While Kikkan Randall fell in the sprint final (see our international report) and was unable to keep her win streak alive, the U.S. Ski Team had plenty to be happy about in Rogla, Slovenia today.
Simi Hamilton not only qualified for the rounds for the first time this season, but he did it in style, clocking the seventh-fastest time in qualification. Hamilton’s time was less than two seconds behind Nikolay Morilov of Russia, who led the field.
“It was really exciting to see him lay down a world-class qualification round,” said U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb.
While showing his speed in the qualification round was surely reassuring after a tough start to the year, Hamilton didn’t stop there, and sped through his heats as well, ending up tenth overall.
“I think [the course] suited me really well,” he said. “There were about four really technical corners that you had to ski hard and smart, and it was one of those courses that you had to carry your speed throughout the transitions, which is something I’m good at.”
It showed. Hamilton’s quarterfinal came down to a sprint for the ages – it almost might as well have been a final, and the American was right in the thick of things. Hamilton tied with Anders Gløersen and Eirik Brandsdal of Norway, turning in the fastest time of all the quarters, and Italy’s David Hofer was only a tenth of a second back. Hamilton and Hofer advanced to the semifinals as lucky losers.
Hamilton said that the course’s finish, which was a long gradual after a brutally steep uphill, isn’t traditionally something he’d be confident about, but that today it just worked.
“I felt like today I skied the V1 strong and then was able to stay strong over the last 250 meters all the way to the finish,” he explained.
In his semifinal, Hamilton was again matched with the best in the field. He had to contend with both Norwegians as well as their teammate Pål Golberg and qualification leader Morilov. After trying to make a pass early in the heat and watching his open lane disappear, leaving him boxed in, Hamilton had to put in another furious sprint to the finish.
“I think I missed out on the lucky loser spot into the final by about a centimeter or so,” Hamilton lamented.
He finished fifth, and everyone in front of him headed to the final. Hamilton’s time was only 0.1 seconds behind the pair of Norwegian lucky losers, and still faster than that of Dario Cologna, who won the other semifinal.
“I got a little tangled up on the steep V1 climb when I got boxed out in a couple places, so I learned some valuable lessons about the tactics of sprinting,” Hamilton said.
Even after missing out on the final, the American was still psyched – after all, it was his first World Cup top-ten. The result was a major confidence boost after having to sit out several of the season’s opening races.
“I knew that once I was healthy and all of my cards were played right, I’d race better than I ever had in the years past,” Hamilton said. “Training went really well this summer and I’ve had the chance to get a good base with both the U.S. Ski Team and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation over the last few years.”
But while he looked to the past to explain his result today, he had an eye on the future as well.
“The most valuable things I will take away from today are the lessons that I learned that will allow me to win the race someday soon,” Hamilton concluded.
Despite being sick for much of the fall and early winter, Whitcomb said that the team hadn’t doubted that Hamilton could ratchet up the speed.
“We have a lot of belief in Simi and quite a lot of experience working with him now,” the coach told FasterSkier. “Last weekend was his first healthy weekend, and it chipped the rest off. He was ready for a good one today.”
While Hamilton was the most successful of the U.S. men, he was joined in the heats by veteran Andy Newell, who laid down a tenth-place qualification time. Newell, however, was unable to find his footing in the quarterfinals, where he was matched up with Morilov.
“Sprinting has been frustrating so far this year because I’ve been feeling pretty good but just skiing like an idiot I think,” Newell wrote in an e-mail. “I’m allowing myself to get pushed around. Today I [got] pushed on the corner, boxed in on the uphill, and cut off choosing finish lanes.
“It’s completely my fault too, I just need to stop skiing like such a wimp,” he concluded.
Newell ended up fifth in the heat, 1.2 seconds behind Morilov, and 21st overall.
“I think he’s in at least the best shape he’s ever been in, and we’re seeing the trials and tribulations of sprint racing,” Whitcomb said. “I think he’s going to sit down with Grover and talk about negotiating these heats.”
Whitcomb pointed to Newell’s 12-point distance race on Saturday as evidence that the sprinter is in top condition and feeling good.
“There’s no reason to be discouraged,” he said.
The final American in the heats, Ida Sargent, may not have qualified with the same panache that Hamilton and Newell did, but she did qualify, sneaking in with the 30th-fastest time. It marked the national team rookie’s first foray into the World Cup heats.
“Last weekend I paced the qualifier and that didn’t work, so today I just went for it from the start and it was awesome to squeak into the heats!” she told FasterSkier. “It was my goal to ski in the heats in Period I, so I’m psyched to have done it the day before I flew home.”
In her heat, Sargent was outgunned by Ida Ingemarsdotter of Sweden and Ingvild Østberg of Norway, but she was able to pull away from Astrid Jacobsen of Norway to finish fifth.
“In my heat I didn’t ski aggressively enough in the start and was in fifth or sixth going into the corners,” she said. “I tried to pass on the one uphill but I kept getting blocked, and then I was able to get past Astrid in the lanes. I wish the finishing stretch was longer.”
Sargent has been getting stronger and stronger as the season has developed, and finished 38th in the 10 k classic yesterday. Her 25th-place finish today improved on that personal best.
“For Ida it’s been a series of solid races for sure, some certainly pretty impressive, in the 40s in distance races, mingling in the top 30 before slipping out, but the feeling hasn’t quite been there for her, and today it was,” Whitcomb said. “And that’s really exciting.”
Outskiing Jacobsen is no small accomplishment, either – the Norwegian medical student is a former World Champion in the sprint.
The fourth American, Holly Brooks, saw her string of top-30 results come to an end when she placed 46th in the qualification round and missed the heats.
“Nothing went really ‘wrong”’ so to say,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Maybe it was just too short for me at 2:20 for the women’s winner.”
Distance specialist Noah Hoffman tried his had at the quick stuff and came up short, placing 70th, while Lars Flora did not start in his last race as the Continental Cup leader.