The US women continued a solid start to the 2011 World Championships, placing three skiers in the top-30 for the second consecutive race in the women’s 15km pursuit.
With an almost impenetrable fog blanketing the Holmenkollen ski stadium, spectators traded ears for eyes – the roar of the crowd alerting those just 100 meters down the track that the racers were coming.
The pea soup certainly did not slow race winner Marit Bjoergen (NOR), who bested Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and teammate Therese Johaug (NOR) in a tough battle on the challenging Oslo courses.
And it didn’t seem to have much effect on the American races either. Liz Stephen led the way in 24th, just under three minutes behind Bjoergen. The last 100 meters could have gone a bit better – “I need to work on my sprinting abilities because I think four girls went past me on the homestretch,” she told FasterSkier – but overall Stephen was pleased with her race right out of the gate.
“Probably the best Mass Start start I have had all season,” she said. A stronger skater, skiing well in the classic portion is key to a successful race and good kick is a necessity.
“When I don’t have kick in classic skiing I am way off. I had great skis so I was able to focus on skiing as fast as I could classic, and holding on and keep touch with the group.”
Stephen came through the transition to skate in 31st, and immediately began moving up. Her freestyle leg clocked in as 18th fastest on the day.
“I thought it was a really good day for me overall,” Stephen said, “especially starting off the Championships like that.”
The low visibility did not put a damper on the spirit. “The crowds are super amazing,” Stephen said. “They don’t care if you are Norwegian, Slovenian, or American or whatever. They are just out there to have fun.”
Stephen described the courses as “really fun,” and “so hard.” In addition to the big climbs, she said, there are plenty of flats and transitions.
Eighteen seconds after Stephen finished, teammate Holly Brooks powered out of the fog and across the line in 25th.
“It was great. It was super fun out there,” Brooks said after the race. She skied a consistent race, with the 25th best classic time and 26th fastest in the skate. She bounced back from a tough race a week ago in Drammen in the World Cup 10km classic.
“Last weekend was a little rough. I hadn’t raced in a month and 10k classic isn’t necessarily my strength. I just needed to get in gear and I did,” Brooks said.
With Jessie Diggins starting fast, and ending up 28th, the US had three women skiing in close proximity most of the race.
“We had a bunch of Americans skiing together…and we all just kept fighting,” said a happy Brooks.
Like Stephen, Brooks had excellent skis, noting that many of the women skiing near her had to herringbone some of the steeper hills while she could stay in the track and stride. “And then they were pretty fast on the downhill,” she added.
While she was pleased with her performance, Brooks feels like she has more to give.
“I had a really solid race, maybe not my best – I feel like I might have more in me,” she said.
Brooks knew she was having a good one early on when the race looped back onto the big climb on Thursday’s sprint course and she saw bib #6 up ahead. “I was skiing right behind Arianna Follis and I was like ‘whoa!’”
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover had no complaints on his team’s skiing, telling FasterSkier in an interview “I think we all came away from it feeling pretty good.”
Diggins, still a junior, started the race hard – maybe a little too hard, but was able to recover and score her second top-30 in two World Championship races.
“We have to be careful with her,” Grover joked. “She might think it is too easy at this level.”
Diggins was mixing it up in the main pack on the first 2.5km classic loop. When she came back around to start the climbs for the second time, she was still in contact but appeared to be pressing hard, efficient classic technique lost for the moment
By the time she came back to the stadium nearly five kilometers later she had dropped some time, but managed to minimize the damage heading into the skate.
“She regrouped pretty decently,” Grover said, putting down the 31st best skate time to go with 29th in the classic.
“She felt like she had a bad race because she didn’t pace it very well since,” Grover said of the 19-year-old from Afton, Minnesota. “From the perspective of the staff we were totally psyched that she got in there, threw down and gave it everything she had, and just skied at that level with those ladies.”
The final US starter of the day, Morgan Arritola, was unable to keep pace with her teammates, struggling to a 43rd place finish.
“It wasn’t a good day,” Arritola said, holding back tears. “I did all I could, and it is just how it went.”
“She just had a bad day,” said Grover. Arritola will now regroup and focus on the 30km skate next week.
According to Grover, the start spots for the remaining World Championship races will not be assigned until the day before in most cases.
“We will see how people are withstanding the racing schedule, who is coming on, who is getting a little tired out – that sort of thing,” Grover said.
Grover pointed to a larger team size as being a good thing. “One thing that is really nice about having a team of seven and seven [seven men and seven women] is that we have choices,” adding that one of the biggest perks is feeling “confident about being able to put together better relay teams.”
Two starters have been finalized for the women’s 10k classic on Monday – Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen will both get the nod.
When asked about the 10k, Stephen responded, “I would like to [race], but we want to put in the best girls for the day and maybe that is me and maybe it is not. Hopefully I will have a leg in the relay maybe, and definitely the 30k.”
Brooks is also hoping for a relay spot, but said if she wasn’t chosen, she hopes to start the 10k “even though it is not my best.”
She added “I want to save something in the tank for the 30k because I am really looking forward to that.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.