ERZURUM, Turkey — For elite skiers under the age of 20, the FIS Junior World Championships are a focal point of the previous year’s training. No matter the national team, an athlete’s success at World Juniors causes elated finish-line celebrations, as it confirms he can ski as fast, or perhaps faster, than he ever thought possible.
The freestyle sprint, the opening events of the 2012 championships at Kindalli Nordic Ski Center, was no exception. For the second year in a row, Sergey Ustiugov (RUS) claimed the top of the podium, having won last year’s classic sprint in Estonia. He raised his arms in triumph as he crossed the line ahead of two Norwegians, Sindre Bjoernestad Skar in second (+0.7) and Sondre Turvoll Fossli in third (+1.1).
Roman Schaad (SUI) took fourth after a gap (+5.1) to lead a respectable showing for the Swiss—three in the top 10 on the men’s side. Ermil Vokuev (RUS) was fifth (+6.9) and Erwan Kaeser (SUI) sixth (+34.3), who suffered a fall and got left behind by the goup.
Ustiugov was dominant all day on the 1.6 k course, having won the qualifier and every single one of his heats. During the final, he skied from the front right from the gun and never looked back. As the lead group of three free skated back down into the stadium, Ustiugov still led the Norwegians, and afterwards he remarked that he had been confident all day that he could win again.
Skar and Fossli, close friends and competitors on the Norwegian squad, said in the press conference that they had each been aiming for the win, but still seemed pleased with podium finishes. Brit Baldishol, one of the Norwegian coaches, said she was “very happy” with how her athletes had performed.
Asked if she had expected multiple podium finishes on Monday, Baldishol said, “It was not unexpected… But, you never know in sprints, how people will do.”
American Men Come Close, But Miss Heats
In their first test against the best junior skiers in the world, the Americans Logan Hanneman and Cole Morgan came within a second of the top 30, but didn’t quite make it. Hanneman was 0.7 seconds out of qualifying in 34th, and Morgan was just behind him in 35th, 1.0 second back from 30th.
Hanneman, a sprint-specialist, had been aiming to both qualify and move onto the semifinals, and was subdued after his inaugural World Junior Championship run.
“I went fast, but it wasn’t quite fast enough,” he said after his qualifier. “Those guys are pretty quick.”
In describing the course, Hanneman said it favored strong V2 skiers, as the climbs weren’t steep and the rest of the course was either transition or free skating.
“It’s just on the gas all the time, and at altitude that’s a hard thing to do. Near the end you’re dying pretty good,” he said. “But, if you have something left in the tank, you didn’t go hard enough.”
Hanneman thought he’d had plenty of time to adjust to the 5,000-plus feet of elevation, and though disappointed he’d fallen short in his main event, he was optimistic for the 10 k classic on Wednesday.
“We have a whole week left.”
Morgan, like Hanneman, was competing in the first Junior Worlds race on Monday. He took the one-second difference between himself and the heats as a source of confidence rather than disappointment.
“I’m a little bummed about not making the heats,” Morgan admitted. “Those guys are fast; I was happy to be close. I wasn’t too far away, so it was kind of a confidence boost that I can ski a little bit with those guys.”
Will Wicherski was the next U.S. finisher behind Morgan in 72nd (+25.39). As a distance-specialist, Wicherski hadn’t originally been planning on entering the sprint, but decided to ski to get another start under his belt.
“I’m not much of a sprinter, so for me it was just hard to get that kind of power you need on these courses,” he said of his race.
During the free-skating transitions of the course, Wicherski felt he skied well, but knows that he needs to develop his V2 power. His man focus this week, however, will be the 20 k pursuit. There, he’s hoping for a top-30.
Forrest Mahlen was the fourth American in the qualifier in 87th (+38.46). He skied what he thought was a good sprint until the final downhill before the stadium, where his ski caught on the unusually wide corduroy and he fell, losing valuable momentum.
“On the final descent, a coach was yelling for me to tuck skate, and I was just tucking,” Mahlen recalled. “My ski got caught in the grooming, and I took a little spill. Up to that point thought it was really good.”
Mahlen didn’t appear to be taking his fall too hard, and was already looking forward to the 20 k pursuit.
“I’m super stoked for that, it’s a mass start, it should be good… I’m feeling pretty ready to go.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.