FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — A look around the 2013 World Championships stadium on Wednesday during afternoon training was enough to tell you that the athletes competing in the six events over the next few weeks are a focused group. There’s Emil Jönsson talking to a Team Sweden wax tech. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) is skiing laps around the stadium, testing skis and hardly stopping to talk to anyone.
These athletes see each other all winter long and go through the same pre-race routines, but even the casual observer can tell the races in Val di Fiemme are a big deal. Hundreds of photographers, camera crewmen and journalists mill about, seeking shots and interviews. The service crew presence might exceed the number of athletes. At each moment, everyone is aware that six new male and female world champions will be named when it’s all said and done.
It’s the kind of hype that only comes to the circuit once in a while; the kind that used to set the U.S. Ski Team on edge. But though there may be more expectations surrounding the Americans than ever, the coaches and athletes were relaxed and calm the day before the classic sprint. Unlike years past, in 2013 the team’s approach is to stick to the routine that’s worked for them all year. Doing what they know has so far brought a sense of calm before the storm.
“Our goals are to keep things as similar to normal World Cup racing as possible, and thus far we’ve done a really good job this week,” said USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb after team training on Wednesday afternoon.
“Tomorrow will tell the true tale, but I think these guys — Kikkan’s approaching her 100th World Cup start, and a lot of these other girls are no longer rookies — there’s definitely an experienced vibe at the hotel now. I think it’s going to be a day just like the rest of them.”
As he spoke, his athletes returned from a set of speeds up the first climb out of the stadium. Among them is Randall, who is the World Cup sprint leader and will most certainly be a big contender on Thursday. But on the eve of the classic sprint she felt little expectation relative to the hype she experienced before the freestyle sprint two years ago in Oslo, Norway, where she placed 26th.
“In Oslo with the skate sprint I was under quite a bit of pressure,” Randall said. “It was a good pressure and I was excited to have it, but I guess coming here — obviously I want to perform well tomorrow — but there’s not really big expectations on it. I’m feeling excited to race and see what’s in the tank.”
Randall has won two freestyle sprints this year in her rise to the top of the ranking list. Classic sprinting, however, is her weaker discipline — her eighth in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend, was her top result — and she is accordingly less intent on producing a certain performance on Wednesday.
“I mean, I don’t really feel like I have to get a certain result,” Randall said. “It’s been a really good season so far and I think I could ski really well at these championships, but we’ll see how it goes.”
For Andy Newell, nerves were also calmed by the fact that sprint racing is always unpredictable no matter the size of the stage. He’s coming off a fourth-place finish in Davos is now the second-ranked sprinter in the world, but with so many variables that affect the outcome of a sprint he figures there’s no reason to stress at World Championships more than any other World Cup.
“It’s a little bit more hype, obviously, than a normal World Cup, but for us sprint racing is different every day,” Newell said. “The conditions are different every day so you have to go in with an open mind and adapt to the changing conditions and tactics. We’re used to that, that’s the way sprint racing is. You have to think on your toes.”
A few younger Americans are newer to the championship scene; out of seven women and six men on the team Sophie Caldwell and Erik Bjornsen are the only two rookies. They felt some amount of nerves before their first race, but it was accompanied by an excitement to go full throttle after weeks of tapering.
“I feel great,” Bjornsen said. “It felt great today to ski the course near race pace; I got to the last 200 meters and had quite a bit left, so I’m looking forward to going out hard tomorrow and giving it everything I’ve got.”
Caldwell, who began her World Cup career last December in Quebec, and was seconds away from reaching the heats in Davos, is confident in her growing ability to perform under pressure.
“I haven’t had too much trouble skiing under pressure; hopefully that’ll be the same tomorrow,” she said. “[World Cup racing] is easier each weekend but it is just very different skiing. Everyone’s more aggressive. You’re not best friends with every single person you’re racing against, which definitely takes some getting used to, but I feel like each weekend I’m a little more comfortable and learning things and figuring them out slowly.”
Returning championship skiers felt the excitement, too, along with a dose of confidence from Davos. Holly Brooks, in particular, got confirmation in the Davos 10 k on Sunday that her long-absent distance form had returned. It took some aggressive resting on her part, but with a 20th place on a tough course she knows she’s ready for Val di Fiemme.
“I can go into the Championships with some confidence that I can access good energy and that my resting the past couple of weeks has paid off,” she said.
Of course everyone, to some degree, has been resting up the past few weeks in order to peak at the right time, causing some athletes to start feeling antsy going into the first event.
“When you’re peaking you almost have anxiety because you’re so excited to go out and race, so I think it’ll be really fun tomorrow,” said Sadie Bjornsen. “We all race the same people all year long and then all of a sudden it becomes a championship, so it almost feels the same but then there’s all the hype around it. There’s more excitement, there’s more focus, so there’s almost more wondering what’s going to happen, you know?”
One thing’s for certain: the Americans are a far cry from where they were when World Championships was last in Val di Fiemme in 2003. They sometimes forget that, but Randall was there as a 20-year-old and remembers it clearly.
“Ten years ago I was just getting my feet wet on the international scene and was getting my socks blown off pretty much,” she said. “I was 30-something in the sprint and 50-something in the distance race and not even feeling remotely close to the leaders… So it’s pretty cool to be here now and realize we’ve made that leap. We’re competitive, and not only one or two of us, but the whole team is really coming in excited to perform well.”
All that adds up to am American team actually enjoying itself in Val di Fiemme.
“It’s fun,” Whitcomb said. “This may be the first championship where we truly have a good time.”
The team lineup for the entire world championships is not completely set in stone. Head Coach Chris Grover wants to see how everyone’s feeling after the first two races before making decisions on the remaining four events, particularly for the team sprint and relays.
Up to four Americans in each gender will start the classic sprint on Thursday and the skiathlon on Friday. Though rosters for each race will be set as the championships progress, Randall, for example, only plans to sit out the skiathlon. “Then it’s every other day through the end,” she said. “I’m hoping to feel strong and do everything.”
1.2/1.5 k Classic Sprint, Feb. 21
Men: Andy Newell, Simi Hamilton, Erik Bjornsen (full start list)
Women: Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell (full start list)
15/30 k Skiathlon, Feb. 22
Men: Noah Hoffman, Kris Freeman, Tad Elliott, Erik Bjornsen
Women: Liz Stephen, Holly Brooks, “probably” Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen (“It depends on how they’re feeling after sprint,” Grover said.)
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
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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.