When a starter of the men’s sprint final in Davos, Switzerland asked Devon Kershaw (CAN) what lane he’d like to take, he didn’t think the official was serious.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure I get to pick second?’” said Kershaw. He didn’t know he’d won his semi-final, and had to double check the starter had the right guy.
After deciding on a start lane, Kershaw finished 4th, which is one of the best World Cup sprint results of his career.
“It was a stellar day,” he said after returning to his hotel from the venue.
It didn’t start off the way he wanted, though. “I gave myself a huge scare; I didn’t have a really good qualifier…I thought I was going home.”
Kershaw qualified Sunday morning in 28th, but the men’s first round was so tight that he was behind the leading time by less than five seconds.
“I got in by the skin of my teeth,” said Kershaw. If he’d skied 0.06 seconds slower, he would have been out of the top 30.
If the slim margin lit a fire under the World Champion, it seemed to work. Though he got off to slow starts in his subsequent heats, he managed to pull through went it came down to the line—and if he hadn’t made a tactical error in the final meters, thinks he could have been on the podium.
“Of course I’m happy; 4th is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Kershaw. “At the same time, I made a mistake coming into the finish.”
On the big corner coming into the final straightaway, Kershaw entered the stadium with the two Swedes, Emil Joensson and Teodor Peterson. Kershaw misread the direction of Peterson’s trajectory, and in trying to pass him ended up taking the same line.
“I lost a lot of momentum, and then I had no chance,” said Kershaw about getting stuck behind Peterson. “That was where I was super strong most times—on the corners, and picking the best line… But I just got a bit choked; the one round where it didn’t work out was [in the final].”
Kershaw had two teammates make it to the rounds with him: Alex Harvey and Len Valjas, who finished the day in 9th and 28th, respectively. Harvey ended up in the same semi-final as Kershaw, which Canadian National Ski Team head coach Justin Wadsworth noted was unfortunate—it lessened the chances that they’d both advance.
“It was tough to have them both in the same heat,” he said. “I think Devon and Alex are both in great shape.”
Valjas was unlucky in his quarter-final, and got tangled with a Finnish sprinter coming around one of the many tight corners in Davos.
“I was following the leaders when a Finnish skier decided to try and take the inside lane around the corner, taking my feet out from under me,” wrote Valjas in an email. The move caused the two to crash at a critical point in the race.
“It was a pretty aggressive move; it ended up ruining both our chances of moving on. It’s really too bad, I felt really good and was very confident that I could move onto the next round.”
Wadsworth agreed that the crash was unlucky. “This was a good course for him; I was pretty sure he’d make the semis,” he said. “But with sprinting you’re going to get some bad luck.”
For the Americans, Davos held a lot of promise early on, as Andy Newell qualified in third. But his game plan just didn’t pan out on Sunday, and he failed to move past the quarter-finals.
“I got out and sat on some people, hoping to rest a little bit and then sprint past them at the finish,” said Newell. “It just didn’t work out.”
Newell might have snuck into the semis as a lucky loser, but Kershaw’s heat was faster, and the spot went to the Canadian.
“You can always look back and speculate, ‘Maybe I should have gone to the front earlier,’” said Newell, but added that such an exercise is not usually the best way to think about a race.
Grover pointed to Newell’s stellar qualifier as indication of the sprinters capabilities. “He was back in the teens [qualifying] in Dusseldorf and Kuusamo,” he said. “All along his plan was to not to come into the season in top sprinting shape, but use the races in the first period to build fitness and be in top form for the second half of the season.”
Simi Hamilton, after sitting out every World Cup so far to recover from illness, was finally feeling healthy again and got to put on a bib. Though he didn’t qualify for the rounds, his 33rd place was only 0.14 seconds out of 30th.
“It was one of those days where it was super tight,” said Hamilton. “I think I was a little bummed out with the result, but…it’s the first race, and after taking a fair amount of time off, I think after that it takes a little bit to get that spark back.”
The next World Cup stop is in Rogla, Slovenia, and will feature a classic distance race and a skate sprint. Newell and Hamilton are both hoping to improve their results there.
“With another week of healthy training back underneath him, [Hamilton] could be really ready to go,” said Grover.
Skyler Davis got another World Cup sprint under his belt, and improved over his performance in Dusseldorf. He finished last the previous weekend, +17.81 seconds back from the leader, and in Davos moved up to +10.43, beating 12 other skiers in 77th.
“These young athletes just need time to ski the different courses,” said Grover. “When they learn how to ski each [venue], they’ll be able to break through and mike it into the rounds.”
Kris Freeman and Lars Flora, both distance specialists, finished 85th and 86th, respectively.
The U.S. Ski Team is staying in Davos to train until Wednesday before moving on to Rogla.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.