Going into Saturday’s relays, Grace Boutot hadn’t had the best World Juniors of her career.
In Canmore in 2009, the American was second in the youth women’s individual race and contributed to a fifth-place relay team. But this year, in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, her top finish was 39th in the individual.
“I haven’t had the results that I hoped for in the past two days,” she said after the pursuit. And after the individual, she told FasterSkier that her ski speed was lacking this year due to a less-than-ideal season of training.
But on Saturday morning, things came together for Boutot when she scrambled for the junior women’s relay.
“I’d never started a relay before and the first leg was exciting since all the girls were pretty aggressive and trying to get good positions,” she told FasterSkier.
So exciting, in fact, that Boutot made a mistake.
“I came into the range in sixth place, but managed to go to the wrong shooting point,” she said. “Instead of going to point 13 (my bib number) I just filled in and went to point four without even thinking. Then an IBU official yelled at me in I don’t know what language, and I had to ski backwards to my point. It really sucked since I lost a lot of time doing that.”
But thanks to good shooting – she used just one spare round to clean two shooting stages – Boutot was still able to turn in a great performance, handing off to Kelly Kjorlien in fifth place.
“I ultimately tagged off right after Norway. If I hadn’t made that mistake, I would have tagged off in third. But besides for that, I had a fantastic race. I skied well, shot well, had awesome skis, and lots of Americans and Canadians out there cheering for me. The relay was a super finish to World Juniors for me.”
Kjorlien faced some challenges of her own. Namely, she’s actually a youth, but because there were only two American juniors on the trip, she was selected to race up an age category to fill the relay team.
“For my first race in the junior field it went pretty well,” Kjorlien said in an e-mail. “I was a lot more nervous and worked up than I have been for a race in a while, so I had to angrily tell myself to settle down multiple times.”
Nerves might have gotten the best of her: Kjorlien, usually a very strong shooter, used all three spare rounds in both prone and standing, and still had to ski one penalty loop after the standing stage.
“Grace started out with an awesome performance, and that was a bit intimidating,” she explained. “I was hoping to shoot better, but given my stress level I kind of held it together. I felt okay about my leg.”
By the time Kjorlien handed off to Corrine Malcolm, the anchor leg of the 3 x 6 k race, she had dropped to 14th place. Malcolm tried her best to make up time – and did, on the trails. Her first and second loops were the fourth-fastest among all anchor legs, while her finishing loop was the third-fastest.
But Malcolm’s speed came at a price. Like Kjorlien, she used all six spare rounds. But unlike Kjorlien, she hit the penalty loop five times – almost unheard-of in a relay. As a result, the U.S. dropped down to 16th place.
Kjorlien was still happy with their effort, however.
“We didn’t have very high expectations for this race,” she said. “We were just happy to be able to put together a junior women’s relay team for the first time in three years! It was a good way to wrap up our races here in Nove Mesto.”
And while the end wasn’t as successful as the beginning, Boutot was still enthusiastic about the relay and echoed Kjorlien’s sentiments.
“The team had a rough ending with six penalties, but everyone tried their best,” she said. “The positive part is that this was the first U.S. junior women’s relay in three years! The last time was in Ruhpolding, at my first World Juniors. So it was great to be able to have Kelly race up so we could have a team!”
The Canadian team of Audrey Vaillancourt, Yolaine Oddou, and Emma Lunder finished eighth, just over four minutes behind the winning Russian squad. Expectations were high after Vaillancourt and Oddou finished 11th and 13th in the individual race on Wednesday, but while all three women were able to turn in solid performances – and avoid the penalty loop – none were spectacular.
In the junior men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay, their teammate Scott Gow had another strong race after finishing ninth in the individual. On Saturday, he was Canada’s leadoff skier and handed off in fourth place despite hitting the penalty loop after his standing shooting.
“Starting the mass start was a lot of fun,” he told FasterSkier. “I was looking forward to it- being able to race head to head is my favorite.
“My leg of the relay was definitely the strongest for Canada today,” he continued. “The snow was a lot slower today than it had been earlier this week, and it was really windy and gusty in the range too, so it made for some really challenging racing conditions. My leg of the race was good but the snow got slower and slower which hurt my teammates. Our teammate David Gregoire also hurt his back earlier this week and wasn’t sure if he was going to race until this morning; his back was hurting him during his leg.”
The team did take a tumble through the rankings, dropping to 11th after Vincent Blais took over and then maintaining that position throughout Aaron Neumann’s leg. After Gregoire finished, they were sitting in 13th overall.
“I think we were all hoping for a top 10 on a good day,” Gow said. “It started off okay today, but other countries’ relay legs were stronger than ours overall, so we were a little further down on the results list.”
They still beat the U.S. team handily. Ethan Dreissigacker started strong, cleaning the prone stage with no spare rounds and skiing in seventh place. But he had to ski a penalty loop and ultimately tagged off to Raleigh Goessling in eleventh place. Goessling used all six spare rounds over the course of his leg, and still hit the penalty loop once, further dropping the team to 14th.
There, things held steady for a time, thanks to Ben Greenwald’s perfect prone stage and his two spare rounds in standing.
Ray Wonders, a youth skiing up an age category, wrapped things up for the U.S.; the team finished 19th.
“As a team we showed a lot of heart and battled every lap,” Greenwald said in an e-mail. “The results did not show how much we were in it throughout the race. I think that everyone did really well. The range was pretty tricky with the wind picking up and dying so some penalty loops was to be expected but as a group we keep them to a minimum. Not many teams had less penalties than we did.”
Which was true: even the winning German team, which finished almost twelve minutes ahead of the U.S, hit the penalty loop three times, just like the Americans. Only Norway, Ukraine, and Belarus were able to limit their penalty loops to two.
“We learned a lot this year,” Greenwald said.” We had some good results but now we are even more motivated for next year. We know what we are dealing with and know what we need to do to close the gap. Now all we need to do is get out there and get ready for next year. Watch out for team USA in Finland in 2012!”