NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – On the one hand, today’s World Championship sprint didn’t go so well for the U.S. Both Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey – likely the team’s best hopes for medals – were frustrated to have missed some targets, and ended up 28th and 32nd.
But on the other hand, all four team members qualified for Sunday’s 60-man pursuit, which has to be considered a success. That’s twice as many as made the cut at the last Championships in Ruhpolding, and only a handful of times has the whole team qualified.
So while Bailey was deeply disappointed and Burke called it “a rough day,” they were ready to try again in the pursuit. One of the team’s younger members, 44th-place Russell Currier, was a bit happier with his performance.
“It was a decent race – my seasonal best, nothing too impressive,” Currier told FasterSkier after finishing with two penalties. “I almost made it into the points, so that was good progress. Training has been going well the last two weeks – I had really high hopes and I wanted a shot at redemption for what hasn’t been a stellar season so far.”
Except for Burke, who drew bib seven, the men were also left frustrated by course conditions, which devolved into deep, sugary snow as more and more skiers glided past over the course of the day. Bailey was particularly disappointed to have to start in the second seed; in World Cup racing, top-ranked racers can all start near the front, but at World Championships each country receives one entry in each of the four seed groups.
Bailey knew that he’d be in the second seed, but was hoping that he’d be lucky enough to draw a bib near the front of it. Instead, he started 78th – not the best case scenario he had imagined.
With bib 113 out of 136, Currier was stuck with some of the worst conditions. As such, he said, it wasn’t easy to gauge how well he had skied.
“I felt a lot better than I have, but it’s hard to say because I think the conditions really slowed down towards the end of the field,” Currier said. “But we had money skis today, we really had a good grind, and so that for sure helped. Given the amount of resources, we have a very put-together wax team.”
The team also seemed to have great skis in Thursday’s mixed relay, which bodes well going into the pursuit. Burke and Bailey will start just under a minute out of the top ten, with the others a little further back.
For Burke, who skipped the mixed relay because he was sick, today was a test, and something he thinks he can improve on with more starts.
“I did a lot of hard training [over the break], of course, but nothing is quite the same as racing, so this will really help me get into form,” he told FasterSkier. “It was okay on the skis and so it will get better. I’m feeling as healthy as I felt all year. I expect to do better and better in these races.”
He would have liked to have worked the kinks out in the mixed relay, but it wasn’t to be – he needed a few more days to gather his strength for the taxing, ten-day World Championships schedule.
“I wanted to start for sure, but I’ve had a kind of hard few weeks and it’s been really tough for me to stay healthy, so I wanted to really pace myself and pick my fights,” Burke said.
The last U.S. qualifier, Leif Nordgren, will start with bib 53.
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Luckily for the women, the course seemed to stabilize for the second race of the day – or at least stop getting worse.
“What I heard was that for the guys it was sort of unfair, because it was nice and hard for the very first people and then not as nice,” Hannah Dreissigacker, one of the last starters of the whole field, told FasterSkier. “But it was the same when I raced it as when I was warming up, so I think once it got chewed up a little it was mostly the same. I think it was pretty fair. As soon as a few people go over it, it’s sugary.”
If the men had just a few misses too many, the women were even more frustrated on the range. Annelies Cook led the way in 45th place with two penalties, but was left wondering what might have been as she felt like she didn’t have much of an excuse for her missed shots.
“I missed one standing that was an accident, when I pulled the trigger when I didn’t mean to,” a deflated Cook told FasterSkier at the finish line. “So that’s a bummer. I mean, that’s a penalty loop, and then I got distracted by it and missed one after that. It’s just a bummer because I had a really good prone and I felt like I was in control, but, it was a good effort, and I think I had a smart race, so I was really happy about that.”
After a stellar mixed relay leg on Thursday, Susan Dunklee also succumbed to errors on the range, racking up four penalty loops and finishing 49th. Sara Studebaker had two missed shots and just missed the pursuit in 65th place, while Dreissigacker, in the first World Championships race of her career, had a good thing going after a clean prone – but then missed three targets in standing and ended up 71st.
For Dunklee, the penalties were something of a mystery.
“The targets didn’t want to go down today,” Dunklee said. “I’m not sure what I was doing different from the other day, but the other day it felt easy, I didn’t have to do anything and it all felt routine. Today it just didn’t work…. My standing started so well, I hit my first three shots, and then I just don’t know – I lost my focus on the last two, or something.”
She said that she had expected a lot of herself after seeing what was possible in the relay, but that it hadn’t actually stressed her out too much – and maybe that was the problem.
“I felt so relaxed before the race – almost more relaxed than I ever do before a race,” she explained. “I have been feeling so good lately, and I had a good race already so it was less pressure, but maybe I was too relaxed.”
She shouldn’t change too much though: her ski time was the 14th-fastest of the day, clearly a good sign for the pursuit.
For Dreissigacker and Cook, the Nove Mesto experience has been about trying to manage the pressure and expectations. For Cook, who is in her third World Championships, it’s not the crowds so much as the fact that she’s having a breakthrough season, which creates a bit more expectation. She doesn’t want that to get to her head.
“It’s been such a big change for me this year, so every race it’s pretty exciting to see where I am, and I just try not to get too worked up, because for me it has to be just another race,” she told FasterSkier. “I feel like I’ve done a good job with that. But I did get nervous today – I started watching the guys’ race and I got butterflies. I’m glad to be done with today.”
For Dreissigacker, it’s also about expectations – in her first year as a full-time biathlete, she’s unsurprisingly doing better than ever before – but also the atmosphere, where well over 20,000 fans shout and scream as racers pass by on the trails or shoot in the stadium. Before these Championships, Dreissigacker had raced just a single weekend of World Cups, so it’s all new. She thought that had something to do with her three misses in standing.
“Honestly, I felt good in standing,” she said. “And then suddenly I had missed three, and I was like, shoot. I had better hit the last one, at least! I don’t really know. It was one of those things where a couple of them, I was sure they were hits. But then they weren’t. Maybe when you have all that adrenaline going, I just jerk the trigger more than I think or something.”
Before the start of today’s race, she had tried to plan for how to deal with the adrenaline. She thought she was somewhat successful.
“I was definitely worried about pacing, because when you have all that adrenaline it is easy for the first lap to not feel hard, but still be too hard,” she said. “So I tried to go the first lap at level three, threshold, and maybe it will actually be level four. And I thought I had, but then the next laps were really hard anyway. But I think that’s just how it’s going to be.”
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.