Any competitive ski racer knows the feeling of pre-race anticipation: that moment when you scan for your name on the start list, find it, and take a gander who’s starting around you.
In an individual start, like Saturday’s 10 and 15 kilometer freestyle FIS races in Beitostølen, Norway, that order is essentially all you have to work with. Try to catch the people in front of you and fend off the ones from behind, and you should finish in relatively good shape.
Imagine Holly Brooks’ reaction when she saw she was starting 30 seconds ahead of Norwegian powerplug Therese Johaug (who won Friday’s 10 k classic) or Liz Stephen’s thoughts on leading out Vibeke Skofterud (who placed sixth the day before).
For most, it would be a big deal — a sort of Charlie Brown “good grief” moment. But for the U.S. women’s ski team, which enjoyed unprecedented success last season and has gained respect (and friendships) from the Norwegian and Swedish teams in the last couple years, the feeling is different.
“I had to laugh a bit last night when I saw the start list and the fact that Therese was starting 30 seconds behind me,” Brooks wrote in an email. “She ended up passing me midway on the big hill of the course. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been passed that quickly – it was like I was standing still.”
Johaug went on to win the 10 k in 24:13.7 minutes, 18.9 seconds faster than runner-up Marit Bjørgen, Norway’s most decorated world champion, in Bjørgen’s first race of the season. It was Johaug’s second victory in as many races this weekend.
Stephen wasn’t much farther back in sixth place, 4.9 seconds behind Skofterud in fifth and 1:09.2 behind Johaug. In an email, she wrote that starting ahead of Skofterud was “GREAT!”
“Yesterday I had Kikkan [Randall] starting right behind me and today I had Vibeka right behind, so I used them a bit to help motivate me to keep pushing,” Stephen wrote.
And Brooks was moving fast, too, placing 12th on Saturday, 1:43 behind Johaug.
“Johaug’s tempo is unlike that of anyone on the World Cup and I got a front row seat!” Brooks wrote. “She is impressive … and I knew it would be a mistake to try and match it, even for ten seconds. Yesterday she won the entire race by almost a minute so it seems as if she’s in a league of her own.”
The exciting thing for the Americans is that they’re already in the hunt with top teams like Norway. While the Norwegians took six of the women’s top seven, the U.S. was one of three teams to put two in the top 12 (Slovenia being the other).
In the men’s race, U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman broke up a Norwegian sweep of the top eight, placing seventh in the 15 k skate race.
“For the second day in a row, I didn’t have anybody to ski with for the entire race,” Hoffman wrote in an email on Saturday. He finished 42nd in Friday’s 15 k classic.
“Both days, all of the starters had left the stadium by the time I lapped through. I didn’t get caught from behind either day, and I didn’t catch anybody who was skiing at a high level.”
Considering his jump up to the top 10, Hoffman was encouraged by his most recent result.
“I feel good and I have great energy,” he wrote.
At the same time, he’s still working on his pacing, which he felt good about Saturday. Friday wasn’t bad either, he explained.
“I thought I skied well yesterday. I was surprised to be so far down the results sheet,” Hoffman wrote. “The one thing I did for today was refocus on my technique cues, especially the cue ‘patience.’ ”
It turned out in his favor as Hoffman finished 49 seconds back from Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who captured his second-straight win in 33:32.6. The second-place finisher, Anders Gløersen, was nearly 34 seconds behind.
For Stephen, who improved from 25th on Friday, she said her secret was not pacing.
“I tried to pace it yesterday and it didn’t end up helping me ski fast, so today the goal was to just go out hard and ski well and see what happened,” Stephen wrote.
It helped having a winding course that doubled back, so she could gauge where she stood, as well as coaches and others giving her splits.
“It is so nice to have so many more friends and people to help push me, and hopefully people I can help push to their best as well,” Stephen explained.
Earlier this week, the Norwegian women’s team invited their U.S. buddies to a “bolle” at their cabin, according to Jessie Diggins in her blog.
“We are actually about to have them over for our second team get together of the week for some banana bread before heading out for afternoon training,” Stephen wrote on Saturday. “It is really cool how our two teams have really gotten to know each other. It makes the World Cup and being so far from home for so long so much more enjoyable and manageable.”
For Brooks, her two results for the weekend (including 19th on Friday) were outside of her goal of a top 10, but she had fun getting back into racing.
“The FIS race here feels like a World Cup with cameras and reporters everywhere,” Brooks wrote. “A car in the middle of the stadium, big blow up sponsor objects, wax buses, etc, etc. They take their Nordic Skiing seriously here in Beito and it’s been a good warm up for next weekend’s race in Kuusamo.”
Saturday was a matter of missing her top gear, she explained.
“I felt good warming up and didn’t feel any residual fatigue from yesterday but then in the race, I felt as if I had a ‘governor,’ ” she wrote. “My goal was to start the race and glide, finding good rhythm. Sometimes I tend to rush and end up flailing a bit. I tried to be as smooth as possible.”
At the end of the day, she was mostly thrilled for her teammates.
“I’m also happy that Liz was able to land on the podium because it can’t be a 100% Norwegian Sweep!” Brooks wrote. Stephen earned a cheese slicer for her efforts.
“Also, Hoff was .8 seconds away from winning a cheese slicer as well,” Brooks added. “Congrats to both of them on fantastic performances!”
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.