It was a second day of excellent racing for up-and-comer Sadie Bjornsen at the Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland. She placed seventh overall in the 5K classic sprint, 29 seconds behind World Cup Leader Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.
While Bjornsen is healthy and feeling, said she didn’t not expect to finish where she did.
“5K classic is certainly my favorite race and Kuusamo has always been a little bit challenging” Bjornsen said. “I raced here 2 years ago and I really struggled on these super steep hills.”
Bjornsen has suffered from chronic injury for the last two seasons. But this year, she says she’s finally starting to feel like she’s in race form.
“The fall has been the first time I’ve been able to do bounding and running in nearly two years, so I think that’s definitely helped with my classic skiing,” she said. “I came into the season with my legs a little bit more fit than usual and last weekend was a good test race and so that definitely helped my confidence.” She called her race result “a nice little treat” for the opening weekend of the World Cup season.
Behind her, was defending World Champion and teammate Kikkan Randall who finished the race in 15th place.
Bjornsen said Randall is a constant reminder of what it means to be patient. “Every girl on our team is just done so many incredible results in the past two years and so it’s really nice to join alongside them and feel like I’m making these jumps in performance, and I too can race at a high level. Kikkan has so much experience.”
Bjornsen says Randall’s silver medal finish on Friday shows just how far experience can take an athlete. “I had a great qualifier, but I don’t have enough experience yet to do so well in heats and it’s just amazing to watch her and be like ‘ok. that’s where I want to go.’ It’s just like every race is one more experience. It’s hard to feel like I’m not a beginner here,” Bjornsen said of the World Cup. “Every race I’m like ‘Woah, I gained so much experience just from that race.’ I’m sure that’s how everybody on the World Cup feels but it’s exciting to get to come over and spend a whole season – this winter will be the first full season that I will spend over here.”
But Bjornsen’s strong finish in the 5K may prove she’s no rookie when it comes to strategy. “I got a split at 3K and I think I was maybe 10th at that point and I was at the front of all the fast people,” she said. “So, I was like ‘Oh no, there’s a lot of people coming. Hide!’ “ Bjornsen said that’s when she decided to turn up the heat. “It would have been easy to take a rest on this flat part where you actually had to keep hammering, so that split was awesome to have then,” said Bjornsen. Then I came through with 1K to go and Jesse [Diggins] was standing there like ‘Oh my God! You’re in 6th place, this is incredible!’ so I was like ok, if Jesse is freaking out, this must be a good race.’ “ she said.
“But I didn’t know it would still stand with everyone behind me. So, at the beginning I was in my own race and at the end I was racing for what I knew was around me.”
But USST Head Coach Chris Grover didn’t seem to surprised by the result. “She just skiing with great energy and she’s really benefitting from being healthy and being able to train more normally this year,” he said. “This has really allowed her to really demonstrate what her fitness is. It’s really exciting to see her kind of starting to realize her potential.”
Grover said he was very pleased with how Bjornsen paced the race. “It’s key to pace this course pretty well, just because it’s got such big hills at the end of it, in the second half of it, that if you’ve gone out a little too hard you can really lose a lot of time,” he said. “So, she just paced it really well. She was in the mix from the get-go and right around those women she was skiing with last week in Norway,” Grover said.
Other American women struggled Saturday. Holly Brooks was frustrated after a lack-luster performance. “I was one of the earlier starters and I did have some decent splits,” she said. “[But] I came down where there’s a pretty technical corner on the course and I skied it really well and I was coming out of it and coming out a of a little bit of a step turn and I don’t know, my ski just caught on the powder or something, but I took my fall quota for the year,” she laughed.
Brooks made light of her spill, saying it’s good to get it out of the way early in the race season. “Exactly!” she joked. “It was like slow motion but happened really fast and I think as I was falling, I was yelling ‘No!’
She placed 53rd overall in the race, and wasn’t the only American skier to take a spill. According to USST Head Coach Chris Grover, Diggins also fell, placing 40th overall. While Sadie Bjornsen is feeling confident in her fitness level, Holly Brooks says she still has plenty of work to do. “This year, I feel like it’s taking me a little bit longer to ski into race fitness,” Books explained. “Which is a little frustrating in that this is the year that I plan on racing fewer times, so part of me feels like I don’t have as long. I can’t afford to take too long to get into race fitness because I’m only over here for three World Cup weekends and then I’m planning on going home [to Alaska] for a little bit of a training camp, so I’m hoping to get up to speed here starting tomorrow.”
With a third day of racing still ahead, Grover says he’s positive the American women will continue to climb in the standings.
“The 10K skate is traditionally one of the strongest races for our women’s team,” Grover told FasterSkier. “So, I think you’ll see a lot of our women really moving up through that field. I think it’s exciting. We’re gonna finish on a high note,” he said.
Grover predicts a big move from Liz Stephen. “Liz is going to be coming from pretty far back,” he said, “but she’s gonna have a lot of people to move through for sure. I expect to see her really move up.” Grover had predictions for other women as well. “I think Kikkan could have a huge race tomorrow, so I think the majority of our women are going to be climbing the results,” Grover said.
He also has high hopes for Diggins and Brooks.
Brooks said she was looking forward to “forming a USA train on the 10K freestyle course Sunday. “It’s a pretty crazy course. You know, four loops of 2.5k and it’s kind of like a yo-yo, you go up and down, you go up, you come down and it’s gonna be really busy out there,” she said. “I think there are gone be some really good trains of people and I know Diggs is starting just ahead of me and Liz is a little bit behind me and we’re all good skaters.”
Bjornsen is also looking forward to it. “Holly was telling me Kikkan and I start 7th and 8th with only 3 seconds apart, so you know, distance skating has been one of my weaker areas,” she admitted. “But I’ve been working on that a lot this summer and fall and I’m looking forward to trying to see if I can make improvements there too. I don’t have expectations. I just want to do better. It’s going to be fun and also intimidating starting up there, but it will be fun. I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.
— Topher Sabot contributed reporting
Emily Schwing is a public radio reporter in Interior, AK. She normally writes about athletes of the four-legged kind. When she's not chasing dog teams, skiers and local news, she's breaking trail on her rock skis with a dog name Ghost. Follow her on Twitter @emilyschwing