A year ago, the U.S. Nordic Ski Team was in Finland, tearing it up. Liz Stephen led some solid women’s results with a runner-up finish in the 10-kilometer freestyle race in Muonio – placing second to Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk – one week before the World Cup began in Gällivare, Sweden.
In that same race on Nov. 18, 2012, Holly Brooks finished seventh, Jessie Diggins took ninth, and Ida Sargent notched sixth in the classic sprint two days earlier in Muonio.
Meanwhile, Sadie Bjornsen was stateside, taking time to heal tendonitis in her foot and starting her season in West Yellowstone, Mont.
Back then, Bjornsen said her yearlong focus was “racing myself back into shape.” A day after her 24th birthday, the Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier jolted herself into the top 5 on Friday in Beitostølen, Norway, placing fifth in the 10 k classic FIS race. Along with six other women and three men on the U.S. Ski Team (USST), it was her first race of the season.
“For the first time in a couple years I have had good training through the off season, and I have gone into a season feeling like I have some fitness,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I am excited to have a full season of practice at getting better, and skiing consistently this winter! I am stoked I have the first one done, and I am stoked to keep going!”
Bjornsen started 45th out of 53 women. Halfway through, she ranked 13th, and two kilometers later, she was in seventh. Racing the clock and presumably fast women behind her, she was unsure where she’d end up, but pleased with the result – finishing 1:32.8 minutes behind Norway’s Therese Johaug, who won by almost 55 seconds in 26:40.6.
“I went out there racing for my own self, remembering to ski strong, and do my best – the same way I go into every race,” Bjornsen wrote. “Every so often you have a little surprise and it is very fun!”
Along with teammate Kikkan Randall, Bjornsen was the only other non-Norwegian in the top 10. Randall missed the USST’s first races in Muonio last year was also healing a foot injury. On Friday, she started last and skied to 10th, 1:54.7 behind Johaug.
“It was a solid start for me,” Randall wrote in an email. “I didn’t feel totally turned on and ready in the first half, my body felt stuck in a middle gear.”
Randall received a few splits on the course, but after a slow start, she didn’t think they meant much. She felt herself speed up on the second lap, which she took as “a good sign.”
“I got out of today exactly what I wanted,” Randall wrote. “I went hard, played with some different technique cues and got to see the status of the body. I think I’m still holding on to a little fatigue from the training season and the travel over here, and I was glad that I was able to put down a solid hard effort today.”
As for Bjornsen’s secret to success on Day 1, she said it probably had to do with her birthday festivities.
“My teammates were incredible – hiding 24 presents throughout the day, and 24 really meaningful cards!” Bjornsen wrote. “It is days like this that remind me how much I love what I do, and the people I do it with. A happy person with fast skis … fun things can happen.”
About 10 seconds outside the top 10, Diggins placed 13th (+2:04.6) after starting 41st.
“It felt really great to get a bib on again, jump around and dance in the starting gate, and go hard (the endorphin rush afterwards wasn’t bad, either)!” Diggins wrote in an email. “I was psyched to get the first one out of the way because that’s sometimes the most nerve-wracking one … you never know how you’re going to feel until you do it.”
Starting immediately ahead of Vibeke Skofterud (who ended up sixth) and right behind another Norwegian, Heidi Weng (who placed third), Diggins made a point to imagine she was racing head to head.
“I could feel [Vibeke] behind me catching me, and so I pretended that this was a team relay and I couldn’t let her catch me before I got to the tag zone (finish line),” she explained. “I just barely held out but the strategy worked!”
Looking up her results later in the day, Diggins wrote that she was happy with it and pleased with her improvements in classic skiing – something she’s been working on all summer.
“I think it’s really important to keep in mind that these early season races, while everyone wants to do well, are not as important as the mid-season races (Olympics!)” she wrote. “It’s ok to work into the season. I think these are a great chance to get back in the groove, identify some things to work on for the year and remember what it’s like to race, while not taking results too seriously.”
The biggest takeaway from Friday was Bjornsen’s performance, she explained.
“I am so proud of her – she has worked through some tough injuries over the years and I can’t think of a more fun way for her season to start,” Diggins wrote. “She really gave me something to jump around about, seeing her race so well today!”
Among other highlights, Brooks placed 19th (+2:21.3), and three other U.S. women cracked the top 30 (Stephen in 25th, Sophie Caldwell in 27th and Ida Sargent in 29th).
“I wanted to work on pacing the race and I skied a strong and smooth first 5 k,” Brooks wrote in an email. Her 5 k time ranked 16th, and she was down to 14th with three kilometers to go.
“I typically start too fast in races like this and I’m working on turning in more consistent results. Ideally I’d be able to go out fast and keep it fast,” she added. “There were certainly moments where I felt ‘like a World Cup skier’ and times when I did not. But, overall it was a solid start for me and I’m hoping to improve my race fitness from here.”
Brooks will race Saturday’s 10 k freestyle race as well.
“I always approach the first races with mixed excitement and anticipation,” she said of the FIS openers. “Everyone’s asking each other how their ‘Training Season’ was and everyone is positive about their preparation. However, in every race there can only be one ‘winner’ and results actually quantify where everyone stands.”
Satisfied with her effort, Stephen said she focused on technique and pacing.
“There is still a lot of work to do with classic, but I am happy with the effort I gave today,” Stephen wrote in an email. “It’s a long season and this is just the start. The highlight of the day was certainly hearing Sadie’s name being called up to the awards ceremony with a 5th place! I am so happy and proud of her, as she has had such a tough go with injuries the last few years and it has not been an easy ride for her the last couple of years. She works really hard, always believes in herself and has such a positive happy vibe that she brings to the team atmosphere that it is impossible not to feel over the moon for her on a day like today.”
As for other highlights: “It has been fun to see all of our European friends again!” Stephen wrote. “It is exciting to start a new season and to be on the road with everyone again, for sure, but I use that excitement to get me fired up and ready to race.”
In her first official race with the USST, Caldwell explained she wasn’t very nervous, although she wasn’t sure why.
“I didn’t really have any expectations going into the day, I wanted to focus on skiing with good technique, pacing, and dialing in my skis,” she wrote. “We’ve been having a really fun time over here and I was just happy to be racing again.”
She might have taken it out too fast, she recalled.
“My first lap was great, and I got a little tired on my second lap,” Caldwell wrote. “I had a lot of very fast Norwegians starting right behind me, so when I started fading it seemed like they all just came zooming by me. … I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself and mostly wanted to go out there and race my best and also watch all the other fast girls that are here to learn a thing or two.
“I think we were all excited to have a strong result as a group, but we’re definitely all mostly very proud of Sadie and how she did today. So awesome!” Caldwell wrote.
Like her teammates, Sargent was also thrilled to “put a bib on” and get the season started.
“I had a mix of nerves and excitement over the last couple days but felt a lot more relaxed this morning and was enjoying ski racing again,” she wrote in an email. “My goals for the weekend are to get back into racing mode again and have a couple hard efforts before the World Cup starts.”
According to Sargent, who will next race Sunday’s freestyle sprint, the classic conditions on Friday were “great. Hard and fast …”
Hoffman Leads U.S. Men
In the men’s 15 k classic race, complete with a field of 191 finishers, Noah Hoffman was the top American in 42nd, 2:04.7 behind Norwegian winner Martin Sundby, who competed the course in 37:00.5. The Norwegians swept the top 12 and occupied 23 out of the top 24 (Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave was 13th).
“My biggest goal going into today was execute well and carry the lessons I learned last year through to the start of this season,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “I feel that I accomplished that. I didn’t have any results-based goals for this weekend, but I have to admit that I am a little disappointed with today’s result. I expect to be further up the results sheet tomorrow [in the 15 k skate].”
While he felt good physically, Hoffman noticed he struggled a bit technically after watching video of himself racing. Conditions were “almost perfect,” he explained, “with cold temps, sunny skies, hard tracks and a well-prepared course.”
“Overall I am satisfied with my effort and psyched to move forward tomorrow and next weekend,” Hoffman added.
Another USST member, Andy Newell placed 59th (+2:23.7). In an email, he explained it was his probably his first 15 k since last winter.
“It always takes a few efforts to get back into the distance racing state if mind for me,” Newell wrote. “Technique and skiing felt great out there but definitely didn’t have much to dig into as far as energy. It’s always hard during the first week over here while adjusting to Europe, but that’s why we have these practice races.”
Newell will save up for Sunday’s 1.2 k sprint, which he expects will be “tight and competitive” and “making the final won’t be easy.”
Another Olympian, Torin Koos of the Bridger Ski Foundation took 70th (+2:41.4) in his first race of the season.
“It feels pretty great to put on the race bib again. You know, racing is the inspiration for all those tough training sessions through the summer and fall,” Koos wrote.
In Europe since late August, he has been mostly in Davos, Switzerland, training with the Swiss National Team. He’s also maintained ties with the Norwegian club, Strindheim, and was staying with Team LeasePlan Go for the weekend.
“I have a lot of friends I’ve met through skiing here,” Koos wrote.
Last year’s overall SuperTour leader Mikey Sinnott (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) placed 131st on Friday, and the third USST member in the mix, Simi Hamilton was 135th. Jesse Smith, a former Michigan Tech skier, placed 165th.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.