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SOCHI, Russia — It’s not every Winter Olympics that athletes have to deal with temperatures soaring above 12 degrees Celsius and racing in slush.
Three of four of the Americans wore either T-shirts or sleeveless tops in the women’s Olympic 10-kilometer classic individual start, and while the Canadians were in white (as opposed to the black U.S. suits), it was still hot out there.
Brittany Webster started to cramp a kilometer or so into the two-loop race, with the first half around on the upper part of the trails at the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center and the second lap down a roughly two-minute descent, and then back up again.
“It was a total battle with my mind,” Webster said after placing 42nd, the best result of four Canadian women.
“I felt good off of the start and then one minute in you’re like, ‘Oh man,’ and then you see people kind of skiing away and you can’t keep up with them. It’s hard not to think, ‘I wonder what’s gonna happen for the rest of the race. Oh my god, I’ve only done 2 k and I’m already cramping!’ You just have to play a mind game and basically say, ‘Stop! No! Look where you are; concentrate on that climb.’ ”
Once she got through the first half of the race, the 26-year-old Toronto native started to feel better on the long downhill.
“I think I was able to breathe it out and not create as much lactate on the shorter [climbs] which made it a lot better,” Webster said. “The conditions, too, it was a little hard to stay on my feet. I crashed twice, one just randomly going up an uphill. Both of them were in the back of the course over there, definitely the safer parts of the course, but it happens in these conditions. It’s thick, it’s soupy, but I really find it fun out there.”
Webster also wasn’t complaining about the 12 degree Celsius temperatures and accompanying sun. But she said it was difficult to determine whether she drank too much or too little sports drink that led to the cramping.
After Webster finished 3:23.2 minutes behind the race winner, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk (who won in 28:17.8), Dasha Gaiazova was another 6 seconds back in 44th.
Gaiazova had started 30 seconds ahead of American Ida Sargent, and Sargent caught her quickly. The two skied together for much of the race, yo-yoing back and forth as Gaiazova carried more speed through the downhills and Sargent took the lead up the final long ascent back toward the stadium. Sargent ended up beating her to the line and ended up 34th, nearly 32 seconds ahead.
“It was definitely a very difficult one for me, but at the same time I don’t do many 10 k’s,” Gaiazova said in the second race of her second Olympics. “The last one I did was in Lenzerheide at the Tour de Ski and that was awful.”
There, in Switzerland on New Year’s Day, she placed 59th of 63.
“I didn’t have many expectations today, just wanted to really push it,” Gaiazova said. “I’m relatively happy. I wish I could’ve been a little faster maybe on the downhills and the flatter sections, I’m not used to pushing so much. I’m used to glide and relax.”
While Gaiazova said she could’ve used more glide, Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth suggested that was not the way to go on this course and in these conditions.
“Everyone’s gonna be on klister and there’s only so much speed you can find with klister, especially in these conditions,” he said. “I think if you make the choice to go light on kick, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but you better be ready to tough it out with your arms because there’s a lot of climbs. In some ways, I think it almost becomes more of a who’s ready to suffer and slog it out.”
Gaiazova and Heidi Widmer were two of the team’s sprinters in the distance race. The Canadian national team brought three distance skiers to the Olympics — Webster, Amanda Ammar and Emily Nishikawa — but Nishikawa recently came down with a cold.
Ammar placed 55th (+4:31) and Widmer was another 13.1 seconds back in 57th in her second race of her Olympic debut.
“It was hard today; I’m struggling at these Olympics,” Ammar said in her second Olympics since the 2006 Games. “I had a tough lead-in with my skis getting all broken and a lot of stress leading up to the Games so i’m just trying to do the best I can and push the best I can and I did that today, but I think the results will not please me when I see them.”
Ammar said her skis were damaged in transit while flying into St. Petersburg when the flight company put her ski bag in an elevator and “taco-ed” her bag. Fischer helped her repair four of them, she said.
“Already it’s a tough course and then you add the hot weather and the slow conditions and it makes for a mentally tough day for sure,” she said.
“It’s a tough race for them and obviously they’re not in the world-leading shape,” Wadsworth said of Webster, Ammar and Widmer. “But I like the effort that Brittany and Amanda and Heidi put out there today. It’s not easy skiing towards back of the pack and having no confidence. I’ve been there and it sucks.
“I’m concerned for the focus of some of our women’s team,” he added. “We are at the Olympics and there are a lot of people working hard for them, as well as a lot of resources that have gone into them. I hope all our women are giving it their all, and preparing as best they can for each race. That’s all I ask.”
Widmer, 22, who filled in for Nishikawa, said she’s had some tough moments in her first Olympics, but tried to keep them in perspective throughout Thursday’s race.
“I feel pretty defeated, but these are the kind of races you think about in the summer and you’re like … ‘When I go back there I’m gonna train that much harder and that much smarter to make improvements,’ ” she said. “Looking up the last hill and being like, ‘Next time I do this it’s gonna seem that much easier. Every little failure you make is an opportunity to improve on it.’ ”
For Widmer, who specializes in skate sprints, she tried to think about being as smooth as possible and efficient with where she expended her energy.
“I had a pretty good idea that I would be able to start this race,” she said. “It’s really, really unfortunate that Em Nish came down with a cold. She is the princess, I should stay, queen of classic 10 k’s … but she’s making a smart decision taking care of her body first. I’m just lucky that I had a chance to start the Olympics and just absorbing as much as possible.”
Two days ago after placing 43rd in the skate-sprint qualifier, Widmer said she tried to FaceTime her parents on her phone during her cool down. Without a wireless connection at the venue, she gave up on it for the time being, and put her phone in her pocket.
“Running around the athletes village … I heard it in my pocket and then I saw them all in their sleeping gowns up in the middle of the night and I just broke down crying,” Widmer said. “Our sports psych explained it as your pyramid of support, so the stronger and wider that base of support is the stronger your summit of the pyramid is going to be.”
Thinking back to seeing her parents, two brothers and her sister and their significant others and her dog, she recalled: “They’re the best … Those are the kind of things that really put it in perspective.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.