A rare opportunity presented itself this season for a higher than usual number of American athletes to compete in the two World Cups in Canada this December. For many of the best domestic-level athletes in the country, it was the chance to break into the next level and compete for the U.S. on the biggest stage there is in cross-country skiing. Earning one of those start rights became the focal point of the season for SuperTour athletes who thought they had a shot at making it.
For American athletes in Quebec City about to compete in their first World Cup, that dream became a reality last week in Bozeman, Mont. Two hard-fought sprints later and just like that: they’re here. Hello, World Cup.
“It was certainly stressful having such important races right off the bat this season,” said Alaska Pacific University’s Kate Fitzgerald “Had a few restless nights wondering how things were going to turn out.”
Athletes learned they had made it in fittingly dramatic fashion: while lining up for the final race in Bozeman last weekend. U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover emailed successful qualifiers the morning after the classic sprint, but at the remote, service-less Bohart Ranch the day of the mass start event, some athletes didn’t see it before departing for the venue.
“When I heard…I was absolutely floored,” said Crafsbury Green Racing Project’s Pat O’Brien. “I got the news from some of the other athletes that had made the team right before the distance race. Needless to say it was a huge relief going into the last race in Bozeman!”
The APU contingent found out from a teammate at about the same time.
“Brent Knight came running up to us ten minutes before the 10 k classic and told us the list,” said APU’s Becca Rorabaugh. “It was a great boost to hear about it before we started; it certainly took the pressure off!”
“I started yelling and whooping and giving all the girls high fives,” Fitzgerald said. “I was so excited! I knew it was going to be close so it was all the more exciting when I found out that I made it.”
The cold, hard math of the selection criteria made the last few available spots heart-breakingly close. A single SuperTour point separated the last female who qualified from the first one that didn’t. Two points made that difference in the men’s field.
“I was ecstatic upon hearing that I had officially made the World Cup team,” said Ryan Scott (SSCV Team HomeGrown). “I had such a disappointing classic sprint race in Bozeman that I thought for sure that I had lost my only opportunity to qualify with that one poor performance.”
Now that they’ve made it, however, the real work begins. Simply wearing a World Cup bib is not enough; these athletes want to compete. In the words of Reid Pletcher, “TIME TO THROW DOWN!”
Presenting the Americans who fought tooth-and-nail to make their first Eurosport appearance this Friday and Saturday — their hopes, dreams and aspirations. (For the full list of Americans competing in Quebec this weekend, look over here.)
Get your cowbells ready.
The Methow Valley native has been on the U.S. Ski Team development squad for over a year, but this will be his first World Cup appearance. With a second and third-place showing in the Bozeman sprints, he was pretty clearly going to be on the Quebec roster. Still, Bjornsen said it was satisfying to officially meeting the season-long goal.
“I was so excited to be named,” Bjornsen said. “It has been my goal since the beginning of the summer.”
The 21-year-old turned down World Cup start spots last season because he didn’t think he was quite ready. “Now I think I should have a pretty good shot of mixing it up with some guys and I hope that in a couple years I will be a full time World Cup athlete,” he said.
Bjornsen is approaching the Quebec races like he would any other.
“I’m doing my usual training leading up to the races,” he said. “I’m sure I will start getting more nervous tomorrow but for now I’m just really excited to be here experiencing it. Quebec City seems really cool and it’s nice to be back with some of the USST crew.”
Reid Pletcher (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation)
This is his first year out of college, but the Hailey, Idaho, native has already skied twice on the World Cup before: first in Canmore in 2008 at the age of 19 and again in Whistler in 2009. Quebec won’t be his first rodeo, but Pletcher is just as excited about the prospect of racing there as anybody else.
“I would say I am most excited for the crowds and cheering,” he said. “There is nothing like hitting the last 100 meters and you can’t even focus because the noise is so overwhelming.”
Pletcher was 35th and 37th, respectively, in Canmore and Whistler. He skied to his best SuperTour sprint result in Bozeman last weekend, and coming off the confidence of the win he wants to see action in the rounds in both Quebec and Canmore these next two weekends.
“My goals for the next two weeks are to qualify for the heats and be in the mix of things,” he said. “My goals this season were to prove to myself and my competition that I have what it takes to be very competitive in professional skiing. Last week I had my best SuperTour result ever, and the World Cup makes it even more amazing.”
With his classic sprint victory on Saturday, Hanneman all but guaranteed himself a ticket to Canada. It won’t be his first time on the World Cup stage, having competed in Canmore in 2010, but that didn’t make the moment he realized he was going any less meaningful.
“When I actually saw my name on the list, it was a mix of excitement and calm,” Hanneman said. “It’s something that I had as a goal for such a long time, and I have spent so much time and energy trying to actually do it, and so to complete that objective gives you a sense of completion.”
Like Bjornsen and Pletcher, Hanneman has moved past the initial excitement and says he’s ready for World Cup action — “Now I’m just so amped up!”
In Canmore in 2010, where he was 70th, Hanneman was “inevitably nervous and star-struck,” he said. “Now I feel like I will be in a much better place mentally, having a lot more international racing experience and just more high level racing. My goal is to be able to just keep myself calm and go about business like its just another race, albeit an important one.”
Davis’ World Cup debut in 2011 didn’t go as planned thanks to mono, but it’s a different year and different season now: with a new coach and new team, Davis is feeling good about where he’s at.
A slight cold held him back in Bozeman, but now Davis says he’s back to feeling 100% headed into the big show, and has a top-30 in his sights.
“My biggest goal is to make it into the rounds,” Davis said. “I believe I’m capable, just have to put it together.”
Craftsbury went to more training camps this summer in order to push its intensity with people from around the country, and for Pat O’Brien, the work paid off.
“Obviously being my first World Cup, I am simply excited for the experience,” he said. Other than a few FIS races in Europe this will also O’Brien’s first significantly international race.
“So much of ski racing is seeing that higher level and figuring out how to get there. The US girls have shown this year that there is no reason the American skiers can’t succeed on the big stage. It’s just a matter of hard work and believing in it.”
He has performance goals, but believes the World Cup exposure will be more valuable than anything. The atmosphere will probably be pretty cool, too.
“You know that everyone will be showing up and cheering like mad, especially for Alex Harvey. If he had a helicopter following him at Canadian nationals, imagine how nuts it’s going to be for a World Cup city sprint! I think this is great for the sport, to show Europeans that yes, skiing may not be the biggest sport here in the US or Canada, but it is a sport on the rise and something people care hugely about.”
The Boulder, Colorado, native spent a lot of time working on his skate sprinting this summer specifically for the purpose of competing in Quebec. “My emphasis all fall was to develop true speed for flat terrain,” he said.
A few man-made bumps represent the only climbing on the city street course, which suits Scott just fine. “I do think this course…suits my skiing skyle and so I know that I will be prepared for a good performance. The first SuperTour races of the season were a great warm-up for these races.”
Like his countrymen, Scott has high expectations — merely qualifying is not enough, he’s looking for a top-20.
“Racing at such a large venue as in Quebec will be unparalleled to anything I have experienced in the U.S.,” he added. “The crowds provide great motivation so that will be something that I look forward to most. The team sprint will be an excellent chance to test my fitness and stay competitive with the rest of the field.”
Blackhorse-von Jess found out a little bit after everyone else that he would be going to Canada, as a new spot became available when Torin Koos declined the trip. He and coach Ben Husaby thought for a moment whether they’d be able to make it work, but realized “there aren’t any drawbacks to going and this is living the dream the way we all envision it,” Blackhorse-von Jess said.
The Bend native has been to the big show before. In the Whistler World Cup in 2009, he was 34th in the classic sprint. As the last name on the qualifying list this year he has just the individual race to turn in the performance he wants: a top-30. In 2009 he says he let the whole production get to him; this time he knows what to expect.
“I’m here to compete. You don’t get a lot of opportunities (they are few and far between with a lot of talented athletes competing for them) so when you get a chance like this, you have to do everything with it you can,” Blackhorse-von Jess said.
“From watching Simi [Hamilton]’s career as a World Cup skier, it’s pretty clear that being off even a little can end a day early, but also that there is a completely reasonable expectation for success, even with little or no World Cup experience. So the plan is to go out there and qualify as fast as I can. It’s time to quit being a little conservative during qualifying and push deeper. Find that extra bit I’d normally save and push it as far as I can. This field isn’t looking like the normal weakened North American field of the last few years, so every hundredth could make the difference.”
With numerous Junior World Championship trips under her belt, Caldwell is no stranger to high-profile international skiing. But this is the big-leagues, and as it will be the first World Cup of her career, she was thrilled when she heard she’d made her biggest early-season goal.
Now that she’s here Caldwell is not sure where she’ll stack up, but is looking forward to turning in the best race she can.
“I’m really looking forward to racing in the city,” she said. “Sadie [Bjornsen] told me the city sprint is the most I’ll ever feel like a celebrity in my life! I have a lot of family and friends coming up so it will be fun to see everyone and hopefully I’ll have some good races.”
Fritz has seen Alpen Cup and OPA Cup-level skiing before, but this will be her first World Cup experience.
“I’m pretty psyched to be here,” she said. “It took a while to process that I actually made the cut, but it was exciting to get the news with my teammates who also made it. There were a lot of high fives.”
Once she takes to the snow in front of the Parliament building, Fritz says she’s going to go out and ski the best race she can.
“Hopefully the results will be good. I have a tendency to do pretty well when I have no real expectations because I’m just psyched to be skiing and I’m more relaxed,” she said.
“I think Quebec is going to be awesome because there are going to be a lot of fans here cheering for the Americans — family, friends from the East coast driving up, etc — and i’ve never done a race that is packed with fans the entire way.”
The 18-year-old from Massachusettes has done it again, and skied much faster than where her experience level would have predicted. It must be time to get used to it.
The Dartmouth freshman focused her training this summer, spending time with APU on Eagle Glacier to give herself competitive training partners and quality on-snow time. Based on her third-place finish in the Bozeman classic sprint, which was thisclose to being a place or two higher, Stock clearly knew what she was doing. Now she’s in Quebec for her first World Cup races.
Stock is a fierce competitor, but once the bib comes off after a race she’s all happy excitement, and makes a point of soaking in every part of her experience. It’s just a hunch, but we’ve a feeling the World Cup scene will be a commonplace one for her down the road.
The Alaskan competed in the Canmore World Cup in 2009, where she was 59th in the classic sprint. Though she says she’s been a bit more tired than usual this fall, she’s worked more recovery into her preparation to be ready for Quebec. Rorabaugh certainly has a handful of international races under her belt, so she knows what she’s in for.
“I was really relieved to hear that I was going. I knew I must have been close,” she said. “I really hope to improve on my last sprint place in Canmore, and I am so excited to be around a city sprint atmosphere!”
It’s always thrilling to watch Ftizgerald race because every time she puts on a bib, she pushes herself just a bit further over the edge than those around her. Her reaction to finding out she’d made the Quebec team demonstrates why: it means that much.
Now that she’s in Canada for her World Cup debut, Fitzgerald is taking in every part of the event.
“The whole experience is so new to me so I do not really have many expectations,” she said. “My plan is to enjoy this incredible experience, soak it all in and see what it is like to be a World Cup skier! And on race day I plan to approach it like I do any other race- work hard and try my best. Only in these races I get the unique opportunity to see where I stack up with the best skiers in the world!”
Unlike the rest of the Quebec qualifiers from the SuperTour, Gregg has seen her fair share of World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic-caliber racing. She was on her way to making the switch to post-skiing life this summer when she realized, after taking four months off of training to go to school, that she missed the sport too much to leave it quite yet.
“With such a short amount of time to prepare I feel very fortunate to have skied as well as I did in Montana and to be heading to the World Cup,” she said.
Her goals now are simple: to ski the best she can.
“The US women are so strong right now on the World Cup and that excitement and enthusiasm is contagious,” she said. “I fell like I am racing in the company of celebrities and they are from the USA! The atmosphere of the City will bring an amazing amount of energy to the races.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.