ERZURUM, Turkey — In her first race at these U23 World Championships, Mariya Guschina (RUS) had no trouble sticking with the standard set by her Russian teammates this week, claiming the gold medal by 26.7 seconds over Polina Medvedeva (RUS).
Second through fifth place were tightly packed—Martine Ek Hagen (NOR) took third, only 1.3 seconds out of silver, Emma Wiken (SWE) was 0.4 behind Hagen in fourth, and APU’s Sadie Bjornsen (USA) crossed the line 3.5 behind Wiken for fifth.
With yet another victory by a wide margin in Erzurum, what’s the Russians’ secret?
“There is a great team spirit in our squad,” said Guschina. “Everybody is working very hard. Coaches, service as well as athletes are all trying their best. That is why Russian skiers have collected so many medals here.”
Medvedeva, who had expected to be battling Buschina for the win, had a similar take on the Russian dominance in Erzurum: “It feels great to be on the podium with her. We share our big day together.”
Hagen’s bronze medal was briefly in question, as she took the wrong lane in the stadium as she came through for her second lap. Britt Ingunn Nydal (NOR), who was skiing in front of her, went into the finish lanes when she should have stayed in the lap lane. Hagen followed her before realizing the mistake and skiing back to the correct track.
“Suddenly I hear our team doctor screaming,” said Hagen. Nydal realized her error after Hagen, and lost a few more seconds.
The jury decided that Hagen’s mistake hadn’t given her an advantage, and she was allowed to keep her bronze medal along with a written warning.
Norway’s team doctor, Kjell Vegard Mykland, thought the stadium hadn’t been fairly set up.
“You have to choose the right lane a little bit too early on the straight [after coming around the corner],” Mykland said.
Hagen agreed that the required lane change was in a difficult position after coming down a long descent into the stadium.
“I don’t know, I was so focused it was probably me, but when you’re racing downhill, you come fast, and it’s not the best to change course. It was a little bit difficult.”
After losing time with the mistake, Hagen said she became dispirited. She ended up 0.3 seconds out of the silver medal.
“I think maybe I lost a little bit of motivation… It was an ok race, but I’m looking forward to Saturday now even more,” said Hagen.
On her sixth trip to World Juniors/U23s, Bjornsen posted a career best fifth place in the 10 k classic. It was a close race for rest of the podium, and Bjornsen was well aware of it as she powered through the second and final 5 k lap.
“I knew it was going to be close,” she said. “[Bryan] Fish told me at the top of the second hill that five seconds was five places—I was just trying to go for it with every bit that I had.”
Bjornsen skied a tactically smart race, and was able to stick to the plan she’d laid out for the race.
“The first time around she was in 10th, and six seconds would get her five positions,” said Fish. “That kind of information, when it’s that tight, can really help to motivate an athlete.”
Bjornsen said skiing a bit slower in the beginning was part of the plan.
“That didn’t worry me; I planned to do the first lap conservatively. Then…on the second lap I planned on hammering the hill,” said Bjornsen.
“It was one of those splits that was one off the checklist: ‘OK, this is where I want to be.’”
Emily Nishikawa (CAN) was the second North American on Thursday in 17th (+1:47.8). She had hoped for a top-20, but was happy with a solid effort.
“It’s hard to put a number on it, because you never know who’s going to be here,” Nishikawa said of her goals going into the 10 k.
“I was happy with it…I pushed hard and did as well as I could have.”
Becca Rorabaugh (USA) was 29th, Marlies Kromm (CAN) was 35th, Annika Hicks (CAN) 37th, and Heidi Widmer (CAN) was 28th.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.