Keeping Expectations in Perspective, Solid is Good Enough for U.S. Women

Chelsea LittleDecember 14, 2013
Holly Brooks (USA, foreground) laps through as Justyna Kowalczyk starts the 15 k freestyle in Davos today. Brooks decided against catching a ride with the Pole, reasoning that skiing too fast at altitude would have disastrous consquences.
Holly Brooks (USA, foreground) laps through as Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) starts the 15 k freestyle in Davos today. Brooks decided against catching a ride with the Pole, reasoning that skiing too fast at altitude would have disastrous consequences.

DAVOS, Switzerland – The last race the U.S. women’s ski team competed in was a relay in Lillehammer, Norway, and it’s safe to say that it was a high for the season. For the first time in years, they entered two teams. Both did well, and the first team tied their best-ever result of third place.

You might think that would lead to especially high expectations for the next weekend of World Cup racing here in Davos. But, said Kikkan Randall, going into today’s 15 k freestyle individual start, everyone had their own separate, and reasonable, goals.

“This group is becoming more of a veteran group, and I think that we know that every weekend has different highs and lows,” she said after placing 18th to lead the squad. “Everybody’s spirits have been good this week and I think everybody had a good approach going into today. It sounded like maybe people were having some good races out there, and it’s still so early in the season that as long as it was a solid day today, everyone should be happy.”

If that’s the metric, then everyone definitely should be happy. Just three seconds slower than Randall, Liz Stephen placed 20th. Holly Brooks was 25th and Jessie Diggins 30th, and Continental Cup racer Rosie Brennan placed 51st.

While nobody had a career-best result, getting every U.S. Ski Team member who started to score points is nothing to laugh at.

Liz Stephen
Liz Stephen.

“I think my standards have just changed,” Stephen said. “It has been interesting watching the team’s standards change as well. Now, when we’re not in the top 30 it’s kind of a bad day. A couple years ago it wouldn’t have been like that. We have to remember that our standards are new, and my personal standards are new after last season.”

In fact, for Randall and Stephen, the top-20 results were particularly gratifying. Both have raced this course many times in the past. Have they had much, much better finishes in other distance skate races? Yes. But never here in Davos.

“Honestly, I’ve never had a great race here in Davos, so I wasn’t banking on anything,” Stephen laughed. “It’s a weird course here. I’ve had really bad races here, and decent races. And when I’m out there I never know if I’m having a good one or a bad one. It’s such a weird grade and it’s always really flat light, and it’s not a course you feel super good on.”

Randall agreed.

“I’ve tried to race this place so many different ways,” she said. “I’ve tried starting slow, I’ve tried starting fast, it’s just one of those courses where you never feel that good, you never feel that fast. But I think if you can find the right rhythm, there’s a really small window that’s the perfect pace in there. And if you can find that, it can be good. I’m just happy to have skied my way around and get a great workout in.”

Diggins was the lone team member who seemed disappointed in her race (FasterSkier missed talking to Brennan).

“It didn’t feel very good for me,” she said. “I was cramping up on the uphills. The downhills felt good, but I think I’m just not used to racing at altitude yet. I felt pretty bad actually. But the skis were good and I tried really hard, and I worked on some things.”

Rosie Brennan starting out.
Rosie Brennan starting out.

But for the rest of the squad, just having an okay result felt like a victory. For Stephen and Randall, it was redemption after many attempts here in Davos. For Brooks, it was a relief after not starting off the season nearly as well as she did last year.

“It was okay, especially considering how my season has been so far,” she said. “It’s a pretty good step up.”

After finishing fifth in the very first race of the 2012-2013 season, Brooks hasn’t had the same kind of luck. But it seemed likely that today might turn things around: “This is by far my favorite course and my favorite kind of race, so that suits me well,” she said. Brooks was ranked as high as the top 20 about halfway through the race, but couldn’t quite hang on to match Randall and Stephen.

She was close though, just 14 seconds behind Stephen, and knows that she was almost even closer.

“I wish I could have caught a little more of a ride,” she lamented. “[Third-place finisher Charlotte] Kalla caught me at the top of the course, and I just lost contact with her just a tiny bit. I could have moved up a bunch of places if I could have stayed with her and drafted off her on the downhill, but I was just a little bit too far away to do that. She’s flying.”

Brooks had some other chances too. But at 5,000 feet of elevation, she knew better than to take the risk of following someone who was going too fast.

“I lapped through when Kowalczyk was starting, and people were shouting for me to catch a ride, but that’s just a recipe for disaster,” she said. “You know if you go one percent too hard at altitude, you’re in trouble. I felt in control most of the time, which was nice. But it’s not like I broke any records or took any personal bests.”

Randall had better luck, as fourth-place finisher Kristin Størmer Steira of Norway caught her from one minute back about halfway through the race. Randall was able to go with her.

“From the beginning of that second lap it was really good to ski with her, and we kind of went back and forth on the downhill and worked together,” said Randall. “It made for a solid race.”

Stephen complimented Steira’s technique, which she said perfectly suite this “weird” course. Randall agreed.

“She just has a really nice tempo on her V2 for some of those gradual sections, and that’s where I was definitely starting to let my tempo bog down,” she said. “So to be able to follow her tempo there and find a new rhythm, it was perfect. Like, oh, I can do this!”

For most of the team, today was just a reminder to stay patient, and take the good things out of every race effort.

“Yeah, it’s so far been a sort of mediocre start for me,” Stephen said. “Of course the relay was awesome, but I personally didn’t ski great that day. So, well, the season is long… I’m not having a bad season, but there hasn’t been a stellar result yet.”

Today wasn’t that stellar result. But it was something.

“I’m happy with it,” she concluded. “I fought pretty hard out there, I was mentally in it the whole time, and worked the downhills the best I could, so I’m happy.”

Results | main women’s race report

Jessie Diggins.
Jessie Diggins.


Chelsea Little

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.

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