Birkie Elite Sprints are available to watch here (recorded live by CXC).
HAYWARD, Wis. – In theory, every high-level racer in downtown Hayward on Thursday should have been a distance specialist. With the 50 k American Birkebeiner in two days, one would have thought that’s what they were there for.
The 500-meter elite freestyle sprints proved otherwise, as 26 skiers zoomed up and down Main Street on freshly packed natural snow. Essentially, the single-elimination bracket left no second chances as racers attempted to master the art of going all-out.
Jennie Bender of Central Cross Country (CXC) demonstrated her sprint savvy with a powerful V2 alternate, first beating Rebecca Dussault, a two-time elite sprint winner and 2010 Birkie champion, formerly of CXC and now races for Salomon.
In the semifinals shortly after, Bender knocked out the reigning Birkie sprint champion, Natalia Naryshkina of Russia, who out-lunged Bender for first place last year.
Trailing Bender in this year’s semi, Naryshkina, who also races for CXC, cramped up and pulled back before the finish. Bender advanced to the final, where she topped Clare Egan of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project to claim the sprint victory and $500 dollars that came with it.
After the race, Bender said she felt a little over-raced and initially considered skipping the sprints.
“I was pretty tired this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll kind of go and see,’ ” she said. “I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to a sprint.”
In the end, she was glad she did the downtown sprints.
“I kind of needed today as a little bit of a tune-up,” Bender said. “I’ve been needing a kick in the butt to get going. Some speed will help me, I think, for this weekend.”
On Saturday, Bender will embark on her first 50 k Birkie skate race. She won last year’s classic race and set a course record in the 54 k at the American Birkebeiner.
As for the biggest hurdle in Thursday’s race, with a slightly downhill straight shot to a pylon and back, Bender said it was the sharp turn on the “super-slick snow.”
That made it hard to stay on your feet and even more difficult to do at high speeds.
“A lot of the sprints these days have an endurance component, but this is pure, fast-twitch muscles, all-out go,” Bender said.
Egan took the $250 second-place prize after beating Sara Hewitt (CXC) in the quarterfinal and Audrey Weber (Atomic) in the semi. In her first time racing an out-and-back short sprint, Egan said the technical aspect of making the tight turn was both crazy and fun.
“I’m usually not that successful in short sprint races, especially kind of flat ones just because there are a lot of people that are more powerful than me,” Egan said. “But I somehow made it around the pylons and my skis were really fast, and it just ended up working out today.”
She also found her lucky charm: a set of brass pigs, which she shook before the race. Teammate Susan Dunklee bought the trinkets in Austria and gave them to Egan to hold in her hand and shake for good luck.
“I kind of felt like I was in a slump recently and I realized it was because I hadn’t had my lucky pigs,” Egan said. “I definitely gave them a little shake before the race and I think that might have helped me.”
Naryshkina was third after beating Weber in the consolation round.
Russians Go to Work
In the men’s race, Dmitriy Ozerskiy of Russia dominated his competition, including his lone teammate at the Birkie, Maxim Fadeev. Ozerskiy was coming off a broken-pole mishap in Madison, Wis., which took him out of contention for the SuperTour freestyle sprint title last weekend.
On Thursday, he topped the elite field of 17 men, edging Tim Reynolds (CGRP) in the final with one last lunge. Ozerskiy previously beat Finland’s Jari Joutsen in the semifinal with a similar photo finish.
After he eliminated Fadeev in the quarterfinal, his teammate immediately shifted gears to help him. Fadeev said he applied high-fluoro “Russian special liquid” on Ozerskiy’s skis, which helped make the difference.
“I like the short distance,” Ozerskiy said after V2-ing to the win.
“He’s a great sprinter for short distance in Russia,” Fadeev said. “If this format sprint was in Russia, I think that he would be first or second in the medals.”
Fadeev suggested that Ozerskiy could be of Olympic caliber in a sprint of similar distance. Ozerskiy started off strong, beating Morten Eide Pedersen (NOR/Lillehammer) in the opening round.
The runner-up of the day, Reynolds raced the Birkie sprints two years ago and said the turn at the end always made things interesting. Fortunately, he got around it fine.
After winning his first two rounds comfortably (first over Norway’s Halvor Korboel Thoner and later against Vegard Kjoes Egge of Lillehammer), Reynolds ousted Switzerland’s Philip Furrer by an inch. Reynolds was on the other side of the photo finish in the final.
“I thought I could get [Ozerskiy] and I just got a little squirrely at the end and lost a little bit of space,” Reynolds said. “Short course, you can’t make any mistakes.”
Joutsen placed third after topping Furrer, his friend and travel partner at their first Birkie, in the consolation round. Joutsen said he had fun but would have preferred a one-way sprint uphill to avoid the turn, which, “for a big guy, it’s very tight.”
“Your skis can [get] in the fence,” Joutsen said. “In the rollerski World Cup, they have this 200-meter to 300-meter sprint straightaway. It’s very interesting.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.