SOCHI, Russia — Four U.S. women made the heats, Ida Sargent had one of her best freestyle sprints of the season in her first Olympic race, and Jessie Diggins tallied the second-best American result in 13th after Sophie Caldwell — who made U.S. women’s Olympic history in sixth in Tuesday’s sprint.
So yeah, there were some bright spots for the North Americans in the women’s 1.3- and men’s 1.8-kilometer sprints — the second races of the 2014 Olympics.
Sargent, 26, finished fourth in her quarterfinal, 2.43 seconds behind Norway’s eventual silver-medalist Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in first, after getting pinched out on a 180-degree corner coming down into the stadium.
“I was trying to make a move on the inside, but Ingvild threw in a big snow plow and also tried to take the inside and I lost all my speed, and went to third to fourth by a lot,” Sargent explained. “I killed my speed coming into that.”
After qualifying in 26th, she ended up 19th overall behind U.S. teammate Kikkan Randall in 18th.
“The heats are always tough for me so I was pretty psyched to make it, especially with not a great qualification run for me,” Sargent said. “It’s the Olympics so I’m really excited to ski a heat and represent USA.”
Diggins was the second-best U.S. qualifier in 12th after Caldwell clocked the ninth-fastest time behind qualifier winner Maiken Caspersen Falla, who won the prelim in 2:32.23. The 22-year-old Diggins went on to place third in her quarterfinal, 1.61 seconds after Slovenia’s Katja Visnar and 0.85 seconds behind Caldwell.
“The course, it was tricky; it’s not the course I would’ve designed myself if I was going to play to my strengths,” Diggins said. “It was a short course and you had to kind of change your technique after they salted and it was slushy. I skied the best I could and I’m proud of that. … I couldn’t find windows in which to get through so I feel like I have more energy and I have more to give, but that’s sometimes the way it goes.”
Diggins was most pleased with her form and the way she’s feeling about her fitness, especially for the event she’s most focused toward: the women’s 4 x 5 k relay on Saturday.
“It’s great that we were able to get four women into the quarterfinals,” she said. “I think that says a lot about where our country’s come from and where we’re headed. A few years ago we would’ve maybe got one in and now we’re getting four girls in the heats mixing it up in there and I think that’s a really positive thing.”
Andy Newell led the U.S. men in 18th, after qualifying 17th then placing fourth in his quarterfinal 0.84 seconds behind Norwegian winner Anders Gløersen.
“I think it’s the hardest sprint I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a lot of sprints,” Newell said. “It’s challenging conditions and it’s pretty slow out there. With a course like that, with a hill like that, it makes it really tough. With the altitude and everything you’re breathing so hard when you cross the finish line. I didn’t feel great in qualification, didn’t pace it quite right. I had a good barf after that.”
Before the quarterfinals, he still wasn’t feeling good and had a headache.
“I regrouped and felt okay,” Newell said, despite a run-in with Austria’s Harald Wurm. “My tactic was to really give it on the hill because I know I can do that better than most people. I had a decent amount of energy in the lanes, but maybe just not quite enough. I tried to pull up around the Norwegians but didn’t quite have it.”
In his third Olympics, Newell acknowledged how hard it is to put a great race together at this level.
“Every race is different and every Olympics are different, too,” he said. “A skate sprint only comes around every eight years and the chances of that being on a similar course to what you’re used to is pretty slim. This is a very unique course. That’s what ski sprinting is all about, being able to adapt to these different courses, different lengths, and different conditions.”
Simi Hamilton notched his best individual Olympic result at his second Winter Games in 27th, qualifying in 21st and ultimately placing sixth in his heat 1.84 seconds behind eventual gold-medalist Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway. Not even 20 meters out of the start, Hamilton’s pole broke in the deep snow. Within 800 meters, he was back with the pack.
“Fortunately the pace was pretty slow … [and] I was able to settle in the back with a new pole and stay there and made a move at the top of the hill to get back to the front and get my strap on,” he said. “But I was still was in the rough and tumble part of the pack.”
Making his move on the final tight corner, he found himself boxed out on the far lane coming toward the finish.
“I lost a lot of time there,” Hamilton said. “I felt like that was my moment to turn it on and right as I was about to I got shoved back to no man’s land.
“It’s hard for sure,” he continued. “I feel like this season a lot of things were coming together. The Olympics are tough. It happens every four years. Some days you have it and some days you don’t and today I woke up and I was feeling good and wasn’t feeling the best I’ve ever felt but I was still really psyched. I guess I didn’t have it. It’s all right, it’s just another race. It sucks that it’s the big stage here today.”
Canada’s Alex Harvey, Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova qualified for the rounds in 19th, 23rd, and 25th, respectively. None of them made it past the quarterfinals, with Harvey placing fourth in his heat, 1.75 seconds behind Russian winner Sergey Ustiugov, for 19th overall. Gaiazova was fifth in her quarterfinal, 3.44 seconds behind Norway’s Astrid Urenholdt Jacobsen in first, for 25th.
“Just that raw, raw speed up an offset, I just didn’t have it,” Harvey said. “And I don’t have it really often. I’m better on courses where it’s more 1-skating than offset.”
After getting off to a good start, Harvey said he was happy about the beginning of the race.
“I positioned myself well; I was in position to strike, I just didn’t have the strike,” he said.
Jones had her second-best sprint result of the season and individual Olympic career-best in 23rd after placing fifth in the quarterfinal with Germany’s Denise Herrmann, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, and American Kikkan Randall, who finished first, second and fourth, respectively. Italy’s Gaia Vuerich edged Randall by 0.05 seconds for third to advance to the semifinals, and Jones was nearly three seconds behind Randall in fifth, ahead of Finland’s Mona-Liisa Malvalehto.
“I made a little move over the corner and came around Mona-Liisa just on the inside, a few extra pushes over the top so I was happy with that part,” Jones said. “I think we had really good skis because I was able to make up some ground on the downhill and stay on my feet around the corner.
“I got off to a bit of a slower start than I would’ve liked,” she explained. “Other than that I felt pretty good. My body feels good so I’m looking forward to the classic team sprint. Obviously would’ve liked to make it through to the next round, but I’m happy with today.”
Gaiazova said she skied aggressive from the start and was able to stay out of trouble out front.
“I went so hard up the hill,” she said. “I was really pumped. It was really fun and I was feeling in control and feeling really good cresting, then I ran out of energy just a tiny bit at the end. When all the girls went by I tried to stay with them. In the end I’m pretty happy with how it went. I think strategically I was skiing well. If I could have gone a little harder at the top it could have been a little bit of a different outcome but at the same time I’m happy. It’s my first Olympic race and I have three more to go. The team sprint, the classic, I can’t wait.”
In her native country, Gaiazova said the experience so far at the Olympics has “been unreal.”
“Russia has done an amazing job. I know a completely different Russia. This is like fantasy land. It’s so nice, everything is so clean. Everyone is so resourceful and so polite. Everything is running so well. It’s awesome to see it like this. They really care. They really wanted to pull off a good games and let people have good memories.”
And she could hear people cheering for her in Russian.
“They know me and they cheered for me,” she recalled. “I tried to stay focused on my race, but I would get distracted and excited. It’s emotional; a lot of nostalgia from growing up.”