The U.S. Ski Team was predicting a slow start to the season this year, but in Friday’s World Cup freestyle sprint in Lillehammer, Norway – perhaps the team’s best event – they had one of their worst days in recent history.
While there were a few bright spots, including Sadie Bjornsen’s 21st place, it was a far cry from last Saturday’s classic sprint where five athletes qualified for the finals, and Ida Sargent finished a career-best fifth overall.
“Five people in the qualifier in Kuusamo – that’s our standard. Anything below that begins to be a compromise performance,” U.S. Ski team (USST) Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone after Friday’s race. “Today, with only qualifying Sadie, was way off the mark.”
According to Whitcomb, there were several reasons their squad failed to meet expectations.
First, the team, especially on the women’s side, faced several injuries and illness prior to the weekend.
Sophie Caldwell, last season’s Olympic standout in the same event, returned to competition after breaking her elbow in October. Friday’s sprint was her first race since the injury and she placed 61st. In addition, both Caldwell and three-time Sprint World Cup champion Kikkan Randall suffered from illness in the week prior to racing in Lillehammer.
Furthermore, several Americans cited dragging skis on a course where downhills played a major role in finish times on the first day of the three-stage mini tour.
Whitcomb said that, despite the fact both coaches and skiers were disappointed with the day’s results, there is no reason to worry about the rest of the USST’s season.
“I would encourage people to not be frustrated with the results of today or anything in this early season. What goes down in February, that’s what we’re really targeting,” he said.
Bjornsen, the sole USST member to advance to the final, qualified in 16th, 8.67 seconds behind eventual race-winner Marit Bjørgen of Norway.
Bjornsen explained that she started her 1.3-kilometer qualifier at a fast pace, and “went out too hard.” However, her pacing was good enough to put her well within the top 30.
Before entering the quarterfinals, she and Whitcomb devised a plan for the demanding course. She decided to start conservatively and make a move on the first hill so that she would be in good position headed into the stadium. It was a strategy that many skiers, especially the Norwegians, used in the quarterfinals with much success.
Unfortunately for Bjornsen, her start was too slow and she found herself far behind the others in her quarterfinal. In the first third of the the race, she was out of the mix with all five skiers in font of her, including eventual second-place finisher Celine Brun-Lie of Norway.
“I was trying to be more conservative at the beginning. I don’t know if it was that I was too conservative, or that I just wasn’t fast enough at the beginning because I found myself in the very back,” Bjornsen said on the phone. “If I skied it again, I would try to be aggressive right off the start.”
However, Bjornsen made up ground and kept contact with the group. Heading into the last few hundred meters of the race, Bjornsen inched into fourth position, but was unable to hold her speed around the corner into the stadium. Russia’s Anastasia Dotsenko passed her, and Bjornsen ended her heat in fifth for 21st overall.
According to Whitcomb, the result, in combination with last week’s races, readies the 25-year-old Bjornsen for a strong season. He explained that her next step in sprinting will be to focus on her ability to advance past the quarterfinals.
“With Sadie, we’re still working on getting through these quarterfinals. She can qualify often, but the quarterfinals have been challenging for her,” he said.
Randall Misses Rounds
The next American on the results list was Randall, who finished 43rd and 1.63 seconds outside 30th. The placement was an uncharacteristic finish for Randall, who is known as one of the fastest sprinters on the World Cup circuit.
The last time Randall did not place in the top 30 in a freestyle sprint was in a World Cup in Lahti, Finland, in March 2009, where she was 47th. According to the FIS database, the last sprint she didn’t advance — freestyle or classic — was four years ago in a classic-sprint World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland.
Going into the Lillehammer sprint, the second sprint of the season, Randall said she was optimistic. While she did not feel in top form during the previous day’s race preparation, she explained that she had outstanding performances in the past with similar pre-race feelings.
Randall felt her effort in the qualifier would be enough to get her into the finals, but she was “very surprised” when she discovered that she was out of contention for a spot in the heats.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a light-the-world-on-fire kind of day, but I actually felt like it was a decent qualifier,” Randall said. “I kept the pedal down the whole way and I paced it quite well. I was aggressive up the first hill and saved some energy for the last climb and skied all the different sections the way I wanted to. I didn’t feel like I had full power out there, but I was very surprised to not qualify today,” she said.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a light-the-world-on-fire kind of day, but I actually felt like it was a decent qualifier. … I was very surprised to not qualify.” — Kikkan Randall, 43rd in Lillehammer World Cup 1.3 k freestyle sprint on Friday
Randall said a combination of lacking race form, being sick earlier in the week, and having “tough” skis were all factors in her result.
“You put all those things together in a World Cup field where everybody is on, and you don’t make the top 30,” she explained.
However, Randall found a silver lining in Friday’s performance — because she’s not in top race form, she still has a lot of room to improve over the season.
“I’m certainly not feeling like I’m in race form yet so that’s the good news,” she said. “The big goal this year is the World Championship in Falun so I’m just going to focus on that.”
Newell Top U.S. Male in 36th
In the men’s 1.5 k race, Andy Newell was the first American in 36th, 8.34 seconds back from qualifier winner Sergey Ustiugov of Russia and 0.78 seconds out of the top 30.
Newell entered the sprint feeling strong and ready to race, but left the venue unsure of what happened.
Much like Randall, he has a long history of qualification. On the phone Friday, he said the last time he didn’t advance to finals without a crash in his qualification round was in 2005 or 2006.
“I’m not really sure what to think. It feels kind of weird not to qualify,” he said.
According to Newell, the combination of several factors, such as racing form and slow skis, led to where he ended up. However, he said that in the past, he has always overcome such problems.
“I think even with slow skis I should be able to get in there,” he said. “One of my strengths has always been to qualify.”
Despite his disappointment in Friday’s result, Newell said his finish was a reminder that a spot in the top 30 is never guaranteed.
“It’s good to have days like this to remind you how tough it is on the World Cup if your skis aren’t gliding or if you make a mistake,” he said.
Newell will participate in the remaining two races of the mini tour, but said he will focus on performing well in next weekend’s classic sprint in Davos, Switzerland.
“One of my strengths has always been to qualify. … It’s good to have days like this to remind you how tough it is on the World Cup,” — Andy Newell, 36th in Lillehammer World Cup 1.5 k freestyle sprint
Other American finishers of the day were Sargent in 51st and Jessie Diggins in 55th.
Sargent, who holds the top result for an American on the World Cup so far this season, was unable to break into the points on Friday.
Diggins explained she was disappointed in her result and pointed to timid skiing on the downhills as to why she didn’t make the heats for the first time since 2011. One of the only U.S. racers to say her skis were fast, Diggins added that she wasn’t ready for their speed after switching from her slow warmup skis.
Behind Sargent and Diggins was Caldwell in 61st, who explained she was happy to be racing again after finishing in 61st.
As mentioned previously, the race was Caldwell’s first since her injury. While she’s expected to fully recover at the 12-week mark (she’s currently at week nine), she said that there was no pain in her elbow in Friday’s race.
The result was nothing noteworthy for Caldwell, who placed sixth in the Olympics skate sprint last year, but she explained that the fact she was racing again was a victory in itself.
“I made it a goal to have zero expectations going into today and to just be grateful to be racing again,” she wrote in an email.
Whitcomb was excited to see Caldwell wearing a bib again, especially ahead of schedule.
“It was a good move to race … I’m really pleased with how the recovery from the broken elbow has gone,” he said. “We’re right on track if not a little bit ahead. We were discussing about Davos being her first race, so this is a bonus. We’re not going to push it but I’m encouraged by today’s result.”
Rounding out the U.S. women were Liz Stephen in 71st and Cailtin Gregg in 78th.
For the men, Erik Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton finished 58th and 59th, roughly half a second apart.
The two men had very different experiences on the course, but both ended the day wanting more.
Bjornsen said that he was very excited about the effort and that he gave what he thought to be a strong performance until he saw his results. Hamilton, on the other hand, wrote that he felt lethargic and fatigued during his race, and that the hilly course did not favor his strengths. Both were optimistic about future races and explained they were ready to prove themselves in future sprints.
Reese Hanneman was the final American skier in 99th. Hanneman, who is in Europe as the 2013/2014 men’s SuperTour leader, wrote in an email that he paced the race as well as he could as he was feeling in better racing shape than a week ago.
The Lillehammer mini tour continues tomorrow with 5/10 k freestyle individual starts.
The highest-ranked American headed into Day 2, Bjornsen said that she was looking forward to the freestyle competition, as one of her focuses this summer was to improve her results in the discipline.
“In the past I’ve been stronger in classic, but I really worked to change that this summer so I’m excited to see what I can do tomorrow and see if I can find a way to float in my skate skiing,” she said.
Stephen’s ‘Scapular Impingement’
Stephen, a strong skater who placed fifth in the 5 k freestyle at the 2013 World Championships, will also be looking to perform well in Saturday’s race.
Stephen met up with the team just two days before last week’s Kuusamo World Cup races due to what Whitcomb called a scapular impingement.
He said the injury’s source was unknown, but caused the 27-year-old Stephen to minimally use her upper body for two weeks before the start of the World Cup.
“It felt like a muscle fairly deep in her shoulder that was pushing on her first rib. It really hurt her to breathe and it essentially felt like the rib was out of place,” Whitcomb explained. “It had been hurting her a couple days double poling and I made the mistake of pushing her too hard in an interval session and not really understanding the nature of the injury. It set her back.”
However, Stephen wrote in an email that the injury had recovered 100 percent and that she was ready to see what she can do in the season’s first freestyle race. She explained that Friday’s sprint was a “big step forward” in how her body functioned in the race, even though she’s not at full racing shape yet.
“Last weekend was a bit of a tough start for me, and my body and shape are not where I wanted them to be at this point, but the season is long and I have to be patient with these early races,” Stephen wrote. “I am focused on the next two races, making up some time on some people tomorrow and continuing my fight for spots in the 10k classic on Sunday. The courses are really challenging here, with long, hard climbs and fast downhills, so I am excited to see how it will go.”
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.