Kikkan Randall may have been the winner on the day, but she wasn’t the only American skier relieved to be back in the top ten in Val Mustair, Switzerland, after a tough, slushy pursuit race in Oberhof.
“My legs felt a little tired, but other than that it was a good day,” Andy Newell told FasterSkier after placing ninth in the 1.4 k freestyle sprint.
It was a big rebound from a disastrous day in Oberhof, where Newell lost about four minutes to the leaders. On Tuesday, the sprint turned things around enough that he said he had decided to continue in the Tour – which he hadn’t been planning on doing. He will contest Thursday’s 35 k pursuit and treat it as a training race.
“I’m continuing on, traveling tomorrow with the rest of the team,” Newell said. “I’m definitely going to push pretty hard, but not go crazy. My next big focus is classic 5 k on Friday, what I’m looking towards my next big race. Next two. Then I’ll be done [on the Tour] for sure.”
Teammate Kris Freeman was left on the outside looking in, just under two seconds out of the heats in 41st, while Noah Hoffman placed 70th. Those men were doubtless looking for more, but as the only sprinter in the group, it wasn’t surprising that the day belonged to Newell, who moved into fourth place in the World Cup sprint standings thanks to his finish.
“That’s always a season-long goal, is to be in the top three by the end of the season,” Newell said. “And of course win, but we definitely have some steep competition with those guys.”
Making the semifinals took some work. Qualifying in eighth, Newell clearly had the speed, but his quarterfinal heat was a bit of a learning experience regarding what it would take to make it to the final – he made it through to the semis as a lucky loser despite finishing fourth in his heat.
“I tried to go out fast in my first heat, put a move on the hill a little bit but I ended up slipping on some ice,” he said. “I don’t think they showed it on TV. I didn’t come close to falling or anything, but it killed my speed around the corner so that’s kind of why everyone came up on me so fast. I was still lucky enough to get a fast-enough time, I guess.”
Newell nonetheless tried to lead his semifinal start to finish, but tired at the end and couldn’t hang on.
“I led the majority of it and tried to put a gap on them, but a few people came on me in the finish,” he said. “We were the fastest heat so we had two lucky losers to move on.”
Team Success for U.S. Women
For the women, both Jessie Diggins and Holly Brooks also placed fourth in their quarterfinals, but weren’t as lucky as Newell and did not move on. But their 17th– and 18th-place finishes were still notable. Diggins has only placed better in a sprint once before, when she was sixth in Moscow last season, and this was the best ever by Brooks.
Teammate Liz Stephen has long had the goal of qualifying for sprint heats on the World Cup, and her wish came true on Tuesday – not only did she qualify, but she placed fifth in her quarterfinal for 25th overall.
“Today was an incredibly fun experience for me,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have never made the heats and to be able to ski World Cup heats was so much fun I can’t even believe it. I still have a lot to learn, but today was step one of that process and I have a few of the best sprinters around to learn from, so I’m pretty lucky. Learning how to pass and make moves around people is a big one for me as well as getting out of the gate quicker.”
In a bit of a tough break, Randall, Brooks, and Stephen all ended up in the same quarterfinal heat. But the women tried to look at it positively.
“We were actually really happy to hear that we were in the same quarter as Kikkan,” Brooks explained. “Her quarterfinals are generally pretty quick so we thought our chances of being ‘Lucky Loser’ were good.”
In the end, Brooks just lost out on a photo finish for third, but neither she nor Vesna Fabjan of Slovenia, who just edged her, made the cut. Laurien Van Der Graaf of Switzerland placed second, and advanced to the semis.
“I should have pushed harder at the beginning of the quarter seeing that Laurien is very good for short bursts/sprints,” Brooks wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “I also had a little stumble in the sprint which allowed Vesna Fabian to out-toe me at the line. I was bummed about that, but 18th place is my best sprint to date so I have to be happy! Sometimes progress comes in small steps and it pays to be patient. I’m just trying to learn from every opportunity and that’s one of my favorite things about the Tour.”
Diggins was left wanting more after qualifying sixth, but said that she didn’t play her tactics perfectly in the quarterfinal.
“The two Germans blocked on the gradual climb where I wanted to make my move and then when they hit the gas on the final climb I wasn’t ready to go and missed my chance,” she wrote in an e-mail. “But having a good qualifier definitely helped me get my confidence back.”
Having teammates with her in the quarterfinal was an added bonus for Randall, who wished she could have pulled them into the semifinal with her.
“It was really fun, we did a big group hug before we started the quarterfinal with three of us in there,” she told FasterSkier. “It was the first time we could actually think about skiing as a team. We unfortunately didn’t get the chance to really do that, but it was really cool to see us so strong across the board today. Our staff had everything dialed. The skis were great today which I think was really important. And yeah, its super fun to be on a team where everyone’s skiing well!”
Val Mustair – and Distance Sprints
The Americans reported that Val Mustair, which was hosting its first World Cup, was plenty of fun.
“I LOVED it,” Brooks reported. “I wish that we could finish up the Tour here. They have beautiful skiing in all directions – apparently 100k of tracks. The Swiss went all out with everything, from the ‘globe lights’ to brighten the course to the huge snow-sculpture stienbock in the middle of the track, to the food in the VIP & athlete rooms. We had cold snow, sunshine, good food. I haven’t heard a single complaint!”
“I thought Val Mustair did an amazing job making it a cool venue for spectators,” she wrote. “Racing at night was really awesome and they had a great crowd of fans show up to watch. Everything was so organized and well thought out, it was one of those venues that was a joy to be an athlete at.”
The one bummer? Watching Dario Cologna, for whom this should have been home turf, fall on his namesake “Cologna Corner.”
“It almost looked like he (ironically) got tripped up by a Swiss flag but I’m not sure,” Brooks wrote.
For Newell, the venue was “sweet,” but what he noticed more was how unusual the sprint heats were. To him – and Newell has seen about as many sprint heats as anyone else on the U.S. team – it didn’t even look like a sprint.
“For the girls it almost looked like a distance race out there for the women’s final,” he said. “People were just slugging up the hill on their last time thru… the finishes weren’t as close as you thought they would be. So I think you could see, not only were people tired from the Tour, but we’re at high altitude and it was a pretty tough course. So it was an interesting sprint for sure.”
For Brooks, all those things were pluses.
“If every sprint could be long, hard & at altitude I would be totally pumped!” she wrote.
While Newell noted that racers were “struggling” and the Tour was definitely taking its toll, Brooks said that she felt pretty good and was optimistic about the rest of the races.
Despite all of the strong performances by Newell, Stephen, Diggins, and Brooks, one American loomed over the whole day.
“Congrats to Kikkan on her amazing performance today,” Stephen wrote. “She really is one hell of an athlete.”
-Audrey Mangan contributed/did all of the reporting.
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.