Satisfied, yet unfulfilled was the sentiment of the North Americans who competed in the 2014 U23 World Championship 10 k and 15 k individual classic races at Val di Fiemme, Italy on Thursday. With fresh snow falling on the challenging course of Lago di Tesero, the best U23 skiers from North America put their best efforts forward in an attempt to make their mark on the international stage. While they were able to conquer the challenging conditions with ease, both the U.S. and Canadian squads had mixed performances, with five skiers between the two teams breaking into the top 30.
The best result of the day came from American Erik Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team/APU) who finished 17th in the men’s 15 k individual classic.
Skiing with the signature Bjornsen smoothness, he increased his pace every lap. As the Washington native powered through the falling snow, he moved up seven spots throughout the race, advancing from a 24th place split at the 2.3 k mark to 17th at the finish.
“I’m really happy with where my fitness is at,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I had a smoking fast last lap and I got to the finish feeling like I had more left in the tank. I’m happy to have finished in the top 20 and I think with a different race strategy I could have been 25 seconds faster which would have put me in the top 10.”
Bjornsen will be able to put a new race strategy to the test this upcoming weekend. In a change of plans, he left immediately after Thursday’s race to meet up with the U.S. Ski Team in Toblach, Italy where he will compete in the World Cup 15 k individual classic to prepare for the Sochi Olympics.
“I’m so excited for the Olympics, I think my fitness is just coming into form so it should be perfect timing. It was a blast being with the WJ/U23 crew,” he said.
Scott Patterson finished just behind Bjornsen in 18th position. The University of Vermont racer had fast skis, great kick, and a relaxed mindset throughout the 15 k, which served him well. Although he finished roughly three seconds back from Bjornsen, the 22-year-old had maintained a lead over the 17th place finisher up until the 14.7 k mark, and was disappointed that he was unable to hold the lead over his teammate.
“I am reasonably happy with my result. I think I could have easily been fighting for a top 15 and maybe even a top 10 on a really good day,” he wrote in an email. “The main disappointment for me is that Erik Bjornsen got me in the end. It almost feels like I was out-sprinted which I never enjoy. Its a friendly competition going all the way back to my first JOs in 2006. However, he skied a solid race but I think has much more potential for the world cup and Olympics.”
Canadian Knute Johnsgaard finished 21st, marking Canada’s top result of the day. After fighting off weariness in the Canadian Olympic Trials, Johnsgaard was feeling rested before the Championships and was motivated to have top results. After taking a long break from racing after the trials, the 21-year-old was excited to be racing again.
Ben Lustgarten of Middlebury College, who impressed the domestic field with his sixth place finish in the 15 k individual classic at U.S. Nationals earlier this month, placed 30th, a career best finish for Lustgarten in the international racing scene.
The Burlington, Vermont native knew he could have ranked better, but is looking forward to the 30 k skiathlon on Saturday.
“I am not as happy with my result as I would like, which actually surprises me. But its a great place to start,” he said.
New to international racing, Lustgarten didn’t want to make excuses about fatigue from the lengthy travel or overwhelming feelings associated with racing in Europe. However, he admitted they might have played a factor in Thursday’s result. “I just need to rest up and try and be positive about it, move on, and get pumped for the 30k,” he said.
Like Lustgarten, Patterson is looking forward to the 30 k.
“Saturday will be lots of fun and I am feeling quite a bit more confident after today,” he said.
He also believes his experiences at the Championships have not only opened his eyes to individual possibilities, but also to the American’s potential in international racing.
“I got a really good feel for more things to work on for the rest of this season and beyond; from watching others and my own splits,” he wrote. “There is no reason for the U.S. skiers not to be competitive with the best U20s and U23s. I think everyone will be bringing back motivation and personal insights into their skiing.”
Not too far from Lustgarten was Patrick Stewart-Jones in34th, whose strategy to start fast brought him roughly seven seconds out of the top 30. American Ben Saxton (SMST2) finished in 38th and was followed by Canadians Andy Sheilds in 43rd and Sebastien Townsend in 57th.
In the women’s 10 k, Heidi Widmer of Canada was the fastest North American on course, finishing 30th. After ranking 35th at the 2.8 k mark, the Canadian was able to accelerate her pace and gain five spots.
Widmer, who was unavailable for comment, will also be competing in the Sochi Olympics in roughly a week and a half.
Not far behind Widmer was fellow Canadian Cendrine Browne, who placed 31st.
“I am very happy of this result because I almost did a top 30, which is very good for my first year in the U23 category,” she wrote in an email. “I am also happy of my performance because I came in right after Heidi Widmer, who just qualified for the Olympics in Sochi.”
With the the absence of yesterday’s second place finisher, Jessie Diggins, the U.S. women were led by Annie Pokorny (SMST2) who finished 33rd. For Pokorny, who also competed in last year’s U23 Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, the fresh snow created some variable conditions.
“The snow started falling right before my start and picked up throughout the race, but our skis rivaled the fastest teams in both glide and kick,” she said. “Due to the variance, it became a competition for who could handle the changes the most gracefully, which I probably could improve on.”
Pokorny was hoping for more from the 10 k classic, but was pleased with her effort. For now, the 21-year-old is planning on resting as much as possible before Saturday’s skiathlon.
“Going into the 15 K it’s going to be really important for me to recover from the last two days’ efforts and focus on keeping my composure in the mass starts. If the support and team energy continues as it has been, we could be in for a really successful day!”
Behind Pokorny was American Mary Rose of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation who finished in 34th. Lauding her great skis, Rose sited her fatigue as the reason for a slower pace in the latter part of the race. “I went into the race with a the game plan of hammering from the start. In hindsight that probably wasn’t the best because I was pretty tired for the second lap,” she said.
“I am definitely not jumping up and down with excitement because I know I can ski better. However, it was a good learning experience.”
Heading into Saturday’s 15 k, Rose hopes to use the experience as a tool to help her land a place in the top 25.
The rest of the North American squad was rounded out by Canadian Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt in 35th, and Americans Rosie Frankowski and Mackenzie Kanady in 38th and 49th.
The U23 World Championships continue on Saturday with a 15 k and 30k skiathlon on the trails of Val di Fiemme.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.