Junior World Championships action continued in Liberec, Czech Republic, on Wednesday with a 5 and 10 k individual start freestyle. Forrest Mahlen (Alaska Pacific University) and Sawyer Kesselheim (Bridger Ski Foundation) put up another pair of top-30s for the U.S. in the men’s event, placing 27th and 29th, respectively. Mary O’Connell (Dartmouth College) led the way for the American women by finishing 33rd in the 5 k.
The 10 k freestyle was Mahlen’s first event of the championships, and his 27th-place showing brought redemption over what he called a “super-poorly” skied distance race in Turkey last year, where he was 72nd.
“I’m super-excited with my result today!” Mahlen said. “One of my goals for this season was a top 30 here at world juniors so 27th is right in there. I was only 90 seconds behind the leaders and 15 seconds out of top 20 so I’m pretty happy with my time.”
As the 33rd starter out of a field of 98, Mahlen sought to pace his 10 k aggressively.
“My strategy was to take it out at a pace that I couldn’t hold the whole time to see what I had in me,” he said.
As a result, Mahlen skied by himself for nearly the whole race, which went three times around a 3.3 k loop. With the 18th-ranked split on the first lap, he accomplished the fast opening pace he intended. When Kesselheim was on his first lap he caught Mahlen finishing his final one, and the two helped each other along while Mahlen was “fading hard” from his quick early pace.
“He brought me around, for sure,” Mahlen said.
U.S. Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish thought the competitive field and challenging course in Liberec demanded highly focused skiing from athletes from the get go.
“I think at World Championships like this you have to be aggressive,” Fish said. “It was also an interesting course. There weren’t any really long hills but there were certainly some steep ones out there, so very transitional skiing. You had to ski well on the corners, dowhills and the uphills. The uphills were quite steep, much like the sprint course, so really powerful skiing [worked well].”
While Mahlen went out fast and faded, Kesselheim skied a more consistent race to finish two places and only 0.6 seconds behind him. In addition to catching a ride with Mahlen, Kesselheim skied one of his laps with one of the German skiers in the top seed.
“I was lucky enough to lap through when some of the top guys were starting,” Kesselheim said. “I got some help on my last lap from a German skier who pushed me up some of the biggest hills.”
He had hoped for a top-20 but was still excited with a top-30. “I felt that I raced smart,” Kesselheim said. “I pushed the transitions and paced it well… I also felt that pushing over the tops of hills and through the flats was very important. I focused on that and was able to execute which helped me to make up a lot of time.”
Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University), in his first career World Juniors race, took 46th on Wednesday, 33 seconds behind his other teammates. In his debut at the event Bratrud was focused primarily on gaining experience and was pleased with the result.
“My goal this year was to make World Juniors, beyond that was all a learning experience and getting to race on a course of that difficulty and watch and even ski with a few of the top juniors in the world was a huge opportunity,” he said. “I have been feeling pretty sluggish this week from the travel as this is my first trip to Europe so it was nice to finally get to race and shake out some of that junk from my legs.”
As the 55th starter Bratrud skied mostly by himself, but watched the faster seeds closely when they skied near him.
“A few of the top juniors were starting as I was going out for my last lap so I got to ski with them for a little bit and get a feel for what they do that makes them so fast, which was awesome,” Bratrud said.
Ben Saxton (F.A.S.T. Performance Training) was the fourth American in 60th. He was the top U.S. performer in the classic sprint on Monday but didn’t feel at his best in the 10 k.
“I don’t know exactly what my goals were but whatever they were, I didn’t reach them today, so it was a disappointing result in that sense,” Saxton said. “But I have a LOT of stuff to learn from this and it’s my first distance race on a big stage.
“I didn’t really feel too hot out of the start, but I was essentially on my own the whole way. The one chance I had for a ride I blew because I chickened out and scrubbed some speed on a downhill. I was getting consistently mediocre split results which I could tell by just looking around behind me were becoming obsolete as soon as higher bibs came through. But I tried my hardest I just wasn’t springy and at my sharpest today.”
On the women’s side, O’Connell led the American team in 33rd. She was introduced to Junior Worlds competition in Turkey last year and, like Mahlen, wanted to come to Liberec and improve upon her original results. Her best finish a year ago was 42nd in the 10 k skiathlon and on Wednesday she cut that down by nine places in the 5 k freestyle, finishing 1:05 behind the leaders.
“I am happy with the way it went,” O’Connell said. “The course was super short but very painful, I’d say one of the hardest 5 ks I’ve ever done. There are a few places where I wish I could have pushed a little harder, and a top 30 would have been great! But I’m still pleased with the way I raced.”
O’Connell got off to a strong start in her freshman season with a seventh-place finish at U.S. Nationals earlier this month in the senior freestyle race, surprising even herself. Not sure of where that would put her against the fastest juniors in the world, she limited her expectations for the 5 k.
“I knew my fitness was there after Nationals, I just wasn’t sure how that was going to compare internationally. Obviously, these kids are fast. I think the winning time was less than 13min!” she said. (It was; Germany’s Victoria Carl won in 12:35.)
For such a short race, O’Connell said it was important to go hard for the entire thing.
“There was one really steep hill, comparable to Hermod’s Hill (at Soldier Hollow) and it was important to ski light and quick but not kill yourself there on the first lap. Since it was so fast, pacing was important, but there was not a significant difference.”
O’Connell noted that the snow and her skis was also extremely fast, contributing a quick finish time.
“The coaches and wax techs are doing an incredible job with our skis, they were so fast today!” she said. “I actually almost fell on some of the corners! The team atmosphere is really great and we’re really all just having so much fun!”
At the end of the day, races like those from O’Connell, Mahlen and Kesselheim are exactly the kind of improvements Fish likes to see from year to year and race to race.
“Head to head competition like today is not only a test but also an incredible opportunity to strengthen the performance of our top developing athletes,” he said.
Sloan Storey (University of Utah) finished 45th in the 5 k for the U.S., Emily Hannah (Harvard University) took 51st and Anika Miller (Payette Lakes Sports) was 52nd.
Special thanks to Logan Hanneman/Corduroy AK for his photography.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.