MADISON, Wis. – At the first 90-degree turn on the four-corner course around Capitol Square, Jennie Bender almost came to a stop. Standing up, she scanned her three competitors in the women’s A-final at the SuperTour 1 k freestyle sprint on Sunday.
The Central Cross Country (CXC) Elite Team skier was looking for one in particular.
Bender eventually drew the response she was looking for out of Natalia Naryshkina, a Russian skier who trains with CXC. Naryshkina took the lead up the first and only hill, and Bender tucked behind.
The 24-year-old University of Vermont grad wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.
Bender conserved her energy behind Naryshkina, who won Saturday’s classic sprint by less than a boot length over Bender. Behind the Russian on the downhill, Bender followed her into the last turn and made her move to initiate the true race.
In a repeat from Saturday’s A-final, the two sprinted neck-and-neck to the line. There, Bender extended her right leg, and this time, she was pretty sure she had won. Bender had, just ahead of Naryshkina. Sara Hewitt (CXC) followed in third after edging Hannah Dreissigacker (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), who was fourth.
“It was definitely not a pretty thing,” Bender said of the finish. “Technique was all out for the last 100 meters there, but I definitely wanted it pretty bad today. No one likes being out-lunged.”
Naryshkina probably didn’t, but the Russian previously enjoyed winning the photo finish. She understood Bender’s tactics.
“I made an experiment running in first,” Naryshkina said through a translator. “Jennie Bender sat back and at the finish she was first. When you’re in first, you’re against the wind, and on the downhill it’s so much different than when you’re in second. … It’s more energy.”
She said her lower back hurt after Saturday’s double-pole races, and she planned to rest up for before skating the American Birkebeiner on Saturday. Naryshkina lives at Telemark Resort in Cable, Wis.
Last year’s classic Birkie champion, Bender said Sunday’s outcome was a result of her refined strategy. On Saturday, she tried to lead all of the heats, leaving her with little energy at the finish.
“I definitely feel the past races that I’ve been doing; I’m pretty tired,” Bender said. “So I decided to see if she’d lead. … She’s a really, really good sprinter so it’s fun to have someone to lunge with at the finish.”
With that 1-2 finish and Sara Hewitt’s best result of the season, CXC swept the podium. Hewitt, who lives in Canmore, Alberta, and joined CXC last summer, said she was happy with the performance after finishing eighth on Saturday.
“I had better tactics,” Hewitt said. “I was able to get behind the leaders and stick with them throughout the course. I didn’t push it too hard to try to go around and lead because I knew I needed to draft them on the downhill.”
Her game plan consistently played out, as Hewitt placed second in her semifinal after Bender and made the A-final. There, she said the pace was unusually slow, but joked she had little to compare it to.
“I was like, ‘Are all A-finals like this?’ but it was very definitely controlled,” Hewitt said. “I didn’t want to take the lead; I don’t think anyone really did.”
Skiing with teammates helped, although Hewitt said had not trained much with Naryshkina. She knew enough to keep behind the two on the last downhill and try to secure third rather than outsprint them.
Clare Egan (CGRP) won the B-final for fifth overall, ahead of CXC sisters Nicolette Amber and Olivia Amber in sixth and seventh, respectively. The second-fastest qualifier, Hilary McNamee (Maine Winter Sports Academy) was eighth after placing fourth in her semifinal to Naryshkina, Dreissigacker and Nicolette Amber, respectively.
Women’s freestyle sprint A- and B-final results
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.