from names you’ve never heard of before, and from countries you’ve visited. Last year’s championships, for example, saw Paul Constantin Pepene come out of nowhere to take the 30 k pursuit, overcoming horrendous technique and a virtually non-existent ski culture in his native Romania.
We don’t want to completely demystify it, but with racing set to start in less than an hour, here’s a list of 10 juniors to keep an eye on in Otepaa. We’ll follow it up later today with 10 U-23 skiers, as well.
The German Women
Okay, so, technically, this isn’t one junior to watch. But otherwise, these women would take up 30 percent of our feature, and that doesn’t seem quite fair.
Anyway, in Hanna Kolb, Helene Jacob, and Lucia Anger, the Germans essentially have an entire team of juniors with World Cup experience.
Their qualifications are impressive. Anger has three medals from World Juniors dating back to 2008, and her first race of this year’s championships, Wednesday’s 5 k freestyle, falls on her 20th birthday. Jacob just came off competing in the first two stages of the 2011 Tour de Ski. (Yeah, we know she only beat a combined total of two women, but cut her some slck—she’s 18!) Kolb has cracked no fewer than eight sets of sprint heats at the World Cup level, finishing as high as eleventh, and she’s still finishing up high school: According to Stefan Totzler, the German U-23 women’s coach, Kolb is studying up to take finals for her last class, immediately following the conclusion of the World Ski Championships in March.
The Norwegian female juniors are almost as strong as the Germans, but Weng especially stands out. She is the last seed in Wednesday’s 5 k—the spot reserved for the highest ranked athlete, as judged by points accumulated in previous races—and Geir Enore Rogn, one of the Norwegian team’s six waxers, picked her as the best bet for a good result.
Weng was second in the 2010 World Juniors pursuit, and she also won last weekend’s test sprint on the World Championships course in Oslo over World Cup veterans like Maiken Caspersen Falla and Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes. She’s also fleet of foot, having won an award for being the fastest junior runner in Norway in 2010.
Finnish U-23 Head Coach Ilkka Jarva tipped Pitkaenen as the team’s strongest female junior. She’s the second-ranked starter in Wednesday’s 5 k freestyle, and a 2009 European Youth Olympic Festival champion in the 5 k classic, beating none other than Lucia Anger by ten seconds.
The Japanese female relay team quietly amassed a couple of strong results in the World Cup this fall—12th in the season-opening event in Gallivare, Sweden, where they beat the U.S. team in a sprint, and fifth in La Clusaz, France, in December.
The 19-year-old Kashiwabara was a member of both those squas, and turned in strong performances in each race—especially in Gallivare, where her time was two seconds faster than Morgan Arritola’s.
Kashiwabara was fourth in last year’s World Juniors pursuit, barely missing out on a medal to Norway’s Tuva Toftdahl. After coming painfully close to the podium numerous times in last year’s championships, look for the Japanese team to take a step up this season.
This 19 year old Italian has nine World Cup sprint starts under her belt, including one where she qualified for the heats. She was fourth in last season’s World Juniors sprint in Germany, and even topped Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in an event at the Russian Sprint Tour in the spring. (To be fair, the event, a steep descent, was not exactly Kowalczyk’s forte.)
One more reason to like her, if you’re an American ski fan? She was born on the fourth of July.
Romania doesn’t turn out cross-country skiers by the bundle, but it appears to do a pretty good job of picking its battles. In addition to Pepene, they’ve also got Hogiu (don’t ask how to pronounce his name), who at age 18 managed to top Garrott Kuzzy, Kris Freeman, and Simi Hamilton in the 15 k skate at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Hogiu was second in last year’s 20 k World Juniors pursuit in Germany. A good race from him in Estonia could pick him up another medal. He’s already won one event this year, a junior race in Italy, and like Pepene, he’s also a patriotic dude.
Toenseth’s biggest claim to fame is probably winning the 2009 edition of Ski Idol, the Norwegian improvement on the popular American TV show. By doing so, he won a training grant of over $3,000, and a bit of notoriety in his home country.
Anywhere else but Norway, though, Toenseth’s results would be making him famous. He collected two podiums in that European Youth Olympic Festival in 2009, and won one of the races at last year’s Norwegian Junior National Championships. One thing that could hurt him in Estonia, though, is that he prefers classic skiing, and the distance races here, Toenseth’s specialty, favor strong skaters.
If you were playing fantasy nordic and needed a Finnish junior male, the obvious pick would be Iivo Niskanen, 19. His older sister is the verifiably nasty Kerttu, who has multiple top-15’s on the World Cup, as well as a U-23 championship from last year’s 10 k classic in Germany. But according to Jarva, the Finnish U-23 coach, the younger Niskanen suffered a “problematic” start to his season, including a bout with mononucleosis, and has finished just two races this year. The better bet is Hyvarinen, who, like his teammate Pitkaenen, won the distance skate race at the 2009 European Youth Olympic Festival. Wednesday’s race is the exact same format, so look for him to excel there.
Jeannerod, a 19-year-old Frenchman, probably won’t win Wednesday’s 10 k skate, because unlike Anger, his birthday isn’t until Thursday. A former junior national champion in both mountain biking and cross-country, Jeannerod decided to focus his energies on skiing, and the efforts have largely paid off. A bout of overtraining hurt his results last year, according to his blog, but he has posted some impressive early-season finishes this year. Those include two straight podium finishes in competitive European junior races in December in Austria, which featured some of his toughest rivals that he’ll face here in Estonia.
Jeannerod also has perhaps the strangest sponsor of any World Juniors competitor: Weleda, a brand of massage oils.
Wick is the headliner of a strong crop of German junior men, which also includes Markus Weeger and Jonas Dobler. He doesn’t have any single big result to hang his hat on—though he did top Jeannerod to win one of the junior races in Austria in December—but he reeled off a long string of top-fives earlier this season. Having attended the 2009 and 2010 World Juniors, and been part of medal-winning German relay teams both times, he knows his way around a championships, too.
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.