For some racers on last weekend’s trip to Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, the Slavic Cup races were a bit smaller than their previous competitions.
Take Sophie Caldwell, the Stratton Mountain School T2 skier who had just placed 20th in the sprint at World Championships.
Or consider her cousin Paddy, a Stratton PG who flew in from Norway where he had just competed at their junior national championships, finishing ninth in the 20 k skate.
“There were over 250 racers in the 19/20 year old men’s group!” Caldwell marveled after his trip to Lillehammer. “The fields were much smaller [in Nove Mesto] but the top guys are really fast.”
In contrast, 19-year-old Caldwell was the youngest of 66 other racers in the four-kilometer prologue on Saturday, where he finished fourth.
“Paddy Caldwell’s skate performance in the prologue was an excellent result,” SMS T2 coach Gus Kaeding told FasterSkier. “Though I didn’t recognize any of the top Czech names, some very accomplished skiers were there. They were younger (like us), but many of them had been in the top 30 at U23s and near the top 10 at World Juniors.”
Caldwell ultimately slipped back to ninth in the 15 k pursuit on Sunday, but still led the U.S. men; Eric Packer (SMS T2) and Peter Kling (APU) finished 10th and 12th in the prologue before also losing ground in the pursuit.
It was the U.S. women who truly shone, with Kate Fitzgerald sweeping both races. Most had known that podiums or wins were possible, and thought it was the perfect warmup for a European race trip.
“I wasn’t sure what countries participated in a Slavic Cup, but I had a feeling the races would be small as none of the countries around there I generally think about as nordic powerhouses, at least in terms of depth,” said Rosie Brennan, who finished fifth in the 3.3 k prologue and third in the 10 k pursuit. “I thought this would be a good way to start out because I had a feeling the Americans could be quite competitive and get on the podium. A little confidence goes a long ways racing in Europe so that was what I was looking for.”
Mission complete. Daniela Kotschova of Slovakia tied with Fitzgerald on day one, with Sophie Caldwell clocking in just 0.6 seconds behind. After that, it was all America. In the pursuit Fitzgerald and Caldwell quickly dropped Kotschova, and Brennan joined the party too.
“I really wasn’t sure what to expect as far as competition,” Kaeding said. “Generally you can get a pretty good feel for how fast people are in the days prior to the races just by watching people ski around. Given this and the overall size of the women’s field, I had a feeling our women might sweep… There were a few impressive Czech juniors but in general, it was obvious our women were the strongest racers there.”
For Fitzgerald, who said that one reason she wanted to go to Europe was to get out of her “comfort zone” of “always racing the same people,” that could have been a disappointment – but it wasn’t. For one thing, Paddy Caldwell noted that the stadium was still set up from biathlon World Championships, which had been held there a few weekends before.
“It was really cool to race on trails that I had just watched on TV,” Caldwell said.
So when Fitzgerald and the women swept the podium, they were standing on the same steps that the very best biathletes in the world had been standing on, in front of cameras and television teams and 20,000 fans.
Besides that, they just had a good time.
“The pursuit was really fun – Sophie and I started almost at the same time and Rosie made up her 10 second deficit to us like we were standing still!” she wrote in an e-mail. “After that is was pretty much the three of us skiing together.”
New venue, familiar feel: it was a good way to adjust for the skiers who were coming from the States. While Packer had been on a family ski vacation in Switzerland, the APU crew came from the U.S., as did Stratton’s Erika Flowers. Fitzgerald said that she wasn’t expecting to feel great after the travel and jet lag, especially since she had come straight from the Birkie.
She was surprised to find that the marathon effort hadn’t exhausted her too much, and she was right in the thick of it with her American friends in the three-lap pursuit.
“On the last lap I knew Sophie and Rosie would be hard to beat in a sprint so I tried hammering the hills to try to buy myself some time,” Fitzgerald explained. “Bryan and Gus did a great job on my skis and they were super fast so I knew I would have a chance in the sprint. I was leading into the finish so I got the closest lane but Sophie was coming in hot- it was so close at the lunge neither of us knew who won. I was very excited to find out it was me!”
And the competition was no less cutthroat just because the women have spent years training and racing together.
“Racing with just Americans in the end, made it feel more like racing at home and was more comfortable for all us I think, but in the end it comes down to wanting to win regardless of who the other people are and what country they are from,” Brennan wrote.
Most of the crew will now head to Italy for OPA Cup finals. They expect to face slightly stiffer competition, but the mental boost from a solid weekend in the Czech Republic will be a valuable weapon.
“The competition was good but won’t be nearly as good (or deep) as it will be in the upcoming OPA Cup races,” Kaeding told FasterSkier. “The races were good confidence boosters for some and gave others a few things to work on before the next round of racing.”
While the women are clearly on a tear, Kaeding said he thought the men would actually be the ones to jump up their results in the next series, mostly because he knows that both Packer and Kling are capable of much more than they showed in Nove Mesto.
“Neither Eric or Pete looked quite 100% all weekend,” Kaeding said. “Both had moments but overall, just looked a little tired, Ppssibly due to a training block completed the week before. When either of those guys is at 100%, they can be near or at the top of that field.
“I should also note that the conditions changed very quickly between the women’s and men’s classic races,” he continued. “The men’s skis were fine during their testing but appeared a little slick during the race. That blame falls to me as I was heading up the kick effort.”
Brennan will not be making the trip to Italy, instead making use of the World Cup start rights she earned by being the SuperTour leader. But wherever they’re going and whatever level they’re racing at, Brennan said these results were an indication that U.S. women are ready to win.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the women in the U.S. have built some depth and there are a lot of us not only becoming motivated and inspired by the success at the top, but also a number of us knocking on the door so I suspect the results from the girls will continue hold strong,” she wrote. “
More on Norwegian Juniors
Paddy Caldwell had a frustrating U.S. Nationals this January and missed qualifying for the World Juniors team. After that, he did some searching to find a suitable focus for his season. Having had some strong international races in the past, getting to Europe was definitely a priority. Luckily, Pete Phillips of Burke was already putting together a trip to Norwegian junior nationals.
“After missing the World Junior qualification I took some time to figure out what other races were available for me to compete in for the rest of the season,” Caldwell said. “I really wanted to get over to Europe and this trip seemed like a perfect way to face a similar field of strong juniors… The Norwegian nationals races were a big focus of my season. I really wanted to see how I would stack up with some international racers and get a chance to ski with some Europeans.”
And that he did. The fields at the races were huge, and fast, including not only top junior skiers but also some biathletes (World Junior champion Johannes Thingnes Bø anchored the winning relay).
“I skied most of the race by myself but got to chase a world junior racer for the last kilometer of the race,” Caldwell said. “It was really cool to see so many people out there racing. These guys really aren’t doing anything differently, the fields are just much deeper. We ended up 18th overall in the relay, which we were all really happy with. 150 teams started for the guys.”
Phillips arranged the trip to be also an exchange, and confirmed that six Norwegian J1’s will be coming to U.S. junior nationals to compete as guests. The exchange, Caldwell said, was as valuable as the racing.
“We also had the unique opportunity to train with a Norwegian club team everyday,” he explained. “I was most impressed by their speed work. We got to do a bunch of starts with the team throughout the week and they were very high-intensity, competitive workouts… Overall one of the best trips I have ever been on. It was a great learning experience and an awesome group.”
Moving from that trip to the OPA Cup – Caldwell is now with the rest of the team in Madonna di Campiglio – didn’t pose a problem, and he thinks it will help him develop even further as an international racer.
“This trip has been a great opportunity to learn from some of the older athletes and see how they adapt to travel in Europe,” he said.
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.