DAVOS, Switzerland— “I’ve been feeling pretty good this season,” U.S. Ski Team veteran Andy Newell says after the finish of today’s skate sprint. “I think I was carrying a little bit of fatigue just from the fall training, but still I think I’m a top 15 World Cup sprinter right now, I just haven’t had a chance to show it.”
He was one of the 15 best sprinters in the world today, qualifying in 15th and then also finishing 15th after he was third in his quarterfinal heat but not fast enough to snag a lucky loser spot in the semifinals.
It’s his best result so far this season, but he still has some work to do in order to reach that goal in the overall rankings. Newell feels like he’s fit, he has just been held back.
“We totally screwed skis up those first two races, so it has been frustrating,” he admitted. “I want to show people what we’re capable of. Everyone on the team wants to show what we’re capable of. So it’s always hard when you start off poorly like that, you always feel like you have to dig yourself out of a hole. There’s more and more pressure on each race to do well. It’s a long season and we’ll get back.”
Similarly, teammate Erik Bjornsen was left looking for more after placing 63rd in the qualification round. He, too, feels like he’s in better shape than the result indicates.
“I’m fighting in the 40s,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a good spot and my fitness is high. That’s what you have to think about. I’m going to try and ignore the place right now. Hopefully that will start coming up.”
If proving yourself is a theme, then the U.S. men have a small staff to work with. Sprint specialist Simi Hamilton sat out today’s race because he woke up with a cold; the last time he raced a sprint in Switzerland, he won it. That wasn’t going to happen today.
And with Noah Hoffman back home in the U.S. recovering from a leg injury sustained in the first World Cup weekend, there’s not a lot of depth in distance, either. SuperTour leader Reese Hanneman finished 86th today and 79th in the 15 k classic yesterday.
But Newell almost provided the team with something more to celebrate, as he finished half a second out of second place in his heat and an automatic advancement to the semifinals. He was about second away from grabbing a “lucky loser” spot based on his time.
Newell chalked it up to a slight tactical error.
“I felt okay, but I probably should have tried to get by one more person on that last uphill,” he said. “It’s such a short finishing stretch because of this changed course that it makes it really hard to pass. I’m not sure that anyone is really passing in the final stretch. I just didn’t have quite enough coming over the final hill to get past [Alexey] Petukhov, the Russian.”
It was a tough heat, he said – Eirik Brandsdal of Norway won it and then went on to finish third in the final, and Petukhov fourth – but he still thought he could have played it better.
Most of the field gets a do-over next weekend and some, like Canada’s Lenny Valjas who finished just two spots ahead of Newell on the results sheet, have already clarified what they’ll do differently on take two.
Newell, though, won’t be joining them. The competitions were originally scheduled as a 30 k skiathlon and a 4 x 10 k relay in La Clusaz, France, but when FIS organizers canceled the La Clusaz event due to a lack of snow and moved the weekend to Davos, they switched the relay to a sprint.
Newell had already booked his plane ticket home, having other priorities than distance skiing as he looks forward towards the rest of the season. Those plans haven’t changed.
“To me, it was more important to go home and see family and girlfriend and stuff,” he said, adding that he’d be at the Eastern Cup races in Middlebury, Vermont. “I think it’s really dumb that they made the sprint like that. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it.”
Bjornsen Looks to Settle In
Bjornsen is more or less the men’s team’s de facto distance leader. But with Hamilton out today, there could have been more pressure for the 23-year-old, who is an all-around skier, to also turn in a strong sprint performance. He’s qualified in the top 30 in four previous World Cups.
But Bjornsen doesn’t feel the pressure of being one of the team’s new leaders.
“It sucks,” Bjornsen said of Hoffman’s absence. “Especially with Simi not here today, we’re not where we’re usually at as a men’s team. I’d love Noah to be here because he’s a great distance skier. It’s great to have someone to train with and to watch and learn from…. but there’s no pressure. The pressure comes when you’re fighting for the podium.”
Instead, he said that he’s actually enjoying this season more than others in some ways.
“I actually struggled a lot last year,” he admitted. “I wanted to go to the Olympics so bad. It’s a life-long goal for any athlete. The pressure was super high last year. So I’m pretty happy that this year I have it a little more laid back. Of course, once I qualified for Sochi it was so much fun. But I’m enjoying myself a little more this year. I’m trying to learn from each venue and hopefully I can come back over the next five or ten years. If I can learn now, I should be able to improve and get closer to that podium.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.