Talk about depth. Last weekend, four U.S. women made history capturing third in the 4×5-kilometer relay in Gällivare, Sweden. On Friday, the lone US Ski Team (USST) female in Europe who didn’t race the team event was raring to go in Kuusamo, Finland.
Ida Sargent of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project came out with a renewed-and-focused fire in the 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, the first of three World Cup races in the Kuusamo mini tour this week. Known as a strong sprinter, her personal best in a preliminary round before Friday was 26th in last season’s Moscow World Cup skate sprint. She shattered that in Kuusamo.
Sargent, 24, led her U.S. teammates in the first sprint qualifier of the World Cup season under the lights on a chilly -12 degree Celsius (10 degree Fahrenheit) evening. She finished 13th to advance to the quarterfinals along with reigning World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall in 16th.
While some might have predicted Sargent would go on to achieve great things then, there’s a lot that can happen in sprints. Ask Randall.
For the next two heats, Sargent put herself in positions to stay alive, jolting from sixth to second behind Finland’s Anne Kylloenen to make the semifinals. In the second semi, she jumped up to third before the final grueling climb, and after losing some ground on the descent, fought hard for fourth in the deceivingly uphill stretch into the stadium.
Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) ultimately edged Sargent in a double-pole showdown to the finish, nabbing the lucky loser spot and advancing to the final. Sargent settled for fifth in the heat and ninth overall – not bad for a career best that topped her 12th place in Moscow last season. Her previous best in a World Cup classic sprint was 29th.
“It’s tough being so close to the final but I’m still incredibly happy with the day,” Sargent wrote in an email. “It was a really fun day and I can’t stop smiling!”
Meanwhile, Randall also advanced to the semifinals after taking second to Slovenian Katja Višnar in the quarterfinals. In the semi, she strided alongside leaders Marit Bjørgen of Norway (the eventual overall winner) and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk ahead of the pack on the final climb. Soon after, she ran out of steam and finished fifth for 10th overall.
It wasn’t exactly the result Randall envisioned, but it was solid considering. After logging a great pre-race workout Thursday, Randall said on the phone that she didn’t feel as well as she’d hoped on Friday.
“I just felt a little flat out there and didn’t feel like I could kick into my sprint race gear,” she said. “I think the silver lining for me is on a bad day, I used to not even qualify, and today I didn’t bring my best, but was still a top ten.”
What’s even better was that Sargent was in there, too, Randall said.
“It was a great day for us, I mean two in the top 10 is an incredible result,” Randall added. “Really psyched with the way Ida skied today. She really came on strong there every time coming up the hill.”
That was what separated racers who were having a great day from the ones that weren’t. Bjørgen repeatedly attacked the final steep climb, and even when she struggled there in the semifinal, she found a way to gain some ground in the stadium.
“The Kuusamo course really tests the fitness of an athlete,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said. “It’s an incredibly strong finish with a very difficult hill followed by a long, hard false flat, and for athletes to do well here means that they are in great shape.”
Case in point: Sargent, who recorded her previous best on an even longer 1.5 k course.
“It was definitely a career-breakthrough kind of day for Ida that we’ve known has been in the cards for a long time,” Whitcomb said. “But actually seeing her hit that top-10 mark will give her all kinds of new confidence.”
For Sargent, getting there took tons of grit and work. Whitcomb laughed as he recalled what she said after the quarterfinal. She couldn’t decide which lane to be in and bounced around “five or six times” as a result, he said
“She kept getting boxed around, boxed out a little bit and just realized she needed to settle down, that she felt great and there was 35 seconds of climbing time where she knew she could make moves,” he said. “Once she settled down she found her open lane and was able to move up the pack.”
Sargent wrote that she was so excited after the qualifier that she didn’t have any expectations for the heats. Knowing her strengths in climbing and confident in her double-pole improvements, she aimed to stay calm throughout and “go for it” on the big hill.
That worked great in the quarterfinal, as she accelerated over the top and put herself in second at the finish. However, in the semifinal Sargent explained she was boxed out at the bottom and didn’t have her own track, which caused her to slow down and seek one.
“I wasn’t able to go for it as much on the uphill and then Lahteenmaki was just stronger double poling into the finish,” she wrote. “I think if I had a better track on the uphill I could have stayed at the front on the uphill and then maybe made the final … [but] I’m feeling good and excited to be here. We had awesome skis today and there is so much motivation and inspiration being on this team especially after the amazing weekend in Gällivare.”
The rest of the U.S. women recorded personal bests or close to it for a classic sprint (Jessie Diggins was 33rd, Holly Brooks 40th and Liz Stephen 68th), leaving Whitcomb pleased with the overall results.
“It’s a great day for us to put two girls and two guys into the rounds,” he said, referring to Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell, who placed 24th and 27th, respectively. “Also, really encouraged by Jessie finishing 33rd, just a half second out of qualification in what is generally not her strong event. There were a lot of great signs today and I think we’re going to see a whole lot from Andy and Simi in these sprint events. These guys are just starting to get going.”
In an email, Hamilton wrote that his goal had been to qualify, which he did in 29th. However, he hadn’t slept well the night before and felt his energy was flat throughout the day.
“I never feel great when it’s this cold, but I fought hard in my quarter and just didn’t have the zip I needed on the final long climb into the stadium,” Hamilton wrote after finishing fifth in his heat. “I’m happy with today, although skiing past the quarters would have made me much happier. I knew going into the day that it would was going to take everything I had to have a respectable race.”
The course didn’t exactly play to his strengths, he explained, and after having strep throat this time last season, he hadn’t raced in Kuusamo in two years.
“It’s a tough course for me,” he added. “There’s not a lot of technical skiing and a lot of the race rests on being light up that final climb. I am much better on courses that involve technical skiing and rolling terrain where I can use my weight to my advantage.”
Newell qualified ahead of Hamilton in 21st, and on his 28th birthday, was lucky to do so.
“In the qualification round I got super lucky because I almost went down after the first climb,” Newell wrote in an email. “There was a bit of ice before the downhill and my skis completely crossed and I don’t know how I didn’t fall but I managed to stay up despite losing a little time.”
In his quarterfinal, Newell was initially third behind Sweden’s Emil Joensson and Calle Halfvarsson, who went on to finish first and third, respectively, in the heat. All was going well until he and China’s Qinghai Sun “had a few close calls,” Newell wrote. “We were banging into each other a lot for some reason.”
Nonetheless, he was in a good position heading into the last climb, but didn’t have the kick he needed to keep up with Joensson and Norway’s Petter Northug, who was second in the heat. Newell came through in sixth.
“It’s a bummer to slip on this course and I had a few bad ones and then just wasn’t able to run the hill the way I normally can,” Newell added. “I’ve been feeling great, definitely feeling a lot better than what the results from today will show. It’s just the first sprint of the year and it’s only half points here so I’m not too concerned. Just looking forward to doing some more sprinting soon.”
Whitcomb reiterated this how early in the season it was and what Period 1 entailed.
“We are doing our best to ski fast each weekend, but we are also doing our best to maintain training volumes, good quality workouts,” Whitcomb said. “It’s possible we overreached just a little bit with regards to training [this week], but at the same time that’s what we’re training to maintain this time of year. Ultimately we’re gunning for Val di Fiemme [World Championships].”
Despite recovering well from two third-place results last weekend, Randall said she felt the effects of a hard strength workout on Tuesday.
“I think maybe that was a little hard, maybe flattened out my fast-twitch muscles a little bit, but overall I think it was a pretty solid week,” Randall said.
Diggins (33rd) on missing qualifying by just over ½ a second:
“Considering classic sprinting is something I’m still working on, I’m pretty psyched on today,” she wrote in an email. “I broke the course down into parts and skied each part as well as I could. I didn’t ski the last climb as well as I did in race prep however – I think I got too nervous – and that’s where I lost the most time. If I could do it again I know what I’d fix … and I get to do it again next year and the next ten years! :)”
“My race was slightly mediocre, neither good or bad,” she wrote in an email. “The last big climb into the stadium frustrates me a bit because I feel like I always ski it better in practice and the warm up. Oh well, such is life. I have a few things to work on and that keeps it interesting! I’m really looking forward to the next two days. Saturday’s 5k skate race was my breakthrough last year so I’m crossing my fingers for another good one!”
“Today was probably the best Kuusamo classic sprint I’ve ever had so that was good, but I’m psyched for the rest of the weekend,” she said on the phone. “I’ve skied the main uphill better every single time I’ve skied it, except for today. I think I was having a pretty good sprint until the big hill today. I couldn’t quite nail it, but the courses are awesome and they’re really good for people that are in really good shape so hopefully that bodes well for our team.”
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.