Sunday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, was another great day for the US women. Liz Stephen had a breakthrough performance, finishing sixth, a career best for her in an outright World Cup and a major milestone in her development as a classic skier. Ida Sargent also had an excellent day, placing ninth, her career-best distance race. Kikkan Randall finished 14th, and Jessie Diggins was 24th to round out the day.
Conditions were tricky on the Polish ski course, with varying and dirty snow, but U.S. Ski Team Coach Matt Whitcomb felt that the women had good skis, saying, “I feel like we nailed the skis really well for the girls.”
The course, a challenging four loops for the women, was what the team had expected to find in Szklarska Poreba.
“The course profile was as we expected,” said Whitcomb, “you kind of expect them to design a course after their marquee skier, we have no problems with that at all, we expected a course that would have a lot of steep, hard striding to suit Justyna [Kowalczyk]. That happened to suit some members of our team as well, so we were pretty excited to find that there was a lot of climbing, a lot of relief to this course. The downhills were really technical, a little sketchy, and a pretty exciting race, it’s nice to see a race with four or five laps, it made the spectating quite exciting.”
Stephen, who started with bib number four at the head of her own lane, said that she had, “never started on the first line of a World Cup mass start before, so that was really fun, and the pace went out hot, but I never got swallowed up in the mass like I think I would have if I had started back in the pack. Justyna was on a mission today and just never looked back and the fans were so loud and into it out there today, especially as it was Justyna’s birthday today too.”
The Polish ski fans are legendary for their enthusiasm. As Whitcomb described it, “The Polish fans are some of the best. Probably only about five plus thousand people at the races, but per capita they are exceptionally loud, boisterous, they cheer for everybody, they cheer in these big bursts, especially when one of their skiers goes by for about five seconds and then it just goes quiet. It’s a unique experience to race in Poland, particularly when Justyna is here…It’s a fun place to watch a race.”
Randall said of the crowd, “The fans were just so fired up, I was getting crazy cheers. It’s cool to see people so fired up about cross country skiing, and they seem to be fans of our team so that made it pretty fun. It’s definitely the most cheers I’ve received since Quebec City last year.”
To the fans delight the race was led early on by Kowalczyk, and on the second lap she made a breakaway. Stephen said of Kowalczyk’s breakaway, “I actually am not totally sure how it all went down, but I definitely led some of the chase. I saw Denise [Herrmann] coming back to us going into lap 3 and I was feeling good so I went hunting! I would lead the uphills and the Germans would catch me on the downhills.”
“On the last lap I was mostly concerned about putting enough space between me and the chasing skiers behind me going into the downhill, because that was where I was getting caught each lap. I was feeling really good for most of the race until the very top of the uphill on the last lap when Julia Ivanova went by me and as I tried to hang I just fell apart a bit and didn’t push over the top as much as I needed to, to hold off the Germans [Herrmann and Nystad].”
“I was able to hold off Stefi Boehler, which was really good and I wasn’t sure who it was chasing me, but knew I had to go, so I went and was able to hold her off today. Anytime I win a sprint out, especially in a classic race, I am really psyched.”
Stephen said that her race was excellent preparation for the Olympics.
“It was really good prep for today for me I think, especially getting a couple really hard, fast efforts after coming down from altitude. And the sprinting yesterday was SO fun, that that was certainly a really positive high mentally from that as well.”
Whitcomb was pleased with how Stephen has developed as a classic skier.”Liz definitely had one of her best classic races today ever,” he said, “skiing-wise it definitely was, but feeling-wise I think it was too, she’s been working on a couple of technical things this week.”
“Her kick just snapped together a couple of days ago and with great kicking skis today with her technician she was able to work on those things and have a good result. One of Liz’s goals is to bring her classic skiing up to the level of her skating. It’s going to take a long time to do that but she’s getting closer and closer. So excited about her race, great signs of things to come, she’s in awesome shape, good indications that the Tour de Ski has been absorbed, and the mild cold after the Tour is behind her, so I feel really good about where she is.”
For Whitcomb, Sargent had, “one of the races of the day for us. She did well, she’s had some great results this season, a little spotty, I think she will admit to that. She’s coming out of this weekend with a lot of confidence after having the good classic distance race she’s been looking for. Things just looked really easy out there for Ida today, she was just skiing exceptionally well.”
“It was my first top 10 so I was psyched” said Sargent.”I was seeded pretty far back so I tried to focus on skiing smoothly and moving up when I could. The course was really hard with big steep hills and slow dirty snow so the pack broke apart quickly and it was easy to pass and move up. I skied with Kikkan and Soph for a bit on the first lap and then I was in a pack with Liz for while too. She was skiing really well so I just tried to keep her in my sights as she flew up the hills. I was hurting by the last lap but just tried to hold on into the finish. I had a sprint finish with Smutna but got her in the lunge. The whole team skied really well this weekend so our stoke level is high as we head into the pre-Olympic camp. With each race I feel better and better so I’m excited for what is to come!”
Randall, for her part said, “It wasn’t a great race for me. I felt tired and sluggish on the first two laps and caught a discarded leg bib in my klister, which I had to pull off the trail to remove in the first lap. I felt a little better on the last lap. While I was hoping to be stronger today this was still a good workout towards sharpening my race form. It’s been over a month since my last distance race and I think a few good efforts like this will bring things around pretty quick.”
Randall added, “It was really encouraging to see Liz and Ida ski so strongly today. The depth on this team is so amazing and continues to get stronger every weekend.”
Caldwell also notched her second notable race of the weekend after finishing 7th in Saturday’s freestyle sprint.
“Another good race from Sophie, she was tired,” said Whitcomb, “she skied a lot of heats yesterday, but on a course that would have absolutely devoured her a couple of years ago, even on a great day, she was still able to continue skiing well. She didn’t go into this awkward shuffle walk, but kept kicking and gliding on the steepest of the hills, it was really exciting.”
“I had a decent start and was able to put myself in a really good position by the end of the first lap,” said Caldwell. “I think Justyna took it out hard from the start, so therefore the pace of the rest of the field was pretty hard from the start. Sometimes I struggle with pacing myself because I get excited the first lap and the fatigue doesn’t hit me until a little later on, so even though the first lap was very fast, I wasn’t really noticing it until later in the race.”
“At one point during the first lap, Kikkan, Ida, and I were skiing in a train up the big hill – that was fun! I got to ski with Ida a couple more times out there and with Kikkan a little more at the very end when she passed me. Unfortunately Kik skied over a leg bib and had to stop and peel that off, so I think she got set back a little from that…Kik put in a big final push up over the top of the last hill and I tried to go with her on that and even though I couldn’t quite stick with her, I think it gave me a little gap on some people right behind me.”
“I thought it was a really solid weekend, especially as a team. We had a lot of people in the points, a lot of people in the top 15, and a win, so no complaints about that!”
Diggins finished in 24th despite taking a big crash in Saturday’s sprint race.
“My knee is fifty shades of purple but is fine,” Diggins wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “What was really bugging me today was my rib cage. I kind of compressed it during the crash yesterday and every time I double poled it hurt. But that’s not an excuse for how I raced today, simply a fact. There’s enough pain involved in racing that twingy ribs don’t matter that much, I just let it get in my head. The team doc checked it out and they are fine just sore.”
“Today’s race was about a 3-4 out of 10 for me…I just didn’t have great energy after yesterday’s excitement and I was struggling a lot with kick. It wasn’t our techs fault- figuring out just how much kick I need has been something I’m still working on, and today I made the call much too conservative. Once I start slipping I usually come apart pretty quickly, especially in the really long climb, so my focus switched to simply getting in one hell of a workout in preparation for the next training block!
However, I’m psyched for the rest of the girls and it was a really fun atmosphere today, what with it being Justyna’s birthday and all :)”
Caitlin Gregg didn’t have the energy she desired today and decided to pull out of the race after the second lap.
“After the first lap I felt ready to start attacking but as I tried to go faster I felt more and more fatigue” Gregg said in an email. “I think I hit the point where the adrenaline and excitement of the past few weeks faded and the fatigue and nerves from travel and anticipating the Olympic Team selection set in! It is always a bummer to pull out of a race, but there are times when it hits you like a pile of bricks and I know I have a lot of (hopefully big) races down the road to prepare for still this season!!!”
Whitcomb said he agreed with her decision to quit the race.
“Caitlin pulled out, which was a good move. I’ve never been one for dropping out of races unless there’s a good reason and I think she had a good reason, the body just wasn’t happening. She’s got a husband, Brian, who woke up sick today, which is why he didn’t start his race. So I think it was a conservative move to make sure she’s not getting sick as well, and if she is, to make sure she doesn’t drive it super deep into her system. It’s been great to have Brian and Caitlin with us.”
Sadie Bjornsen did not start the race because she’s recovering from a cold said Whitcomb, but he didn’t characterize it as being too serious.
The team will travel to Seiser Alm for an altitude camp before the Toblach World Cup races. Diggins, for one, is looking forward to returning to the Italian training venue.
“Next I’ll go to Seiser Alm with the crew, which I’m SO EXCITED about, and train for the Olympics,” Diggins said. “Before those, however, I’ll get to do some tune up racing at the Toblach World Cups, and I’ll drop in to U23’s for the skate sprint! I can’t wait to see all my friends there and it should be a great time.”
The Greggs and Sargent will pursue their own independent training with the three likely all training in Toblach.
“Ida Sargent is going independently to Toblach to have a lower altitude camp. We’ve learned over the last couple of years that that is something that seems to benefit her, helps her sharpen up,” said Whitcomb.
Gregg said in an email, “We have had a blast and we are looking forward to a little R and R! We have a rental car in Prague and we will be making our next move depending on what happens on Tuesday 🙂 We are loving this lifestyle even when results are less then what we want!”
— Alex Matthews and Lander Karath contributed reporting
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.