Stephen’s 16th-Place Finish Leads Four Americans Into Top 25

Chelsea LittleMarch 5, 201112
Liz Stephen (USA) on her way to 16th place.

The American women have had highs and lows at World Championships in Oslo this week, packing three finishers in the top 30 in both of the first two races but also watching Kikkan Randall’s medal hopes in the sprint evaporate in a crash. And while the U.S. made the final in the team sprint and placed ninth in the relay, neither of those performances were quite as good as some were hoping for.

On Saturday, they had one more chance to prove that their team could deliver the results they had dreamed of on this, the biggest stage skiing has to offer. With tens of thousands of fans cheering them on, Randall, Holly Brooks, Morgan Arritola, and Liz Stephen set out in the 30 k skate.

Stephen in particular had high hopes, saying that she knew the course “fit” her strengths.

She wasn’t wrong: Stephen led the U.S. with a 16th-place finish, and all four women made it into the top 25. While Randall is one of the best sprinters in the world and Stephen and Arritola have had strong performances in the last few years, it was the best collection of results by a full four-member squad in recent memory, especially in distance racing.

Stephen left it all out there today.

And for Stephen, the result came despite getting a slow start. On the first climb, she was far behind her other teammates.

“I had as usual not a great start,” Stephen said. “So I spent a lot of time just catching up. But… this morning I kind of assumed I would have a slow start, and that I was just going to chase right off the bat and make sure that I got on a pack that I wanted to be on. If you lose it in the beginning, it’s really hard to catch it later. I figured that I’d rather blow up halfway through and have not such a good result, but have a really good effort. I’m either going to hold on, or I’m going to blow up. I don’t want to do in between today.”

Luckily for Stephen, despite skiing hard for the first five kilometers and snaking her way though the crowded field, she did not “blow up”. After making up ground early on, she hung tight, and even passed a fading Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, who medaled earlier this week. It wasn’t until the last few kilometers that she appeared to tire.

“It worked out for me today,” she said. “There were moments that were pretty difficult. But it was good.”

At the finish, her result was one spot better than the 17th-place finish she notched at the same event in Liberec in 2009.

“I’m really happy with it,” she said. “I skied as best I could today, and in terms of U.S. results it was a really solid day as well, so I think we’re all pretty pleased.”

The American trio of Kikkan Randall (18th place), Morgan Arritola (21st place) and Holly Brooks (25th place) worked together for much of the race.

While Stephen left her American teammates behind, they finished only a few spots lower than her on the results sheet after working together for much of the race.

“We were coming for you,” Randall joked to Stephen at the finish.

The three women were hoping to catch Stephen, but all they could do was close down the gap slightly over the last few kilometers as Stephen tired.

“Liz made a smart move to go when she did,” she explained. “We got a little bit comfortable in the pack we were in.”

Brooks agreed.

“At some point the pace felt really comfortable out there and at times even slow,” she said. “I think sometimes you get settled in your pack, and you look way ahead of you and you can’t see anyone, there’s sometimes less incentive to really push the pace, because you’re kind of thinking about your tactic against the people you’re skiing with.”

Nevertheless, the women seemed happy to have raced together.

“That was cool,” Randall said. “It was great because we all had kind of stronger parts, Morgan would take the lead on the uphill and set a really good tempo, and then Holly and I would switch on the flats a little bit, so it was just really fun. I was really looking forward to racing with those guys because I know they are really strong in this type of event, so it was great to be able to do some teamwork out there.”

After 20 kilometers of skiing together, the group finally began to break up when Brooks didn’t realize that the other girls were changing skis.

“At 21 k I was leading through the stadium and the other girls stopped to switch skis and I didn’t,” she said. “Then they caught me and they just flew by me on the downhill and I had no chance. I went from skiing with the pack to just not being able to keep up at all. So that was a little tactical mistake on my part.”

Over the next nine kilometers, Brooks lost thirty seconds to her teammates, and ended up crossing the line in 25th.

“I’ve been pretty darn consistent at this Championships,” she said of the result. “I was 25th, then 27th, and then 25th. Not quite my goal, I had a goal of the top 20 today… I’m not ecstatic, but I’m not upset either.”

Kikkan Randall and Morgan Arritola.

Randall and Arritola skied together for a bit longer, but at the end, Randall skied away from her teammate. The sprint star finished 18th, while her younger teammate was twelve seconds behind in 21st. Randall’s strong finish came in spite of her cramping quads, which see said were often a challenge in longer races; in the mixed zone, she was drinking a Fanta soda to try to send sugar to her muscles.

“Kikkan got me at the end,” Arritola said of the last kilometers of their race. “I kind of figured that would happen.”

Arritola might have had the most frustrating week of any of the women besides Randall. She had entered only one race, the 15 k pursuit, where she finished 43rd. She had been very clearly upset at her performance in the pursuit.

Today, while she didn’t turn in the performance of a lifetime, she was more pleased with her result.

“Today was a little better for sure,” she said. “My body’s just a little off. That kind of happens. But it doesn’t get much better than this for skiing, the fans are incredible and the day is beautiful, so, yeah. I did all I could.”

Regardless of their feelings about their individual performances, the women were unanimously psyched about their work as a team.

“To have four girls in the top 25 at Holmenkollen I think is really solid,” Brooks said.

Randall agreed.

“It’s super cool because it means we can continue to push each other,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be in U.S. skiing, especially for the women, we’ve taken a back seat to the men for so long. The door has been opened to show what we can do.”

Now that they quartet has finished competing, they are planning on soaking up the Holmenkollen atmosphere.

“I’m planning on reallllllly living it up in the camp areas out there tomorrow,” Stephen said.

Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks.

Chelsea Little

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  • teamepokeedsbyn

    March 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Good race – thats only about 6 seconds per/km out of top 10 – that is possible to make up on a good day. Maybe top 10’s from Liz now in her future? That would be encouraging for sure.

  • Lars

    March 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    16th on that though course is very impressive. Seems like the US got many talented up and coming women in both distance and sprints.

  • nyctvt

    March 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Congratulations to the US women. They showed the US men how to get some decent results at these World Championships!

  • davord

    March 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    We certainly have something brewing here, the top 25 results are good, but I am a little surprised at the time gaps, to be honest. In the exact same race in 2009, Liz was 17th, at only 2:43 out, Morgan was 21, 3:12 behind. Granted, the courses at Holmenkollen are much harder than Liberec, and the pace Johaug was setting was pretty darn impressive. Johaug’s time today was 7:30 minutes slower than the winning time in 2009. I am guessing there were a lot of tired bodies out there today, apart from Johaug.

  • JustinFereshetian

    March 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    You can’t compare times from races that are separated by 2 years and on different courses. There’s too much variation with the time difference, the course, the snow conditions and the over all tactics of the racers. Even if it was the same course and distance just a few weeks later you still can’t really compare the times because the snow conditions can change drastically over a very short period of time, the leaders may have different tactics, whether they pack it up and wait for the kick at the finish or if they try to break away from the field, is going to skew the time comparisons too. The only legitimate way you can compare times in ski racing is within the same race, but even here there are a few individual start races where skiers who start earlier have a massive advantage over skiers who start later because of a complete whether change.

    Regardless, a 16th place finish is very solid and promising. Now we just need those more consistently.

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    March 5, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    The best, most revealing and honest way to compare performances/potential is % back from where you want to place(or ahead if you are lucky), as averaged over a season.

    It seems that after 5 or 6 years of serious and strucutred training at a national-class level/volume, it appears unlikley any endurance athlete will ever improve more than 5% with any consistentcy (without cheating)

  • davord

    March 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Don’t get so defensive, Justin. I agree that 16th IS a very good placing, no matter how you slice it, and whatever the time gap is. Liz and Morgan have showed their well being on long races, there is no doubt, and as you say, consistency is all that is lacking now. I know how many variables there are and how many there can be in ski racing, i do a fair amount of racing myself, not at the world championship level, obviously, but I know that there are a million different courses out there with their own unique profiles, snow conditions, humidity, altitude, etc. Plus factor in skis, servicemen, grinds, well being of an athlete, and all the little things you can think of. I mentioned that in my previous comment, these races are on vastly different courses and conditions. I guess it does look like I tried to directly compare the scenarios. What I am trying to do is to compare the performances of the American women in this 30km to the 30km in Liberec. Tactics always come into play in mass start races. Less so in the women’s field, because the level of the top 5-6 skiers in the women’s race is far greater than those behind, when comparing it to the men’s field. Even before the Bjoergen/Johaug/Kowalzcyk domination you can see the patterns where only 5-10 women could hang the whole way, and even that was sometimes considered a big group, while in the men’s race it is much more tactical, 25-30 skiers coming into the last 5km. I hope that makes sense.

    Maybe this is something for ‘statisticalskier’ to look at and compare, all variables included, if possible and see just how impressive Johaug’s race was.

  • Martin Hall

    March 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    One thing no one is really talking about—little old Johaug—she took the entire field out of their races—she had everyone on the ropes—everyone and I mean every one got blown-up—so in my mind this became a race of placings not times. If Johaug had played the usual game of 30 km racing—these times would have been way more compact—but I’ll bet the placings would have been closly identical if the race went this way.
    Same placings–just that the race had a different personality.
    As I’ve been saying all year these ladies have huge potential in Sochii!! Oops!!! add in Diggins and Bjornsen to that group and you added in some young experience (this winter’s racing in Europe) and a tad more speed. WOW!
    Oh—is there a chance someone will blow up the men’s race tomorrow—I hope so—this was fun today to see some top dogs tripping on their collective tongues!!!

  • davord

    March 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    I hope Harvey, Hellner, Vylegzhanin, Chernousov, Rickardsson, Angerer and a couple other guys blow up the race tomorrow. I’d much rather see that than a big sprint to the finish. That way Harvey can do some more ‘gestering.’ Right in Northug’s face.

  • JoranElias

    March 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    @davord – I’ll address this somewhat on Monday in my race recap.

  • cepb

    March 6, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Stephen finished with 106 FIS points. Look at previous results in any Worlds men´s race, be it a sprint or a 50k, individual or mass start, tough or not so tough course: men with 106 FIS points are very far from the top. In Oslo, men with more than 90 FIS distance points had to do the qualification race for the individual start 15km, also known as the “small nation´s race”. Noah finished the 50k with 50 FIS points. All this is to say it´s not fair to write US women showed the US men how to get some decent results at these World Championships.

  • bbrooker

    March 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    All things considered…in the land of world cup points the girls are winning! Way to go Ladies!

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