At a race as big as Junior World Championships, a lot of factors go into turning a race into a great day. A personal best. Fast skis. Bluebird skies. For Heather Mooney (Middlebury College), it was some combination that helped her towards her 26th-place showing in the women’s 10 k skiathlon in Liberec, Czech Republic, a performance that led the Americans at the championships on Friday.
“I’m definitely very happy with my race today,” Mooney wrote in an email. “My real goal was to try and stay relaxed and not waste any energy through the classic leg, getting in a good position, not getting pushed around by anyone, and then in the skate I hoped just to ski smooth and stomach as much pain as I could. I think I did those things really well, so I’m happy with that.”
Mooney and two teammates, Sloan Storey and Corey Stock, started next to each other in the narrow, five-lane chevron with bibs 41, 42 and 43. The trio, along with Mary O’Connell in bib 35, was able to ski close to each other in some fashion through the classic leg. The Americans expected a chaotic mass start and for the most part made it through the first few kilometers unscathed and in control of their own races.
“The course starts up a steep hill before dropping down a big downhill over a bridge with a big corner, so we were all expecting there to be a lot of crashes, but it ended pretty hassle-free for most of us,” Mooney said. “Getting through the first lap was a bit nerve wracking, but the girls in front took it out really fast, so it spread out reasonably well.”
Mooney came through the pit in 31st at the halfway mark and picked people off in the skate leg to finish 26th overall with the 28th-best freestyle time. As someone who is historically a better classic skier Mooney was particularly excited with the second half of her race.
“I’m generally not as strong of a skater, but it’s something I’ve been working a lot on this year, so I’m really excited to have a solid skate result, especially here!” she said.
Two years ago in Estonia, Mooney was 50th in the pursuit. On the heels of a 19th-place showing in the classic sprint, the skiathlon marks her new best in a distance race at World Juniors.
On top being happy with a PR, Mooney said having good weather for the first time all week made a great day even better.
“Thanks to the wax techs, our skis were really fast, and I was able to glide up a lot of the beginnings of the hills where other people were already skiing, so that was really fun!” she added. “It was a bit colder this morning, so the tracks were firm and fast.”
Storey finished 32nd, 13.2 seconds behind Mooney. The University of Utah freshman characterized her skiathlon experience as “crazy,” “hectic,” and “very fun.”
“Every aspect of it — coaches having to have to wax two pairs of race skis versus just one, racers having to have stay on their feet and not crash or break a piece of equipment during the many collisions in the mass start…and half way through the mass start we had [to] switch all of our gear from classic to skate. It was hectic to say the least, but very fun,” Storey said.
She and Mooney worked together to move up through the pack, and Storey also caught rides with athletes she was able to pass by the end of the race. Like Mooney, she attributed a big part of her success to great skis.
“My skis were BOMB!” Storey said. “One of my highlights was being able to run and not slip up one of the steepest pitches and pass a group of girls who began herringboning… All in all the race was super fun and another great new experience here in Liberec! I’m so proud of all of my teammates for all of their success as well as myself.”
O’Connell finished 35th, 8.6 seconds behind Storey. The Dartmouth College freshman was hoping for a top 30 on Friday had a hard time being too disappointed with 35th in spite of a few trip-ups in the classic leg. For the first kilometer she felt she skied smart and relaxed, but was unable to avoid colliding with another girl that went down in front of her shortly into the race.
“At about 1 k, a girl in front of me fell and I just skied right into her, and then some people behind me skied into me, I think maybe a few US girls too,” O’Connell said. “That was a bit chaotic for a second. After that, I sorta lost my composure and sorta panicked and wasn’t able to kick my skis real well. Going up one of the steep hills in the classic leg, I just tripped again and took a face plant. At this point I was just trying to make it to the skate leg, trying to keep it together.”
O’Connell came through the classic leg in 38th. She made it through the transition to freestyle with no mistakes and began to work her way back to the teammates ahead of her, posting the 30th-fastest skate split as she did so.
Though she didn’t think it was her best race, O’Connell was inspired by the skiing she saw around her on course.
“Being here is so fun, and cool to see all these really fast kids racing around you,” she said. “It’s really inspiring. It lets me know what I need to do from this point on to be able to compete at the top level in the future.”
Corey Stock (Dartmouth College) finished 40th overall in 29:56.8. She had the 49th-ranked classic split at the halfway mark and moved up nine places by posted the 23rd-fastest freestyle time.
Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University) led the Americans in the junior men’s 20 k skiathlon in 34th. With the 28th-fastest classic time and 40th-ranked freestyle split, he finished 3:06 behind the Russian leaders at the front of the pack.
“I am pretty satisfied,” Bratrud said. “I started with bib 47 so I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me getting in to it.”
By the end of the first 10 k the field had begun to string out. Bratrud said he “really laid down the hammer” in the classic portion in order to move up and he came through the first half in 28th, about one minute down to the leaders.
“The change was not nearly as bad as I thought I just tried to relax,” he said.
The 19-year-old hadn’t competed in a skiathlon since his freshman year of high school, so Friday’s race was a “rather new experience” for him.
“I think it’s definitely an interesting format,” he said. “It’s a really grueling race since you work both sets of muscles, so there was a lot of pain experienced in that race.”
Like his teammates, Bratrud noted that sunny skis and hard tracks made for a more enjoyable day of skiing than competitors have yet seen this week under Liberec’s overcast skies.
“[There were] very challenging courses so they really tested me… I was able to see my weaknesses so I’m very excited to train this summer and fix those!” he added. “Overall [I’m] pretty pleased. Feels great to wear that uniform and look down and see USA on my leg — living the dream.”
Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) was the second American to come through in 39th. Ever the competitor, Hanneman had high expectations for the skiathlon and in the first few kilometers of the race he led the field for a few laps.
“After the sprint qualifier, I thought that I definitely had a top ten in me,” he said. “The first few laps of the classic portion were great. I was right up there and feeling great.”
The wheels started to come off after the second 2.5 k lap.
“I was leading the race on the second lap of the classic portion. Then I seemed to find reverese,” Hanneman said. “It really felt like I ran into a brick wall. The muscles just began cramping and I don’t really know what happened. So from there on out, I was in survival mode, as dumb as that sounds. In the skate, I was just barely skiing.”
Hanneman came through the exchange in 23rd at 10 k and went into damage control in the second half. His skate leg was the 61st-best time in the field.
“I am not realy that excited about my result,” he concluded. “I hope the relay goes much better.”
Forrest Mahlen (Alaska Pacific University) and Tucker McCrerey (University of Utah) came in 70th and 71st, respectively, just under six minutes behind the winning time. Like Hanneman, they were not happy with the placing but looked forward to a shot at redemption in the relay.
Mahlen thought he may have suffered from mild food poisoning from dinner the night before and felt his stomach clench throughout the race.
“I don’t know if it really affected my performance other than to make the race a little more painful than usual,” he said, adding that “the race itself was super exciting; 92 of the best junior skiers in the world all trying to fit into two classic tracks on a 2.5 kilometer loop lets you know how you stack up real quick.”
McCrerey echoed the sentiment. “I love the skiathlon because it tests your form in both disciplines,” he said. “I’m really bummed that I did not have a good race because I thought I could really do some damage in this field. There will be another time in the future.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.