It has been three-and-a-half years since Chandra Crawford has graced the podium in an individual World Cup race, but that drought has come to an end as the 2006 Olympic Champion powered her way to second on a short yet challenging sprint course in Rogla, Slovenia.
Crawford finished right on the tails of Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla, who laid claim to her first individual World Cup win. Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) finished third.
Sprint Cup leader and clear favorite, Kikkan Randall (USA), was tripped up in the final heading out of the stadium. She went down, breaking a pole, and fell well off the pace to finish sixth.
The one-kilometer Rogla sprint course clocked in at just 2:15. Racers descended out of the start and worked down through a series of tight S-turns before heading up the one big climb to the finish stretch, and a long gradual ascent to the line.
The top-3 and Randall all looked strong through the early heats, using the hill and the run to the finish to advance.
The start was clean in the final, but just 100 meters in, Randall went down. It appeared another skier, clipped Randall’s ski or pole.
The American was twisted around, and went down, shattering a pole.
Such a crash is usually debilitating in any sprint, but if it had happened on a climb, Randall may have had some hope. As it was, with 500 meters of descending ahead, and her momentum gone, Randall was done.
Meanwhile, up at the front, Natalia Korosteleva (RUS) led the way through the downhill with Oestberg close behind.
With all the climbing at the end, position was less critical through the first half of the course. The hill was wide, leaving plenty of room to move for skiers with enough left.
As the women hit the base of the climb, Falla accelerated, charging to the front. Crawford, in fourth followed right behind, and in a matter of seconds it was as good as over at the front.
Falla and Crawford were clear, and once in the finish lanes, it was evident that Crawford was not going to be able to muster a final attack on the Norwegian, and they crossed single file.
Ingemarsdotter held off Oestberg and Korosteleva for her first podium appearance this season.
“I’m extremely happy today,” the 21-year-old Falla said after the race. “It is a dream come true for me.”
She expressed disappointment that Marit Bjoergen (NOR), who skipped the Rogla World Cup due to illness, and Randall, were not part of the final sprint.
“I was hoping to fight with Marit and Kikkan in the finishing straight, and I’m sorry for Kikkan that she fell,” Falla said.
Prior to today Falla had finished on the World Cup podium five times in individual races, all sprints, without taking a victory, though she has been part of two winning Team Sprint squads, including two weeks ago in Dusseldorf.
Crawford, on the other hand, has that Olympic Gold and two other World Cup victories, but her career has been a rollercoaster.
She struggled in her post-Olympic season before bouncing back strong with two wins in 2008. But she missed all of 2009 with injuries, and has been slowly working her way into to top form.
For the first time since 2008 she appears to have the high level fitness to compete right through the heats. She just missed out on a podium in the individual sprint in Dusseldorf where she placed fourth, and has been looking consistently good.
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth was not surprised to see Crawford on the podium today, feeling the course suited her strengths—according to Wadsworth she is an excellent one-skater (Canadian for V1), so the big hill toward the end was a perfect fit.
“It was just a good layout for her and she skied tactically very well,” Wadsworth told FasterSkier in an interview.
“This feels really good to punch through onto the podium,” Crawford said. “I was thinking a lot about that [Christmas Break] today as I was approaching the final. The wax techs told me today before the final ‘in five minutes from now it is Christmas.’ I wanted to make the best of my chance today and it was so cool to break through for the entire team.”
Despite fielding one of the deepest teams in recent history, the Canadians had yet to make the podium this year—though there have been plenty of strong results.
Crawford changed that today, and served notice she is once again one of the top freestyle sprinters in the world.
Wadsworth also pointed to other races this season that demonstrated her increased fitness level—the skate sprint at altitude in Davos where she bested Bjoergen in a drag race in one heat, and the classic sprint in Kuusamo where she qualified in 10th.
After all the missed training due to injuries, it has taken time for Crawford to build back to full strength.
“I think her body is really healthy,” Wadsworth said, with the key being “another full year of training, of really good quality training.”
He also pointed to Crawford’s willingness to be patient and “do the training that doesn’t feel like it is making you faster,” but pays off in the long run.
“She hung in there and kept believing,” Wadsworth said.
He sees more success in the near future. She will skip the Tour de Ski, but will be back on the World Cup starting with the skate sprint in Milan, Italy.
Following the race Crawford explained that her strategy was to stick on Randall, the winner of the last two World Cup sprints.
“My goal was just to follow Kikkan. If I can stick with her it will be an awesome day,” Crawford said.
That plan was scrapped when Randall went down however.
The American has plenty of experience with disappointment due to crashes. She entered last season’s World Championships as the favorite in the sprint, but was taken out in a crash in the semifinals.
“Today isn’t easy to take but I’ve had a great first period,” Randall told FasterSkier. “I know I am skiing really strong and there will be more.”
Randall said she felt good again and the biggest letdown may have been knowing she had plenty in the tank to make a run at another victory.
“It doesn’t feel nearly as good as the last two weekends,” Randall said. “But I’m at least satisfied with how I skied my first three rounds of the day. To make the final is always a good thing.”
US Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb pointed out that three years ago, a finals appearance and the resulting sixth place finish would have been cause for celebration.
“This is definitely a little bit of a disappointment, but it is a reminder of all that can happen in sprinting,” Whitcomb said.
Randall is not sure what exactly caused the fall.
“It happened so fast, I’m not really sure,” she said. “I just got to see some footage of it and it appears that maybe Korosteleva’s pole or ski just nicked the tip of my ski and it caused my legs to split.”
The men’s final was marred by a similar incident a little further in, but still on the straight section of the course.
Randall said the twisty downhill was the area of concern heading into the race.
Laurien Van der Graaff, the young Swiss skier who has broken through in sprinting this season, made an aggressive move on one corner in Randall’s semifinal, jumping up three places momentarily. But she swung wide after passing on the inside, and Randall was able to shoot through the resulting hole and into position to advance.
“I felt that going wide initially and then cutting inside was the best way to go, and it worked out well,” Randall explained. “The best strategy was just to take a deep breath and try to get through the turns without incident.”
She was confident in her abilities on the subsequent climb, so didn’t feel the need to take risks on the downhills.
“It was a really good course for me,” Randall said. “I was really looking forward to the hill up and over the bridge and the long finish stretch.”
Randall maintained her spot atop the sprint rankings, sitting on a 64 point lead over Falla, and Crawford climbed to fourth overall.
Randall is also fourth in the overall World Cup standings. Had she won today, she would have been second.
Ingemarsdotter skipped Saturday’s distance race after several days of feeling a bit sick. The strategy clearly paid off as she posted the fastest qualifying time and made it back to the podium for the first time since 2010 in Canmore.
The host country got off to a good start qualifying four skiers for the heats. Veterans Katja Visnar and Vesna Fabjan both looked strong while winning their quarterfinals, but neither woman was able to survive the semis.
Dasha Gaiazova (CAN) set a personal best in a skate sprint, placing ninth. Gaiazova used a stunning comeback to advance out of the quarterfinals.
Entering the final climb, she was literally out of the picture on the television feed, but made up enough ground to stage a late charge on the homestretch.
Ida Sargent was the only other North American to make the heats, slipping into the final qualifying spot. Sargent ended the day in 25th.
A complete report on these North American results, will follow.
The World Cup now breaks until the Tour de Ski begins on December 27th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.