The crescendo of hype and excitement that has been building for the last few months in Norway will finally begin to crest on Thursday, as the 2011 World Ski Championships kick off in Oslo with a freestyle sprint.
With the race comes North America’s best chance for a medal. Canadians Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey and the U.S.’s Andy Newell have all collected podiums in the discipline, and have legitimate medal hopes. But their
female counterpart, Kikkan Randall (USA), has done the guys one better: she represents her country’s first legitimate gold medal favorite in 30 years.
Lest you think that last statement is pure jingoism, consider this: the Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang tipped Randall to win the women’s event in its Wednesday edition. And after her victory in last weekend’s World Cup, Norwegian sprint legend Tor Arne Hetland proclaimed Randall, the defending silver medalist, as his pick.
“Kikkan will for sure be good here,” Hetland said from the stadium on Wednesday, where he was working as a coach for the Swiss team. “She’s my favorite for this race.”
Like the rest of the World Championship events, the sprint will be held on the trail system at Holmenkollen—the massive network that serves as an endurance playground for Oslo’s ski-crazy citizens when it’s not being used for elite events.
The course is a tough one, with the men heading out of the stadium and into a descent, then tackling a stiff climb with 25 meters of vertical rise that takes them back towards the crowd. The women’s loop—200 meters shorter—spits them out a third of the way up the climb.
After cresting the hill, there’s a flat stretch across from Holmenkollen’s big ski jump. Then the athletes re-enter the stadium and climb a short rise that takes them up behind some of the stands, skiing perpendicular to the homestretch.
A hard right and a short, steep, downhill pitch build up enough speed that despite having to roll up and over a small bridge in the stadium, the final sprint is very quick—no more than 15 strokes.
By contrast, at last weekend’s World Cup in Drammen, Randall used a very long homestretch to come past a fading Maiken Caspersen Falla.
The whole of that course was different—flat and fast—with the women taking just over two and a quarter minutes to complete it. Holmenkollen’s loop is longer and harder, and will demand more fitness, especially since there’s little time to recover after the initial downhill.
“Lots of courses give you a break, especially towards the end, and this one has no break. If you really want to ski fast and be there for the win, it doesn’t provide any rest,” said Justin Wadsworth, the head coach of the Canadian National Ski Team. “It’s not that the hills are bigger than other sprint course hills—it’s just the way the gradual downhills and the flats, the way they’re situated in the race, they’re kind of at strategic spots.”
For Falla, another favorite, that might be a problem. At 20 years old, she doesn’t have quite the same slow-twitch credentials as, say, her teammate Marit Bjoergen, who has won every individual start distance race she’s entered this year.
But it shouldn’t be a big deal for Randall, who skied to second place in the test sprint in Oslo last year—just a few feet behind Bjoergen after losing her lead on the homestretch.
In that race, Randall said, she made the simple mistake of pushing her free skate too long, allowing Bjoergen to slip past.
“I’ve watched footage from the race a few times, and she just had a better strategy. Coming off the bridge, she started V2ing earlier,” Randall said Wednesday. “Definitely an easy thing to correct, and something I’ll be doing a little differently tomorrow.”
Randall said that the key to her race is to make sure that she comes back into the stadium and up that last small climb in good position, so that she can enter the final straightaway “with some room to work.”
“I’d like to be, ideally, in first or second coming into that final straightaway, and just hold that position there,” she said.
After her final training session on Wednesday morning, Randall said she was healthy and ready to go. While she didn’t say she was expecting a gold, she acknowledged that “all the signs are indicating that the body’s in great shape—the fitness is there.”
To win, though, Randall will have to overcome the efforts of a familiar, seasoned cast of characters. The women’s field isn’t as deep as the men’s, but it contains some veteran challengers in Bjoergen, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), Petra Majdic (SLO), and Arianna Follis (ITA).
After taking another distance win on Saturday, Bjoergen is clearly still in great shape, and if the cold snow in Oslo stays that way on Thursday, she’ll be tough to beat, along with Kowalczyk and Majdic.
Majdic has been off-and-on this year after sustaining a brutal injury at the 2010 Olympics. She struggled early, then reeled off three wins in January, but was derailed by some contact and equipment mishaps in Drammen last weekend.
She’s looking forward to the sprint in Oslo, though, according to Ivan Hudac, her coach.
“The snow is not very fast, and the track is not very easy. Even harder tracks are better,” Hudac said.
Italy’s Follis, the defending champion, is also a threat, though she told FasterSkier on Wednesday that she isn’t a fan of the finish.
“[The course] is nice, but I don’t like, very much, that downhill in the final. But that is the track, so I have to do my best,” she said.
There are plenty of others who could figure into the final, including three Swedes: Hanna Falk, Ida Ingemarsdotter, and Charlotte Kalla. There are the non-Petra Slovenians—Vesna Fabjan and Katja Visnar—along with Magda Genuin (ITA) and Celine Brun-Lie (NOR).
Then, there a couple of Canadians who could be contenders, in Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova.
Crawford won gold in the skate sprint in 2006 in Italy, and has shown promising signs this season after an injury set her back over the past two years. But she still hasn’t appeared in the finals of a World Cup sprint since 2008, so it will take a spectacular day for her to crack the top six. Same with Gaiazova, who set a career-best when she finished eighth in a classic sprint in Estonia in January.
That leaves the focus on Randall, who will slip on bib 25 and set out for her qualifier at 1:36 p.m. in Oslo on Thursday, just after 3:30 a.m. in her native Alaska.
To win, she’ll need her very best, but not more than that—though to take a major championship medal, especially in a sprint, one has to have their luck.
“There’s skis and poles involved, positions,” she said. “I’m just hoping I can stay on my feet, and it’s a fair race.”
Women’s racing gets underway at 1:30 local time Thursday – that’s 7:30 EST. There are eight North Americans competing, including Sadie Bjornsen, Ida Sargent, and Jessie Diggins for the U.S., and Brooke Gosling and Perianne Jones for the Canadians.
A men’s preview will follow this afternoon.
The sprint will not be televised in the U.S., but there are plenty of places to find a live broadcast online – we’d publish them here, but likely face the wrath of Universal Sports.
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.