The narrow course set up on the streets of Milan, Italy delivered yet another exciting World Cup day of racing on Sunday in the team sprint event. For the American duo of Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell, however, it was unfavorably so. Coming into the exchange zone on the third leg of the semifinal, Austria I’s Harald Wurm pushed Hamilton, sending him to the ground and ruining the Americans’ chances of advancing to the finals. The US wound up in 19th overall.
Through the early exchanges, the duo had been skiing well, and on Newell’s second leg, he was in second place, battling with Norway and Sweden at the front of the pack.
Milan’s tight quarters left room for little maneuverability, and the three men wound up tangling with each other before the end of the leg, and dropped several positions.
“We were banging into each other too much, and we dropped back because of that, which sucked,” said Newell to FasterSkier’s Topher Sabot following his race.
Nonetheless, both Hamilton and Newell said they felt good physically, and were not out of the running until the push sent Hamilton to the ground.
Hamilton and Wurm were skating even with each other coming into the exchange zone, but needed to swap positions in order to tag off to their respective teammates.
“I was trying to get to the opposite side to tag,” Hamilton said. “I was just trying to throw in a couple moves to get ahead to Andy, and he reached over and just shoved me down.”
As Hamilton scrambled back to his feet, Newell backed up to try to meet him halfway. By the time Newell got the tag and started his third and final leg, the Americans were far off the pace.
Newell threw down a hard effort to bring them back in contention, and managed to pick considerable time back up on the pack, but spent a valuable energy doing so. When the group accelerated in the last stretch, he couldn’t respond.
“When people started cranking on the last 300 meters, it was pretty hard to get going, because I’d just spent so much energy catching the pack,” said Newell.
There’s no telling what would have happened had Hamilton been in the Austrian’s way. Overall, Hamilton thought there was room for improvement in his tag-off ability, but both he and Newell remarked after racing that their speed was physically there, especially since the pace was relatively controlled early on.
“It was pretty relaxed…through the first and the second legs,” said Newell.
At the conclusion of the semifinal, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover spoke with the jury to determine whether a protest would accomplish anything. After reviewing video of the exchange with the jury, which showed Wurm pushing Hamilton from a distance at the end of the straightaway, he decided not to protest. Austria was instead issued a sanction.
“My goal was to see if there was any chance they’d relegate our guys to the final as an eleventh team,” said Grover. After watching the replay, the jury decided not to move the Americans on.
“I wasn’t out to see anyone get sanctioned, I more wanted to see our guys get a shot,” Grover explained.
All six lucky losers that finished outside the top two in each heat came from the other, faster semifinal on Sunday. Grover said the jury decided that the Americans’ chances of moving on in the absence of the push hadn’t been great, as they were already well outside the front of the pack at the time.
“If you look at all the places where, if you said, ‘My guy got pushed here, my guy got tripped there, his pole broke there,’ in a team sprint, you’d end up moving four teams up every time,” conceded Grover.
Though he hadn’t spoken to the Austrian team, Grover said he didn’t believe the push was malicious in intent. The Austrians claimed they had simply been trying to maneuver around Hamilton and avoid an accident on the way to positioning for the tag-off.
“Whatever it was, it knocked Simi out,” said Grover, adding that he was mainly disappointed that his athletes had been stripped of their shot to fight for first or second and advance.
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Though Newell and Hamilton suffered from bad sprint luck, Sunday marked an historic day for North American women. Americans Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins placed second to Sweden, while Canada’s Chandra Crawford and Perianne Jones joined them on the podium in third.
USA II, composed of Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen, were the only other North Americans to compete in the team sprint. Their day was cut short in the semifinal, and they wound up 14th overall, but both women skied comfortably in the mix of the lead pack early on. They ended up drifting off the pace towards the end, but certainly held their own.
Bjornsen, who is still in the recovery phase of a series of holiday illnesses, said their failure to move up was less a matter of keeping up and more to do with having next to no room to maneuver around.
“Down at the bottom [of the course] I was coasting, but couldn’t go anywhere. It was three people wide,” said Bjornsen. “[With passing], you take the chance of taking someone out… Kikkan has mad skills for being able to get around.”
Sargent added that the pace wasn’t exceptionally fast. This made it easier for her to keep up, but again, “it was just impossible to pass out there,” she said.
“Every time I’d go on the outside, someone would see me coming and they’d step out,” Sargent continued. “That was really frustrating… It was right there, but I couldn’t get that last little bit.”
Other than the frustration of a narrow course, the pair was encouraged by the fact that they felt fast on their skis.
“I felt a lot better than yesterday,” said Sargent. “I think I needed a little more time off the plane. Being with a pack is always good for me, because I relax into it.”
Sargent was unable to advance past the qualifier in Saturday’s individual freestyle sprint, and had fun in the “roller derby”-like race environment in the team sprint. There were plenty of crashes in the semifinals, but Sargent and Bjornsen were able to steer clear of them.
Bjornsen missed out on making the heats on Saturday by mere slivers of a second, and used the head-to-head racing on Sunday as an opportunity to continue building her World Cup repertoire.
“It’s just nice to ski with a pack, and get practice for one day when I make the heats!” said Bjornsen.
She added that the exchange-zone experience was valuable. “You can lose a lot of places in exchanges,” said Bjornsen, who thought several of the tags between herself and Sargent could have gone better. Finding the right speed in the exchange zone, she explained, was “the magic” to capitalizing on the most chaotic aspect of team sprinting.
Though Bjornsen said she’s feeling much healthier these days, Grover thought she was still missing her final gear, and is hopeful Bjornsen will keep getting faster through the rest of the season.
“She just needs to get a couple more races under her belt and start rebuilding her race fitness,” said Grover.
Overall, the repeated success on the women’s side for the US this winter has him looking forward to what is to come.
“It’s been a fun start to the year,” Grover said. “Hopefully we keep it rolling.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.