Kikkan Randall might have been the only North American to appear in the final of today’s sprint in Milan, Italy, but several other women joined her in the heats, with pretty much across-the-board success; two had personal-best finishes.
For Canada, both Perianne Jones and Chandra Crawford skied their way into the semifinals. After the heats were drawn, it seemed that the team had bad luck; both women were placed in heat five, making it unlikely that both would advance.
But after following different strategies, they found that they were both bound for the semifinals.
Crawford was the more visible of the two, skiing near the front for most of her semifinal.
“I tried something similar to what Kikkan [Randall] and Lenny [Valjas] were doing, skiing on the shoulder of the leader and just taking the wider track around the course and staying out of trouble,” she told FasterSkier via Skype. “That was nice.”
After trailing Mari Eide of Norway, Crawford seemed to be set up for second, and did finish just half a second behind Eide. But out of nowhere, Jones – who wore bib 28 and thus not expected to be a real contender in the heats – jetted towards the front and came between the two, relegating Crawford to lucky loser status.
Jones had been back in the pack for most of the heat, but saw a rare opportunity to pass and went for it just as she came to the finish.
“There was an open spot right on the right-hand lane coming into the finish, and everyone else was on the left, so I just gunned it on the inside and passed a few girls,” she told FasterSkier’s Topher Sabot in the mixed zone after the race. “It was awesome.”
The women were split up for their semifinals. Crawford was up first, and said that this time around, her strategy was to stick right on the leader and wait for the finish.
“On a narrow course, I try to just stay relaxed and when a pass needs to be made, I try to just do it with everything I’ve got,” she explained. “Don’t scramble all the time and try to constantly pass, but save it up for one brilliant pass. I was saving it up for the finish.”
Unfortunately, she couldn’t quite make it into the top two with her finishing sprint.
“I might have waited a little too long for my attack,” Crawford said. “Coming down the final stretch I ended up third and was really gunning for top two, but when everyone fans out into those lanes, there’s not much time, and I was scrambling to get a lane. In those finishing lanes you have to have a lot of jam to make a move. I wasn’t able to really overtake anyone.
“In the future I will attack a little earlier and get myself a nice lane,” she said wistfully.
Then her regrets turned to frustration.
“I wish I had been in the final.”
Even though Crawford ended her day earlier than she had hoped, she was pleased that she found her form so easily after the holiday break, and her seventh-place finish continued a strong string of results from before Christmas.
“It’s always tricky not having done a World Cup for a month,” she told FasterSkier. “I wasn’t sure how rusty I’d be but I felt better with every race, and got back into the groove I was in in December of just constantly trying to do everything better every time. The more chances I get, the more I can implement everything I’m learning and improving all the time.”
Jones skied in the second semifinal, and made a different mistake.
“I was just looking for the open spaces and unfortunately the one I went for was at the very beginning,” she laughed. “I should have thought about that a little bit more. I went a little crazy in the first lap, and then paid for it in the last one.”
Jones faded hard and finished last in her heat. Still, her eventual 12th-place finish was the best skate result of her career.
That’s what the Canadians have been looking for, Crawford said. Even while she was disappointed in her own semifinal, she was happy for Jones.
“Anytime someone has a breakthrough, American or Canadian, it really sets up some inspiration for the rest of the gang so we can all continue to make gains,” she said.
Dasha Gaiazova, who is coming off a victory in the skate sprint at U.S. National Championships, gave the Canadians three women in the quarterfinals. Unlike her teammates, she took the bold, and perhaps ill-advised, approach of leading from the start. She was passed late in the game and wound up fifth, 1.7 seconds behind Ida Ingemarsdotter of Sweden, who went on to win the final.
Without making the semis, however, Gaiazova had to watch her weekend come to an end.
Jones and Crawford will join forces for the team sprint on Sunday, which Crawford said they were well-prepared for after each racing two heats on the course today.
“It was extremely helpful that we got that experience,” she said. “And on Friday we did a long few laps of the course at race pace to get a feel for it, just dodging in and out of people and alternating leads, and we really got some flow going in our race prep. Then today we got to get right in there with the world’s best and hammer. We have a good feeling for the course, and where to sit and where to pass.”
She was enthusiastic to be paired with “extreme relay specialist and superstar” Jones. While Crawford has the better individual results, Jones has twice finished sixth in the team sprint at World Championships.
“Perianne was explaining to me that her upbringing in the Nakkertok ski club had a ton of relays, and they just had so many relays all the time,” Crawford said. “I think Perianne is a great relay skier and a great skier in general, and a great teammate, so we’re going to have a good time tomorrow.”
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Besides Randall, the lone American to make the quarterfinals was Jessie Diggins, who is coming off a dominating collection of wins in North America. Diggins qualified 21st before finishing fourth in her heat, good for 18th place and less than a second behind Kikkan Randall.
“I’m really excited for Jessie,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier. “It’s her first time in the rounds outside of the World Champs, in a regular World Cup. She got off to a rough start, but I thought she skied really well after that to get up to fourth.”
Diggins’ starts are guaranteed because she was the fall SuperTour leader, and her result today made her the fourth American woman to sprint into the top 30 this season. As a result, the U.S. will gain a quota spot in sprint World Cups next year.
Diggins will likely be one of the skiers making the most of those extra spots.
“She definitely needs experience,” Grover said. “Everything is new. The start wands, the start gates, all that sort of stuff is new to her. As she gets more comfortable, I think the results will just keep getting better and better. She is young. There’s lots of good stuff to come for her.”