DAVOS, Switzerland – Ah, the difference a day makes. After yesterday’s 15 and 30 kilometer freestyle competitions, the U.S. Ski Team racers were content, but not thrilled. Five of them scored World Cup points, but none considered the efforts to be among their best.
Fast forward to today’s 1.5 k freestyle sprints, and women’s coach Matt Whitcomb was calling it “one of our best days ever for sprinting.”
The team was led by Kikkan Randall, who lost a photo finish against Norway’s Marit Bjørgen and ended up placing second overall (main report here).
On the women’s side, three more skiers made the quarterfinals: Jessie Diggins, who qualified in sixth; Sophie Caldwell, who qualified in ninth; and Sadie Bjornsen, who qualified in 18th. Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton both made the men’s heats, qualifying in 12th and 21st.
Holly Brooks landed 33rd, just outside the 30-woman cutoff by about half a second, and Ida Sargent 41st. Rosie Brennan, Mikey Sinnott and Torin Koos, of APU, Sun Valley, and the Bridger Ski Foundation, respectively, finished 61st, 56th, and 85th.
Even before the quarterfinals got started, there was little doubt that it was going to be a good day.
“We’re really excited about the day,” Whitcomb said of his women’s squad. “Not to mention Andy and Simi coming up quite big for us.”
The women’s quarterfinals were up first, and Randall, Diggins, and Caldwell turned heads by each winning their heat. They even used a similar move, cutting to the inside on the last tight corner on the course to gain an advantage as they field shot towards the finishing lanes.
“I watched Jessie’s heat,” Caldwell said of the move. “But also Ida [Sargent] and I did a little race prep yesterday and I noticed that you really want to guard your corner and take the corners tight. Some other girls took them sort of wide, so I took advantage of that and got around.”
“I heard the announcer go, ‘those sneaky American girls!’” Diggins laughed. “And I thought, yeah!”
The turn wasn’t so kind to Bjornsen, who was having a good heat but then fell on that last corner and was left out of the running and landed 27th in the final standings. She certainly wasn’t the only one to take a tumble there today.
(“I’ve never seen a sprint race go perfectly, so maybe there’s just no such thing,” Whitcomb said.)
And unfortunately for the team, the same move wouldn’t work in the men’s heats. Newell and Hamilton were both in the hunt, but got edged out in the close maneuvering that happened in the final turn.
“It’s just different because the men are so close together,” Newell said.
Hamilton almost made it through as a lucky loser after finishing third in his heat, but had to settle for 14th. It was nonetheless his best result so far this season, after he didn’t make the quarterfinals in the opening sprint in Kuusamo, Finland.
Newell was fourth in his heat after seemingly doing everything right to end up at the front.
“I felt good – I had made a good move to the front coming through [the stadium],” he said. “My skis were running well, so I should have been in the lead going over the top of the hill, I think. Instead I tried to come out of the draft of [Russia’s Nikita] Kriukov. Both times on the hill I came out of his draft and I came out on the wrong side. I should have gone left, and stayed on the outside of that corner. Each time I got pinched on the inside corner a little bit. That’s a bummer.”
But considering how things had been going, Newell was moderately happy with his day. He had been sick with a cold earlier this week and wasn’t even sure he was going to race today. So qualifying in 12th and ending up in the top 20 wasn’t too shabby.
“I guess I’m happy – I took Thursday and Friday completely off to get over a cold,” Newell said. “So I’m not feeling 100 percent.”
That left three Americans in the semis. After Randall won her heat handily, Caldwell and Diggins lined up in the second go.
The semifinals were considerably more competitive than the quarterfinals, and this time around it wasn’t going to be as easy to sneak in at the last minute with good cornering, and come away with a win. But the pair were confident that they’d find other ways to get to the front.
“I don’t think either one of us had a great start, and we were in fifth and sixth,” Caldwell said. “But there’s so much space to move around out here that I wasn’t too concerned.”
It was the first semifinal Caldwell has ever made on the World Cup, and she said she was nervous on the start line. But thinking about her race strategy helped her stay calm, and both she and Diggins maneuvered their way around the field as they tried to work their way out of the back.
“It was so important to push over the top,” Caldwell said. “My legs kept flooding on the uphills, both in the prelim and the quarters, so I was just thinking, okay, I might be tired here, but if I push hard over the top I’m going to catch back up. So I tried to stay calm.”
Ultimately, she couldn’t keep contact with the leaders and finished a bit off the pace, Diggins had been gaining ground but fell on the last uphill, knocking her out of contention as well.
“I just got a little clumsy and took two knees,” Diggins said.
Unlike Caldwell it wasn’t her first time in the semis, but it still felt like a small victory to Diggins.
“I’m so happy because I haven’t been a sprint semis in years,” she said. “And I’ve done so many quarters. I’ve done maybe ten quarters and they’ve all gone wrong. It’s so exciting to have one go right. Especially after, I think, yesterday, I always speak my mind. If I think I had a bad race I’m not going to lie and say I’m super psyched. I was okay with it, but there were things that went right. And today was an awesome.”
Finishing fifth and sixth in the heat landed the Americans ninth and 12th, a career-best for Caldwell.
“Of course, everybody has just been counting the days until it finally happens for Sophie,” Whitcomb said. “She’s been a phenomenal skate sprinter since she was in the Bill Koch League. But today, this was a perfect place for it to happen.”
Everyone involved agreed that although the women’s days ended before the finals, it was a great step for their seasons and even more to come in the future.
“The one disadvantage of our team skiing so strong these days is that these girls, they want that next step so bad,” Randall said of her teammates. “They’re probably going to feel a little disappointed not to move past the semis, but they’ve got to take a step back and realize that where they’re at, that’s a huge accomplishment and you’ve got to get your feet wet in each round to know how you’re going to contend in the final. Again, I think it will be good and keep them hungry.”
Hungry? They’re starving. Caldwell said she’s looking forward to next week’s World Cup races in Asiago, Italy, where she will race an individual classic sprint and a team sprint. (Randall said that the teams have not yet been chosen, and will be based on the results from the individual sprint.)
And Diggins agreed with everything Randall said about tactics and sprint racing.
“The hard part is in a sprint, you can have good energy but get stuck behind someone,” she said. “Or you can pass in the wrong spot and be leading when you don’t want to. There’s just so many ifs and buts. You always think, if I had to do it again I would have passed at this point! But that’s how sprint racing goes. I feel like the older you get and the more you do it, the better it seems to go.”
Maybe one day, she hopes, she’ll be as wise and experienced as her teammate, with whom she won the gold medal in the team sprint at 2013 World Championships.
“Kikkan, she shows up on the start line and you can bet she knows how everyone else is going to ski, she knows her game plan, and ten other plans,” Diggins said. “I think it’s something to look forward to.”
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.