Americans Struggle in Drammen; Bjornsen a Bright Spot

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 19, 2011
Liz Stephen racing in Drammen, Norway, on Saturday.

At least there’s another week until Oslo.

That was the take-away for the Americans after Saturday’s 10 k classic race in Drammen, where the top U.S. women struggled on a tough course, in a stacked field of Norwegians.

In her World Cup debut, Sadie Bjornsen (USA) led the way in 52nd, 3:19 behind the winner, Marit Bjoergen (NOR). But none of the other American women came within three-and-a-half minutes of Bjoergen’s time, leaving them with a long week until the distance races get underway at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.

“I’m not going to think about it too much,” said Liz Stephen (USA), who was 56th. “It’s easy to read into it. But you know, bodies are funny.”

To be fair, the best North American distance skier, Kikkan Randall, is resting for Sunday’s skate sprint, and didn’t start on Saturday. And the other women were not helped by the addition of a dozen Norwegians to that country’s usual quota, thanks to what’s called the Nation’s Group. (Countries hosting a World Cup race are allowed to enter athletes above and beyond their normal numbers.)

Nineteen Norwegian starters took to the Konnerud trails on Saturday, and the country put eight in the top 30.

The American troubles couldn’t be pinned on one single thing: Stephen said she felt merely “okay” in her first World Cup since December; her teammate Morgan Arritola couldn’t get a new pair of skis to kick, according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover; and Holly Brooks (USA), in 60th, said that she struggled her second time up the course’s main, “brutal” climb.

But shining through the sea of red Norwegian spandex, there were still a few bright spots.

Sadie Bjornsen (USA) was the top North American finisher on Saturday, in 51st.

In her first-ever World Cup, Bjornsen’s performance was foremost among them—and her result came despite missing her start by nearly 10 seconds.

At the gate, Bjornsen stood watching the start clock, waiting for the indicator light to change from red to green. It never did.

“It just kept being red,” Bjornsen said.

Finally, she asked the starter if she was allowed to go. She was, and she did—but not before she’d lost eight or nine seconds, which likely cost her five places.

Still, Bjornsen said she otherwise felt “awesome.” She was buoyed by a boisterous crowd, which recognized her last name as a Norwegian one.

“They were getting so excited,” she said.

Bjornsen wasn’t bothered by the noise, though—she said that it was so loud that it drowned out the voice inside her own head.

She wasn’t the only one to compliment the Norwegian fans, either—nearly all the American women mentioned them after the race.

“They knew my name,” said Ida Sargent (USA), who was 59th. “I think a lot of people had a start list.”

The numbers in Drammen, though—estimated at 15,000 for the women’s race—were only a warm-up for World Championships, where events are expected to draw as many as 100,000 spectators. And if the event served as a preview for what the bleachers will look like in Oslo, the same can be said for what will be seen from the athletes on the courses there.

In the mean time, though, those who struggled on Saturday will have to refocus. For Stephen and Arritola, especially, that will be tough, since they won’t get another shot at racing in Sunday’s skate sprint.

“For sure, a bad race kind of hangs with you all week, so it’s hard to shake that,” Grover said. “Hopefully, it just kind of inspires them to come out charging in a week.”

It helps, Grover added, that many of the American women had strong races in domestic Norwegian races in Beitostolen last weekend. And, he said, the 10 k classic has never been a strong discipline for his team, either.

“It’s just a hard event for us,” he said.

Two years ago, at tune-up races in Italy just before the 2009 World Championships in the Czech Republic, the

Canada's Chandra Crawford joked that she used Saturday's distance race as last-minute training for the 2011 World Championships next week.

Americans also struggled—before Stephen and Arritola turned in career bests soon after.

“I think I had the worst 10 k classic of my life a week out, and then had the best race of my life the next week,” Stephen said. “What do you do?”

Crawford Jumps in Distance Race

The Canadians didn’t fare much better than their counterparts from south of the border: Dasha Gaiazova was the country’s top finisher in 61st, just over four minutes out.

“Just another world over here,” said Brooke Gosling (CAN), who was the last finisher of the 68 women.

Perianne Jones (CAN) was 66th, while her teammate Chandra Crawford also competed, finishing two places higher.

For Crawford, not known for her slow-twitch prowess, it was the first time contesting a distance race the day before a sprint—which she joked was “a last minute push to get in shape.”

Seriously, though, Crawford said that the additional racing would help her in Oslo next week. And the three days between the World Cup sprint on Sunday and the championships sprint on Thursday should be enough for her to recover, she added.

Link to full results (PDF).

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Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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