Kikkan Randall won the race, and Jessie Diggins wasn’t far behind in fifth, but the rest of the American sprinters shouldn’t be forgotten as the U.S. placed a Norwegian-like five skiers in the top 15.
Sophie Caldwell led the rest of the squad in seventh, the first skier on the outside of the finals looking in. She started her day off strong, skiing to fourth in the qualifier, 1.35 seconds in back of Greta Laurent of Italy, and 2.44 seconds ahead of Randall.
Caldwell wrote to FasterSkier in an email that she tried to “maximize glide” on the flat Szklarska Poręba course.
In the heats, she wrote that this was harder to accomplish, given the narrow course and sharp corners. “It was harder to change positions, and there was a lot of pushing and tumbling,” she wrote.
Undaunted by the tight quarters, Caldwell kept her head in a quarterfinal that was “all over the place.” She told FasterSkier that she thinks she skied in every position (first through sixth) in the heat, before ultimately slipping into the lead on the inside of the last tight corner, a position she would not relinquish.
In the semis, she matched up with Randall and took off with the strategy to “do whatever Kikkan did.”
She sat on Randall’s tails for most of the heat, but when the veteran moved up into the lead around the tight corner, Caldwell was pinched and dropped back to fourth. She ultimately out-lunged Gaia Vuerich (ITA) at the line to finish third in the heat.
Overall she felt her strategy “worked okay,” but felt she needed to be further up heading into the final corner.
“I couldn’t quite get as far up as I would have liked before the finish stretch. We came into the second to last corner pretty tight, and I had a little bobble and bounced back to 4th.” she explained. “I tried my same strategy of staying to the inside for the final corner, and it worked well but wasn’t quite enough.”
“It’s not that it’s her second best result ever in sprinting, it’s that she’s been putting together these consistently crafty races out there,” USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said in a phone interview. “She’s putting together fast qualifications, consistently qualifying, and then making some very clever moves that require a ton of skill, and she’s clearly a natural.”
Caldwell was followed by teammates Ida Sargent in thirteenth, and Liz Stephen in 15th.
Sargent, a strong climber, wrote in an email that she generally prefers hillier terrain, but was pleased with her qualifier. In the heats, she was undone by the narrow course, unable to move up out of third place despite repeated efforts.
“I tried on the hill since we were not going that fast, but the hill was only wide enough for one skate lane. So then I tried again on the downhill but wasn’t able to move into second, so I stayed in third. On the final corner, I tried one last time to pass Fabjan [of Slovenia] and Van der Graaff [of Switzerland],” she wrote.
She attempted to emulate Caldwell’s move, getting by on the inside, but stumbled on some ice and slipped to fourth. She fought back on the homestretch to take third in the heat.
“Ida certainly has much more to offer than thirteenth but I think today pointed that it’s coming soon,” Whitcomb said.
The result was Sargent’s second-best of the season, trailing only a tenth she earned in the Asiago, Italy classic sprint.
While every American woman skied a strong race, the surprise of the day had to be Stephen. She qualified for just her second World Cup heats, and nearly advanced out of the quarters, out-lunging the home favorite Justyna Kowalczyk at the line for third in her heat.
She just missed advancing as lucky loser, but still had her top sprint finish ever.
“I’m encouraged by her performance not so much because it’s a really exciting sprint result, but because it’s indicative of having absorbed the Tour and some of the training afterwards,” Whitcomb explained. “I’m confident with the direction she’s going.”
The door was open for top results with Norway, Sweden and Finland all opting to skip the World Cup weekend. Just 13 seeded skiers started the race. But Randall pointed to Denise Herrmann of Germany and Laurien Van der Graaff of Switzerland as an indication that there was plenty of speed on the high end.
The U.S. squad was rounded out by Caitlin Gregg in 33rd, 1.1 seconds behind the final qualifier, Perianne Jones of Canada.
“The sprint course was really challenging for me!” Gregg wrote in an email. “I have spent the last 3-1/2 months at altitude preparing for the early season races and potential races in Sochi! Coming to sea level and racing flatter, faster courses is super hard right now! I still feel like I am getting faster and faster each day though :)”
Jones, who got a late start to her world Cup season, finished a season-best tenth.
“It was close to being a pretty bad day,” Jones said. “I qualified 30th and I didn’t feel great during the qualifier.
In the quarters, Jones looked to follow Randall, a strategy she said “worked out perfectly.”
She avoided crashes and was “able to just sneak right in behind Kikkan and ski with her pretty relaxed and just follow what she was doing. We had really great skis so that was super smooth.”
She advanced after holing her second spot in the heat, but was unable to keep the magic alive in the semis.
With a poorer start, she was unable to move up on the narrow course and had to settle for fifth.
The effort was still good for a career-best freestyle sprint result.
“I haven’t had the best fall and winter so far, so it is really great to see all the patience and work that we have put in is paying off,” she said. “I have started to feel a lot better in the last few weeks, but it is just so nice to just see it in the results not just feel it in my body because it is getting close to February.”
Her teammate, Dasha Gaiazova, finished 23rd.
Racing continues on Sunday with a 10 k classic mass start.
— Alex Matthews and Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.