WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Alysson Marshall had plenty of opportunities to practice her finishing lunge in Friday’s SuperTour freestyle sprint in West Yellowstone.
The Canadian National Development Team member, who skis for the Alberta World Cup Academy (ACWA) in Canmore, Alberta, barely earned an automatic qualifying spot in her quarterfinal after outlunging Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 skier Erika Flowers for second place in the heat.
In the semifinal, Marshall was neck-and-neck with University of New Mexico’s Eva Severrus, but was able to eke out a position in the A-final despite finishing in fourth behind her competitor. Both Severrus and Marshall earned the lucky loser positions as their times were faster than the second semifinal’s third-place finisher, Becca Rorabaugh of Alaska Pacific University (APU).
When it came to the last heat of the day, Marshall positioned herself in third for most of the A-final. When she reached the finishing stretch into the stadium, however, she surged past APU’s Chelsea Holmes to go head-to-head with fellow AWCA and Canadian national team member Heidi Widmer. As the two approached the finish, Marshall did what she had been doing all day and lunged for the win.
Her practice paid off as she edged Widmer by 0.28 seconds.
“In sprint races, I tend to get stronger as it goes on, so I felt good in the final and had enough in the final kick,” Marshall said.
Marshall, who has competed in both the Canadian and international World Cup circuits, said that the result was an indication that she was on the right track for her season goals. While she considered Friday’s sprint a warmup and acknowledged that anyone in the A-final could have nabbed the top spot, she said that her win was a confidence boost that would serve her well in future races.
Just a boot length behind Marshall, Widmer lost steam in the finishing stretch of the 1.5-kilometer race.
“I felt really strong but I’m a little disappointed that I lost in that little finishing stretch there… It’s nice to have it under the belt and get into the rhythm of ski racing,” the 2014 Olympian said after finishing the A-final.
Widmer started the day with a strong finish in the qualification round, where she placed first ahead of Annie Pokorny (SMST2) and Rosie Brennan (APU), who were second and third, respectively.
The qualification result propelled Widmer throughout the heats as she won both her quarterfinal and semifinal by healthy margins.
Like Marshall, Widmer said that the result added to her confidence but had no concrete significance regarding her season goals – racing on the World Cup and skiing at the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden.
Despite the significance of the race, Widmer said the American competition was refreshing, as Canadian sprint heats are often only competitive in the final.
“It is always good to practice skiing in the heats… getting used to that kind of stuff, especially when we can come down to the states and ski in more competitive heats,” she said. “In Canada we have great skiers, but often it won’t really come together until the final, so we won’t have a competitive heat until the final.”
Two-time U.S. National sprint champion Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation), agreed, saying that the competition, especially in the A-final, was “stacked.”
Bender, who finished in third position as the top American, fought back after 17th in qualification to handily win her quarterfinal and semifinal.
Once in the A-final, Bender said that it was one most competitive heats she has ever raced, with all six women jostling for a strategic position the entire 1.5 k.
“It was fun and awesome, but scary because you’re in self-preservation mode and you’re trying to hold your line,” she explained. “That was one of the closest finals I’ve had in a long time — just five of us right there.”
Bender, who was in fifth as the skiers crested the final hill into the stadium, looked to find an opening in which she could make her move.
All that was open between the five skiers was a gap to her far right. Although she had to use precious time to place herself into the opening, Bender explained that she believed it was better than the alternative of sitting in behind another athlete.
“You pick [an opening] and you go for it, there’s no time to really jump in behind anyone in my opinion,” she said.
Bender was happy with her third-place finish, but acknowledged that she needed to improve if she wanted to accomplish her season goal of making World Championships.
“I have high expectations for myself, and this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “So, a podium’s good – it’s okay, but it’s not first.”
Just five-hundredths of a second behind Bender was Holmes, positioned in second before Marshall and Bender passed her in the finishing stretch.
Holmes, who qualified in seventh and is traditionally a stronger distance skier, said she was excited to perform well in sprinting and explained that it was a testament to the work she has put into her training the past year.
She said that what set her apart from much of Friday’s field was her ability to climb the final hill into the stadium.
Her teammate, Brennan was also in the hunt for a position on the podium. The 2014 national champion in the classic sprint was a favorite for the top spot and skied both a strong quarterfinal and semifinal to make her way into the A-final.
Brennan said that she was happy with her fifth-place finish and explained it was a victory in itself that she was racing Friday because of the many difficulties she has dealt with in the previous months.
Rounding out the A-final was Severrus, a Slovenian who skis for University of New Mexico. She finished sixth, 1.8 seconds behind Marshall.
Despite the high spirits of the SuperTour racers, there were several organizational issues that caused the day to be longer than planned.
As skiers prepared for their second round of heats, several coaches, including Sun Valley’s Rick Kapala and Stratton’s Patrick O’Brien noticed that the semifinal lists were incorrectly ordered. While the issue was eventually fixed, racing was postponed, leaving skiers in the cold wind while they waited for their start order.
The incorrect order of the men’s semifinal would soon become the least of the organizers’ worries as it was soon discovered that they had incorrectly placed Hailey Swirbul (Aspen Valley Ski Club) into one of the women’s semifinals.
Swirbul had placed fourth in the quarterfinal, 3.03 seconds behind Flowers, but the results read that Swirbul had instead finished ahead of Flowers.
Flowers and several other members of SMST2 alerted organizers of the mishap, but it wasn’t until Swirbul herself came forward that the timers reversed the placement and gave Flowers a position in the semifinal.
When all was said and done, the schedule was delayed by more than 40 minutes.
Flowers said she understood that mistakes happen and explained that the best ski racers are the ones who can work past such setbacks.
“There are a million things that can affect you on race day and that’s just something you have to be prepared for,” Flowers said after placing fifth in the B-final for 11th overall. “The best racers are the ones who can roll with it and that’s always something I can work on so this was good practice of that. It’s frustrating but everyone’s trying to make the best outcome. I think ultimately it worked out even if it added some delays.”
Other athletes were equally as graceful, with Marshall joking that the delays had made her “ready for lunch.” She explained that her key to staying warm and snappy during such a long waiting period was to do a signature running shuffle — a move that often draws the laughter of her teammates.
The SuperTour women will continue competition Saturday with a 10 k freestyle individual start.
— Colin Gaiser contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.