The International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic Junior and U23 World Ski Championships showcase the highest level of competition among the best up-and-coming skiers around the globe, especially during Wednesday’s opening freestyle sprints. As Canadian Katherine Stewart-Jones put it: “Every second counts.”
Diggins Wins Prelim; Second in U23 Women’s Final
A variety of nations produced top results for both U23 men and women. In the men’s 1.5-kilometer race, six different countries occupied the top eight (Russia, France, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, and Germany) and in the women’s 1.2 k sprint, eight nations finished in the top 12 (Germany, USA, Italy, Sweden, Slovenia, France, Russia, and Norway).
The athletes woke up to sunny, crisp and cold morning on Wednesday in Val di Fiemme Italy. They later warmed up and began their qualification rounds — for some, the most difficult part of sprint racing because you must push yourself as hard as you can go with no one around to go head-to-head against. Those who best demonstrated this skill included American Jessie Diggins, who won the women’s qualifier, and Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, the men’s qualifying winner.
“The goal of coming here was to hopefully race fast, but my biggest goal was just to have fun and see the team,” Diggins told FasterSkier. “It was so good to practice dealing with pressure and use this as a tune-up race to get more experience and hopefully make the final. My goal was to make the final and get the experience, and get the tactical practice.”
The 22-year-old U.S. Ski Team member, who’s headed to her first Olympics next week, went on to place second to Germany’s Elisabeth Schicho in the final. After winning his first World Cup in a freestyle sprint in Nove Mesto, Ustiugov, 21, tallied his third U23 victory on the first day of competition in Val di Fiemme.
“I hoped I could get a medal and eventually I made it,” Ustiugov said, according to a Fiemme2014 press release. “I felt very comfortable all the way through since the qualifications. In the final heat I started slow ‘cause I wanted to see what the others meant to do. Halfway to the finish I decided it was the right time to attack.”
In the final, Ustiugov attacked on the first climb to create a significant gap on his competitors. Behind him, Switzerland’s Roman Schaad tried to close on him and France’s Paul Goalabre. In the end, Goalabre overtook Schaad with a few powerful pole plants landed him with a second-place finish, leaving third to Schaad. American Erik Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team) placed 18th.
In the women’s final, Diggins also kept the pace as high as possible from start to finish. Nevertheless, Schicho stuck with the young U.S. Ski Team member and overtook Diggins in a final sprint to the finish, winning by a clear margin.
“In the final I knew that I hadn’t been skiing the finishing lanes very well today, but if I could tire people out, that was going to be my chance to win it,” Diggins said. “So I went to the front and just hammered and pulled a big gap on the field except for [Schicho], who hung with me. She had a great finishing speed. Going down the last hill into the finish she slingshot me and then just skied off and I just had nothing.”
Diggins added that she was satisfied with the race and looking forward to finishing out her tapering period before peaking for Sochi.
“I am more than happy, today is pretty much a golden day,” Schicho, 22, said of her first U23 podium in a press release. “I am really proud … I felt really fit and my skis were perfect.”
A home-crowd favorite, Giula Stuerz of Italy also made the podium in third.
Tiberghien, Sundling Tally Junior Sprint Titles
The junior men’s 1.5 k final began in a controlled manner, without any significant moves up the first hill. Then, on the last climb, France’s Jean Tiberghien (the second-fastest qualifier after fellow Frenchman Lucas Chanavat) took the lead and attacked, testing the reaction skills of Sweden’s Oskar Svensson and Finland’s Joni Maki. Neither were able to respond, and Tiberghien, 18, entered the final straightaway with a decent gap. Ultimately, however, he had to outlunge Svensson at the finish, beating the Swede by a toe. For Tiberghien, it was his first title in his first Junior World Championship. Maki placed third.
“Becoming the world champion is simply amazing and fulfilling,” Tiberghien said in a press release. “Everything was awesome and everything went in the right direction. I still have to realize that I won the gold medal, it’s even better than a dream.”
In the junior women’s 1.2 k final, the race tactics couldn’t have been more different. The winner of both her quarterfinal and semifinal, Sweden’s Jonna Sundling attacked the first climb and reached the top of the hill with a clear margin over her competitors. With such a gap, the 19-year-old Sundling was untouchable and secured her first individual junior-world title. Norway’s Lotta Udnes Weng and Russia’s Yulia Belorukova completed the podium in second and third, respectively.
The top Canadian, Stewart-Jones placed 15th in the junior women’s sprint.
“I was super excited with how things turned out today,” she wrote in an email. “This year I have been disappointed with my qualifiers, but today I was able to have a solid one. My skis were really good, and the rest of the team seemed to agree … I did not expect to make top 15, but I am satisfied for sure!”
— Gerry Furseth, Lander Karath & Alex Matthews contributed reporting