After a successful but unspectacular start to the Under-26 Open European Championships in Osrblie, Slovakia, the American team kicked things up a notch in their second outing. In Sunday’s pursuit, not a single one of the six U.S. starters lost a place from their sprint ranking, and one – Leif Nordgren – rocketed up 24 places over 12.5 kilometers and four shooting stages.
“It was nice to finally have a good race,” said Nordgren, the youngest member of the men’s national team.
The Minnesotan’s career took an upward swing last year when he scored World Cup points for the first time and was then the top performer at senior World Championships, placing 17th in the mass start, collecting two more top-30 finishes and anchoring the U.S. relay team to sixth place.
This year, he has been unable to recapture that success. One reason, he told FasterSkier, was that he’s gotten sick over and over.
“I’ve struggled a lot with sickness this season,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This [weekend] I almost decided not to start because I was sick… and since I’ve only done one or two races in the last three weeks because of sickness I wasn’t really sure what to expect on the skis.”
Saturday’s sprint race brought another frustrating result. Nordgren placed 45th and said he was “hurting pretty bad.”
But on Sunday, things picked up on the trails. Nordgren notched the 20th-fastest ski time in a race that included World Cup regulars and even a few podium finishers.
“I’m still nowhere near where I expect myself to be, but hopefully I can stay healthy from here on out and my form will keep going up,” Nordgren said.
Between his faster skiing and his strong shooting – in a race where only Jan Olav Gjermundshaug of Norway and Tomas Hasilla of Slovakia cleaned, Norgren’s two penalties were a good showing – the American gradually climbed out of Saturday’s hole.
After the first prone stage, he’d made it to 36th. After the second, 29th. Then 23rd. By the finish, he sat in 21st place, having lost only 35 additional seconds on Alexey Volkov of Russia, who won both the sprint and the pursuit and skied one less penalty lap than Nordgren to boot.
The American wasn’t surprised that his pursuit performance was better than the opening race of the series.
“The pursuit is one of my favorite races,” Nordgren explained. “For some reason I do a lot better in the head-to-head races. I just focused on my own shooting today, and it worked out. I had a lot of confidence coming into this race which helped a lot.”
As for the move from 70 % shooting on Saturday to 90 % shooting on Sunday, however, he was flummoxed.
“This is a pretty easy range to shoot on – don’t ask me what happened on Saturday,” Nordgren wrote.
Norgren leapfrogged his two teammates on his way through the field. Mark Johnson, in his second international race of the season, started just one place ahead of Nordgren and also missed two shots. But slower skiing kept Johnson bouncing around in the 40’s and he finished 44th, exactly where he had started.
Russell Currier had seemed like the Americans’ best chance for a top-20 finish, since he started 27th and has consistently shown top ski speed this season.
On Sunday, the skiing wasn’t the problem – Currier raced to the fifth-fastest split of the field.
What held him back was shooting. Currier failed to clean a single stage and ended up with five penalties. Incredibly, he was still able to gain three places and finished 24th.
“I haven’t moved up in a pursuit in a long time, so only moving up a few spots is a step in the right direction,” he told FasterSkier. “It was a decent race. I would have liked to have hit an extra target or two. 75 % is far from great, but it’s not that bad either, more just mediocre.”
He said that he felt better on his skis than he had in the sprint, which could mean that he’ll find more success as the week goes on. And he was sure to thank the U.S. wax team, too.
“We are currently limited on wax supplies, so I think the wax techs did an exceptional job,” Currier said.
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In the women’s 10 k pursuit, two Americans started just outside the top 30, but only one was able to cross to the other side. Starting 32nd, Laura Spector missed five shots, including two in each of the last two stages, but was still able to climb up to 28th.
“It’s frustrating to miss so many shots in standing, but I felt like I skied the course well today,” Spector said. “It’s a much higher stress situation skiing in a pursuit and there’s less time to mentally prepare when entering the range.”
Teammate Hannah Dreissigacker started a second behind Spector in 33rd, but made a tactical blunder when she failed to “take clicks” on her rifle sight to adjust for wind in the first shooting stage. As a result, she missed four shots and immediately dropped to 41st.
“I’ve had practice this year in not getting discouraged after bad shooting,” said Dreissgacker in reference to several domestic races this season, including a NorAm that she won despite missing eleven targets. “I definitely wish that I could redo that first shooting, but it was a good learning experience.”
The two women had opposite experiences on the trails: Spector told FasterSkier that she spent all but the first two laps skiing alone, and eventually finished with a 20-second gap in either direction.
Thanks to the missed shots, Dreissigacker, a strong skier, dropped back to a slower portion of the field.
“It meant that I got to do a lot of passing during the skiing for the rest of the race,” she said. “That kept me motivated and skiing pretty hard.”
Dreissigacker cleaned her second stage before missing three more shots for seven total penalties, and was able to work her way back up to 33rd, her starting position.
Canada’s lone starter in either race was Megan Heinicke, who improved from 18th to 15th.