When FasterSkier last caught up with University of Utah alum Maria Gräfnings this fall, she was prepping for the race season and hoping to do well enough to earn a few World Cup starts representing Sweden. While the odds seemed good – because the World Cup started in her home country, she had a chance to earn a Nations Group spot, which wouldn’t otherwise be available – the two-time NCAA champion was cautious, talking about how the Swedish team was “really competitive.”
The opening FIS races in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, didn’t go as well for Gräfnings as they might have; representing her home club, Falun Borlange SK, she placed 20th in the 5 k classic and then 13th in the 10 k skate against primarily Swedish competitors.
But it was enough to get her into the Nations Group and up to Gällivare. Once there?
“It went really, really well, so I was really excited,” Gräfnings told FasterSkier on her way to cool down on Sunday. “I took my first World Cup points yesterday, so I was pretty stoked about that.”
Gräfnings was the very first starter in Saturday’s 10 k freestyle race. That could have been a blessing, or a curse – she had open tracks, but nobody to chase. As it was, she skied in the mid-thirties for most of the race, before turning on the afterburners in the last three kilometers to gain eight places and finish 28th, 1:23.7 behind Marit Bjørgen of Norway.
“I mean, it’s my home place, and the crowd and everyone is amazing, and cheering, so it’s been great,” Gräfnings said of the experience.
She also did significantly better against her countrymen, winding up as the sixth Swede in the race. As such, she got picked for the second Swedish relay team on Sunday.
“We have a lot of good girls,” Gräfnings said. “It was an honor just to be in the second team… I haven’t done a relay in such a long time! Wow. I was wondering how I was going to do this. But it was really, really fun – relays are special, when you go for a team like that. Especially to be here, it’s amazing.”
The relay didn’t go perfectly; the first skier on Sweden II, Emma Wiken, fell, losing time and tagging off in ninth. Second-leg racer Sara Lindborg was tucked in with a pack, but there was another problem as she prepared to hand off to Gräfnings.
“Sara was supposed to tag me, so I started out, but then I heard her scream – ‘Maria!’ – and I looked back and she was just lying all over the place!” Gräfnings said. “I was like, oh shit. So I stopped and had to back up, and she tagged me. So it was kind of a bummer and I lost some time there. But I felt really good and I caught the Finland girl, so I think I did well.”
The incident had dropped the team to tenth, but Gräfnings passed Laura Ahervo of Finland, moving the team back up to ninth, where they finished.
Between the two races, her performances were good enough to earn a nod for Sweden’s traveling squad. She’s currently signed up for the three-race miniseries coming up this weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, as well as the distance World Cup races in Canmore in December.
One other thing she’s excited for? A certain women’s team’s performance in Gällivare.
“I’m stoked for the U.S. team, too – I mean, podium? Twice?” Gräfnings, who used to race against many of the American relay team members at SuperTours, marveled. “I’m pretty much as excited as them. I’m really happy for them, and I think it’s really good for the sport.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.