Anyone who’s seen Liz Stephen train knew she was completely capable of doing what she did Sunday in Muonio, Finland.
For cripes sakes, she challenged the guys during a US Ski Team interval trail-running session this summer. Earlier at that camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., she defended her title in the annual Climb to the Castle rollerski race, beating her personal best by more than a minute uncontested.
That takes guts, something Stephen and many others knew she had all along. The 25-year-old US Ski Team (USST) veteran said what she needs this season is confidence. Sunday’s second-place result should give her a start.
In the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start, Stephen was 4.46 seconds off the win, which Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland claimed for her third straight title of the weekend in 26:21.47. For Stephen, it was her best result in a FIS race since January 2010 at Soldier Hollow, Utah. She has never made the podium in a World Cup, but intends to this year.
“I think I’m getting to the point where I need to start believing and almost, expecting isn’t the right word, but you can’t expect to win a race you don’t believe in [winning],” Stephen said on the phone. “That’s kind of been my goal this year, believing that a podium is possible or a top five is possible. Today, for sure, it’s not the World Cup, so I went in believing that a podium or a win was possible.”
With USST head coach Chris Grover giving splits around 3 and 8 k, Stephen knew she was in contention. At 3 k, Grover said she was tied with Kowalczyk and U.S. teammate Holly Brooks for second behind Finland’s Riita-Liisa Roponen, and by the 8 k mark, Stephen had held her place while trailing Kowalczyk by about five or six seconds.
While the splits were helpful, Stephen said she simply kept thinking, “faster, faster, faster.” There was no way she was going to let off after feeling like she could have gone a bit harder on Saturday (where she was pleased to place 13th in her first race of the season: a 5 k classic race). The course made for a strong finish with nearly two kilometers of gradual downhill to the end, she said.
Just 1.1 seconds behind Stephen, Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia placed third, 0.2 seconds ahead of Roponen in fourth. Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki and Anne Kylloenen took fifth and sixth, respectively, and Brooks finished seventh, 26.2 seconds out of first.
After starting early and leading at one point, Brooks said on the phone that she was excited to hear a backsplit that she was in contention with Kowalczyk. Brooks made a mistake on the last long downhill, skiing outside the track instead of in it, and knew it as soon as she saw someone she passed at the top of the climb zoom by her in the tracks.
“I caught the girl that started a minute ahead of me and put some time into her, but then later, she came flying past me,” Brooks said. “I was kind of hitting myself, like ‘Ooh, I lost a bit of time there,’ because the tracks were pretty much ice rails.”
A mix of rain and snow before the race made for fast conditions, she said. “It was kind of that hard-packed fast squirrely stuff with a little bit of give on the hills so it was really fun conditions,” Brooks said.
Considering she nailed a top 10 in her first weekend of racing, Brooks was happy.
“It’s the same distance it’s the same technique as the opening race next Saturday [in Gällivare, Sweden],” she said. “It’s important to think about what World Cup pace is. It’s different than maybe a pace in a time trial back home and the mistakes that you make really bump you down the results sheet quite fast here. It’s been nice to have a warmup before the World Cup kicks off.”
Also in the top 10, Svetlana Nikolaeva (RUS) was eighth and American Jessie Diggins (+33.9) placed ninth. For the three USST women competing Sunday, it was their best showing of the weekend; Diggins placed 28th and Brooks was 34th on Saturday. Diggins raced all three events and was 30th in Friday’s 10 k skate.
“They were all excited,” Grover said of the U.S. women on Sunday. “I think it was very cool that just about everybody was able to put together one pretty good race over the weekend … especially given that we’re just still six days after arriving and so nobody’s quite normalized on their sleep schedule or anything like that yet. We’re still kind of getting our feet underneath us.”
Regardless, it was good to get these races out of the way, he said. For someone like Diggins, early competitions were critical for building momentum and confidence, but he left it to Diggins to decide how many races to do. Most USST members did two of three. She wanted to get some starts behind her, he said.
“I expected to feel tired from the week but the energy was still there,” Diggins wrote in an email. “I felt for the first time like I was really in race mode … like I was able to get into that mental state and really push hard and focus the whole way. It’s a good sign for me!”
Throughout the race, she thought about three things, in all seriousness: “Focus on technique during the race, don’t fall down, and don’t accidentally grab anyone else’s equipment or warmups,” she wrote.
She was pleased with how the weekend went, especially for Stephen and her team on Sunday. Stephen said she was grateful for all the support from her teammates, wax techs and coaches.
“Any podium you’re on, it doesn’t matter if it’s some local race in your town, they’re always fun to stand on,” she said. “There wasn’t even a podium today and it was still fun to go in for the hug with Kowalczyk.”
She didn’t get any prize money, either, just a wooden cup. But Stephen wasn’t complaining. On Sunday night, she celebrated with teammates by watching the new James Bond movie at an underground theater beneath the ski area.
With wooden cups as prizes, Grover said the races didn’t carry much weight results-wise, but they were important before the season starts next weekend in Gällivare.
“It’s just a chance for everybody to get on snow and work the kinks out in some races before it turns to actually being a World Cup,” he said.
In the men’s 15 k skate, Matti Heikkinen of Finland took the victory in 34:40.54. For the second straight day, Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic took second and German Jens Filbrich of Germany placed third, with Bauer finishing 9.9 seconds behind Heikkinen and Filbrich trailing by 28.5 seconds. The winner of Friday’s classic sprint and Saturday’s 10 k classic, Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ), did not race Sunday.
After battling the flu last week and placing 32nd on Saturday, Heikkinen tallied his first win of the weekend on Sunday. He knew he had it in him, as did his coach.
“Heikkinen is an athlete who leaves [everything on] the ski track at all times,” Finnish head coach Magnar Dalen told Hevoskuuri.fi. “Heikkinen competes to win.”
Noah Hoffman led the U.S. men in 13th about 0.47 seconds ahead of teammate Kris Freeman in 14th and about 1:18 behind Heikkinen. After placing 30th on Saturday, he was pleased with the improvement.
“I wanted to ski with higher energy,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “The snow conditions today were challenging with temperatures above freezing this morning. The course was glazed. It was hard to relax and stand on my skis well. I have struggled with these conditions in the past. Because of the challenges of the snow and the flatter conditions, I was happy with the way I executed my plan, stayed relaxed, and with the result.”
Meanwhile, Freeman felt a little shakier than usual. In an email, he wrote that he chased Heikkinen from about 6 to 10 k, but “ended up … exploding.”
“Today was not a great race for me,” Freeman wrote. “I did not feel comfortable on my feet and was taxing my stability muscles heavily. To quote [Canadian] Devon [Kershaw] from a few years ago ‘I felt like Bambi on ice skates.’ My fitness is good though and I am looking forward to next weekend.”
Also racing for the U.S. on Sunday, Sylvan Ellefson had his best result of the weekend in 29th. Simi Hamilton was 53rd and Andy Newell was 77th.
Complete results (scroll down for women’s 10 k free and men’s 15 k)
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.