Holly Brooks (USA) continued her meteoric rise from participant to contender on the World Cup circuit, skiing to 13th place in the 15km freestyle in Davos, Switzerland. With teammates Liz Stephen and Kikkan Randall placing 21st and 27th respectively, the US women finished the day with an unprecedented three skiers in the top-30.
Brooks started quickly, clocking as the race leader at the two kilometer mark when she came through as the 31st starter. And while the strongest skiers were yet to come, the American did not slip much. She spent the next 10 kilometers mixing it up on the split sheet with some of the biggest names in skiing.
At the halfway mark, Brooks was in 7th place, less than five seconds behind none other than Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
“Today was an awesome day, definitely a World Cup best for me!” Brooks wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
“I didn’t know I was going that fast,” she told FasterSkier reporter Kieran Jones immediately following the race.
“You never know the tactics that these other girls are taking,” Brooks said when asked about the splits she was getting. “Maybe the better skiers are going out easy and are really going to pour it on the second lap. You never know.”
As a relatively early starter, Brooks had to wait to see how her time would hold up, and then she did in fact know. She wouldn’t crack the top-10, but was just 5.3 seconds out.
While many of the more experienced skiers, including Kowalczyk, were accelerating toward the finish, Brooks slowed somewhat in the last kilometers.
Brooks was unconcerned, however, saying she “felt in control” throughout the race.
She did not know what to expect racing the longer distance against a stacked World Cup field.
“I know that I like long races in a domestic field but you never know how that’s going to translate to European competitors and courses,” Brooks said. “I think it’s safe to say that I like it.”
She also pointed out that racing at altitude can be “misleading.”
“You never really feel that good…the pace is much slower than racing at sea level and it’s mentally tough when you feel like you’re not moving very fast,” Brooks explained. “The best thing to do is focus on technique, and keep grinding away.”
Brooks’ previous best World Cup result came two weeks ago in Kuusamo where she placed 17th in the 5km.
While Brooks may have been the biggest story for the US, Liz Stephen quietly skied to 21st place. Stephen never was battling in the top-10 like Brooks, but she skied a strong consistent race, and continued her good start to the 2012 campaign.
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier that the race “was not her best but wasn’t bad.”
He pointed out that it is a good sign that “21st is only an ok day.”
Stephen was 18th in the season-opening 10k in skate in Sjusjoen, Norway.
“[It] wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for but not far off,” Grover said. “So that demonstrates that she’s made a step forward this year in her fitness.”
The US women are now the fourth ranked team in the Nations Cup Standings, which represents total World Cup points of all skiers.
Grover pointed out the women are ahead of traditional powerhouses like Russia, Germany and Italy.
The major contributor to that ranking is Randall, who has skied well in all disciplines. Like Brooks, Randall started fast. At bib 49 she actually took over the lead at the two-kilometer mark, but faded off the pace.
“My race went great for the first 3km,” Randall wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “I felt like I got into a really good rhythm early and was actually quite surprised to get the good splits because my start felt controlled. But midway up the climb on the first lap I felt the effort catch up with me a little bit and from there I kind of got stuck in a middle gear.”
Randall said that she never felt like her race “unraveled,” but that she couldn’t reach the “next gear.”
She was happy to crack the top-30, where she has been all season and excited about the consistent strength of the women’s squad.
“We’re really feeling psyched about today,” Grover said. “We went in thinking we could have a good day, and any day we have four athletes in the top-30, almost five, is a really good day for us,” he continued, including the US men in his tabulation.
“We’ve had many days here in Davos where we’ve had one athlete in the top-30 between men and women.”
Sadie Bjornsen, fresh off a podium finish in the team sprint last weekend, placed 53rd in the 66-woman field.
While her result may have been a bit of downgrade form a week ago, Bjornsen was unconcerned.
“Today was for the practice, experience, and training,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I think the key to being successful in World Cup racing starts with learning to race everything. If it’s not your strength, at least you can get some great training from it during early season.”
Bjornsen pointed to Randall as a perfect example of this.
“She reminded me today that she had been second to last several times here in Davos,” Bjornsen said. “Practice equals perfect, so getting the experience I think is truly key!”
With an impressive World Championships, and strong domestic results, Bjornsen earned a spot on the US Ski Team and an opportunity to start the season on the World Cup.
She had never raced a 15km individual start, and had to go back three years for her last 15k skate.
“I think today was a day that being a good skate climber was important. That is an area I can use some work in,” Bjornsen said. “I think I can hold it together for 5k, but now the goal for the next coming years is to learn to hold it together for 15k.”
Bjornsen is also feeding off the positive energy of the women’s team.
“It’s really a special thing on this team, because even though I finished today not very pumped with the result, the energy from the group allows you to forget it and prepare yourself for the following day,” Bjornsen said.
She, along with Randall, Brooks and Ida Sargent will contest the freestyle sprint on Sunday.
Kieran Jones and Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.