If there was somehow any question about the depth of the US women’s team, Sadie Bjornsen and Ida Sarget answered any critics with a blistering classic team sprint performance on Sunday in Sochi, Russia. The duo brought the U.S. to an impressive fifth place finish, just three seconds out of a spot on the podium, an improvement on a seventh place performance in Liberec, Czech Republic.
Early on in the semifinals round qualifying for the final looked unlikely, never mind a fifth place showing. Conditions in Sochi on Friday were tough, with temperatures hovering around freezing and the track glazed over by sunlight.
At the start of the first leg of the semifinal, both Sargent and Bjornsen found themselves detached, in part because of tough waxing conditions. “People were switching between hairies and waxable skis,” Bjornsen said.
“The semifinal I didn’t have any kick for the first two legs,” Sargent added. “I was just running up the hills out of the track. We were off the back, struggling for kick. They dialed in the skis for the third leg, and I was able to catch back up to the front pack.”
The work of the wax technicians proved crucial; with only two and a half minutes between rounds, they swiftly adjusted the skis to give Sargent and Bjornsen the purchase they needed to stay competitive in the rounds.
Fatigue also played a role, which accumulated for both racers after three tough race days in a row on Sochi’s demanding courses.
“We were off the pack after the first leg,” Bjornsen said. “I had a moment of feeling really tired. We clawed our way back in. The last leg I had amazing skis.”
Despite stuttering in the first few laps, the ladies found their strength and Bjornsen was able to take the semifinal victory, throwing down a move on the final uphill and leveraging that advantage down the final chicane into the stadium.
“I had this feeling and went for it,” Bjornsen said. “I ended up dropping the girls on the top of the hill and we won our heat. It gave us confidence.”
Safely qualified, they didn’t have much time to gather themselves for the final, which promised to be a challenge mentally and physically. Meanwhile, conditions continued to deteriorate in the warming snow.
“In the final leg we went out in a pack with three girls in front of me,” Bjornsen said. “It was crazy conditions out there with the weather. On the top of the final climb I was really struggling with skis and I had no more arms left. I was hanging on for dear life!”
In contrast, Sargent felt she had good skis and willing limbs, which allowed her to position Bjornsen for a strong anchor.
“In the final I was trying to move as far up as possible,” Sargent said. “I felt really good in the uphill.”
The narrow design of Sochi’s tracks made passing difficult; it was tactically advantageous to ski from the front rather than slotting in behind.
“I struggled to get by some people because the track was narrow and hard to pass,” Sargent said. “I felt like I couldn’t ski like I wanted to, but we stayed in contention.”
The technical nature of Sochi’s course created some tricky moments. Bjornsen narrowly avoided an awkward piece of track craft from a Swiss competitor in the final downhill.
“Everyone was taking it wide the whole time,” Bjornsen said. “She took it down the middle — I didn’t know what she was thinking. And sure enough, she fell, and it was right on the tips of my skis and she clipped one of them.”
Bjornsen kept her feet and and stayed in contention. Such moments are part and parcel of sprint racing, which is inherently volatile. For the most part, Bjornsen and Sargent felt they executed well, which was no small task in an exchange zone complicated with classic tracks.
“They laid tracks through the exchange zone. It complicated it and made a whole new aspect to the race,” Bjornsen said.
In the end, they minimized the pitfalls of a tricky course and accumulating fatigue to finish an impressive fifth in a time of 17:16.11, just 2 seconds behind Norway I and 3 seconds off the podium.
The result underlines the growing depth of the American sprinters, whom are still capable of delivering good results without star sprinter Kikkan Randall.
“We’re working our way up,” Bjornsen emphasized. “We were really close to the podium — seconds. And it’s not that far off.”
What’s more, the result concludes a weekend of strong performances all around for the women’s team on the Olympic course, which gives them confidence going forward.
“It’s really encouraging as a team,” Bjornsen said. “It’s fun to leave Sochi on a good note, where everyone had a successful race or three successful races.”
Perhaps most importantly they have a taste for the Olympic track, universally described as challenging and technical, which is a huge asset for success in the upcoming Olympic year.
“I really liked the course — it’s fast but hard, with technical corners, especially the downhill corner going into the stadium,” Sargent said.
For the present, Sargent and Bjornsen leave Sochi on a high note and a few weeks of restitution before the Davos World Cup and the final run into World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“It was fun skiing with Sadie,” Sargent said. “It’s good to be feeling good and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks.”
“It’s nice for the whole team to leave on a such a good note,” Bjornsen concluded.
Racing continues in two weeks time in Davos, Switzerland.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.