There’s an old saying that transcends sports: ‘Be aggressive,’ and for extra emphasis: ‘B-E aggressive.’ Well, maybe that’s a Jock Jam, but either way, it got into the heads of Canadian Ski Team members Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova on Friday in Kuusamo, Finland.
The two gave their all in the 1.4-kilometer World Cup classic sprint on the opening day of the Ruka Triple mini tour, which includes two more sets of races (a 5- and 10-kilometer freestyle on Saturday, and 10/15 k classic pursuit on Sunday). Both shorter-distance specialists, it was their time to get after it in the first sprint of the season.
Jones led the charge, tying her career best of 12th after advancing to the semifinals. Gaiazova placed 14th overall, narrowly missing a lucky-loser bid for the semis.
After qualifying in 20th, Jones didn’t let brand names like Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Heidi Weng (NOR) overrun the quarterfinal. From the start, she tucked in behind the Norwegian leaders, including Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, and hung on while Kowalczyk – a race favorite – charged forward for the win. Jones outlunged Weng for second and moved onto the semi.
“I got in behind Kowalczyk on the last big climb because I figured she’d win the heat, and I just double-poled like mad to the finish,” Jones said in a Cross Country Canada press release.
Four quarterfinals later, Gaiazova burst out of the start to the front, then settled in behind Finland’s Anne Kylloenen, who would go on to place fourth in the final. American Ida Sargent worked her way into the mix and Gaiazova followed as the two overtook Therese Johaug (NOR) to finish second and third in the heat, respectively. For Sargent, it was a sure way of getting to the semis while Gaiazova, who previously qualified in 18th, had to rely on her time to get her through. She ended up just short of advancing and settled for 14th.
Not long after, Jones went for it again in the semifinal, trailing Kowalczyk and Kikkan Randall (USA) up the first gradual hill. There, she lost her balance on an icy corner and fell out of contention behind the pack, which included eventual semifinal and final winner Marit Bjørgen (NOR).
While making it as far as possible – ultimately to the podium – is always the goal, both Jones and Gaiazova were pleased with their efforts.
“Kuusamo has been a dark place for me in the past,” Jones said. “I’ve never really been good here so I’m really happy with today.”
Previously, the 27-year-old’s best result in Kuusamo was 51st in a 1.2 k classic sprint. This year, the International Ski Federation (FIS) decided to lengthen many of the women’s sprints to match the men’s distances. Friday was one of the first times it did so with the 1.4 k distance, which seemed to work for Jones.
Head coach Justin Wadsworth said on the phone that the longer sprint on a challenging course was certainly a good indicator of Jones and Gaiazova’s fitness.
“That last uphill is really tough,” he said. “I mean it’s hard just when you’re testing skis or whatever going around it. It’s hard to get up.”
Jones credited her skis – prepared by her husband and wax tech Joel Jaques – to much of her success, especially on the downhills. In her third time placing a personal best of 12th in a World Cup sprint, she said she’s ready to make the next step.
“I do feel now is the time for me to start to peak and I think that is the reason we are doing a lot more intensity than usual,” she said. “I was a little worried that I wouldn’t see the results, but it is nice to see the training pay off today.”
In an email, Gaiazova wrote that she felt fit and confident for the first half of her quarterfinal, but made a costly mistake at the bottom of the second hill “being too nice and letting a competitor jump in a track ahead of me, thus boxing myself in for the main uphill,” she wrote.
“I wish I was more aggressive at that moment and didn’t let her in because then I would have had my own track and could have skied with a longer and more comfortable stride, as opposed to trying to match Johaug’s frantic pace and wasting energy skiing behind her,” Gaiazova continued. “Once I learn how to race aggressively for the whole duration of the race, there is no stopping me!”
About 2 ½ seconds back from qualifying in the top 30, Canadian Chandra Crawford wrote in an email that she expected more.
“Thought I’d get a better one but I’ve been pushing the training a bit since arriving in Europe to prepare for the Canadian races,” Crawford wrote. “Now I’ll do a bit more resting and fire up some sprint leg feeling for Canada.”
Last season’s NorAm winner who earned early World Cup starts this year, Alysson Marshall was one spot back in 38th in the prelim.
“I was really disappointed not to qualify, but I was close to the top-30 and I feel like I’m bouncing back from last weekend,” she said of the World Cup opener in Gällivare, Sweden. “I felt good in the qualifier but slipped a few times on the climbs and lost momentum … I was happy with my energy and I know where I lost time so I will hopefully improve for the next sprint!”
The Canadians perhaps most accustomed to the limelight, Alex Harvey, Lenny Valjas and Devon Kershaw failed to make the rounds in the men’s 1.4 k sprint. Harvey ranked 46th in the qualifier, Valjas was 53rd and Kershaw placed 62nd.
“They just don’t have the snap right now,” Wadsworth said. “Same way they’re been feeling, just kind of flat. It shouldn’t be a problem. That’ll come back and I know their fitness is there. Of course you’d like to have good results today, but it is what it is so you just can’t fight it.”
That’s where aggression meets patience.
“It appears these last years that I just lack snap, power and speed these first few weeks of the season,” Kershaw wrote in an email. “Simple as that. It’s discouraging, frustrating – but looking at my past – and knowing how well I can ski when everything comes together, I just really have to believe in what I’ve done this entire training season and be patient.”
Harvey wrote that he “felt fine warming up, not stellar, but confident I would make the top 30. In the race I didn’t feel that bad, but I noticed that every pole plant was a bit less powerful than usual. … It’s a good reminder than were all human and it will make me appreciate even more the feeling of skiing fast when I do, hopefully!”
Perhaps the most disappointed was Valjas, who said his hand injury was the least of his problems on Friday.
“The cast did its job perfectly,” he wrote, referring to the healing bone near his pinky finger. “I don’t really know what happened out there today, I thought I felt fine. I chose to ski on skis that had way too little grip, which forced me to herringbone up the last hill. You can’t expect to qualify when you cant climb all of the hills on course. … Not happy about my performance today, I am actually looking forward to the distance races coming up to blow off some steam and get ready for Quebec.”
The World Cup sprints in downtown Quebec City in exactly a week will be a highlight for the entire team, which will travel home for the event. Going into it, Wadsworth said results like Jones and Gaiazova’s were especially important.
“They worked hard and it’s really nice to get them in there and get some confidence going heading into Canada,” he said.
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.