Liz Stephen entered Saturday’s 10-kilometer freestyle in Davos, Switzerland, with a goal of placing in the top 10. While she missed her target by 4.9 seconds and earned a 12th place on the day, the result was a promising step for the 27-year-old as she continues to improve with every race.
The Vermont native led a small American contingent in the 10/15 k competitions. Only four other U.S. racers – Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Caitlin Gregg, and Erik Bjornson – participated Saturday, as many athletes were either resting for Sunday’s sprint or stateside for the holidays.
Stephen finished 1:00.8 back from women’s 10 k winner Marit Bjorgen of Norway, who continued to demonstrate her strength with a time of 24:57.7. Stephen started the 10 k with a strong effort, clocking the 11th fastest time at the 2 k mark. While she slipped to 17th at the 5 k mark, she was able to pick off five places to finish 12th .
Starting with bib seven, Stephen crossed the line as an early leader. She remained in the leader’s chair until eventual fifth place finisher Claudia Nystad of Germany unseated her.
Stephen’s goal to reach the top-10 was a challenge even before she began her race due to the nature of the terrain. The Davos 5k course featured many gradual hills and rolling flats that favor strong V2 skiers. In contrast, Stephen often excels on hilly courses that require V1.
Stephen’s strong finish impressed USST Head Coach Chris Grover.
“It’s not necessarily a course that plays to her strength. It’s more of a V2, downhill and tuck-skate course. For her to be 12th and five seconds from the top-10 on a course that doesn’t have that much V1 and [for her] to be able to pull away from other people was great,” he said in a phone interview.
To combat the lack of sharp inclines, Stephen said she worked to conserve energy so that she could give it her all on the important flat and downhill sections of the course.
“You can lose time on the way back down and on the flats. That’s where I need the energy to ski technically well to carry my ski. I was trying to work every opportunity I could for a couple seconds here and there,” she said in phone interview.
She also aimed to ski the downhills with aggression. The task was easier said than done, however, as the conditions in Davos were slick and incredibly fast. A combination of warm temperatures and cold nights made the trails resemble an ice rink, leading Stephen to feel like “a deer on ice.”
“There’s never really a downhill you’re resting on and any downhill that you’re going on is pretty technical. It was extremely fast today, and the stadium looked like rock solid ice,” she said of the conditions.
Despite placing two spots outside her goal, Stephen said she was pleased with her result and season trajectory. She also noted that Saturday’s race did not demonstrate her abilities – a good sign for upcoming races.
“Each weekend is a little bit of a step forward for me and that’s a fun way to go about it,” she said. “I didn’t race as well as I possibly could have to get a top ten, so I’m happy with the way it ended up.”
Stephen was in a similar position in 2013 and delivered strong results afterwards. She raced the same 10 k course in a 2013 Davos World Cup and finished roughly a minute back from Therese Johaug in 15th. Two weeks later, she placed fifth in the World Championship 5 k.
Two other U.S. skiers placed in the top-30, with Diggins (+1:30.2) and Sadie Bjornsen (+1:35.5) finishing in 27th and 29th.
Diggins said that although the course favored her strengths, the icy conditions led to a less-than-ideal result for the Minnesota native. Diggins also suffered two hard falls earlier in the week, making her more cautious on the unstable course.
“I tried my best and was focused the whole time, pushing for those seconds. I think that top gear just wasn’t there today, so it was an ok race, but not a great one.” she said in a phone interview. “I paced it better than in past years, but I definitely wasted some energy on the icy rock hard stadium area, bobbling around trying to ski smoothly and not fall.”
Bjornsen was pleased with her result, explaining that she considers a top-30 finish in a freestyle race a good day.
She, like Diggins, also fell in on the course in the lead up to the weekend’s races, but had a different approach to the consequences.
“I had a couple bad falls a few days ago so I’ve just been stiff and mentally out of it. I often find that it is better for me because I have less time to focus and get nervous,” she explained in a phone interview.
Bjornsen entered Saturday’s competition hoping to ski with an improved strategy on last week’s 10 k classic. The 25-year-old said she was able to find the elements she had been missing in the previous weekend of racing .
“I went into today without a huge goal, I just wanted to stay positive the whole time and really work on the top part of the course because I missed that last weekend. I feel like I was really able to push today, hold it together mentally, and pick off a few places at the end,” she said.
Caitlin Gregg was the final U.S. woman in the 10 k, finishing 54th in a field of 55 women. Prior to Saturday, she suffered an illness that has been circulating within the USST since November.
“Caitlin has been wrestling with the same cold that has been going through the team the past few weeks. She didn’t feel the cold was affecting her today but she just didn’t have the gear to perform this week. I’m sure being sick mid-week didn’t help with that,” Grover said of Gregg.
The lone U.S. male to start in the 15 k freestyle was Erik Bjornsen.
Bjornsen finished the race in 56th position and 2:00.4 behind Anders Gløersen of Norway who won with a time of 34:27.9.
Despite feeling “off” while preparing for the 15 k, Bjornsen started the race with the hope of a good performance. However, he, like many of his teammates, found the course conditions inhibiting his skiing.
“Usually a race track will have a couple technical corners but rarely do I feel scared in a race. Today there was a downhill on the track that was probably the sketchiest I have ever seen in a race. The corner got worse and worse every lap,” he said.
In addition to the unfavorable conditions, Bjornsen said he was too relaxed and conservative throughout the entirety of the race.
“Times were tight and every minute you spent unfocused or relaxed was going to cost you even more then normal. I think this hard block of racing and training is starting to catch up with me,” he said.
Once Bjornsen finishes tomorrow’s sprint, he will have completed his first full period of World Cup racing. He explained that starting in every race during the period was a season-goal of his, and that the experience he gained in the last four weeks of racing will benefit him as he progresses through his season and career.
Several USST athletes choose to rest for Sunday’s 1.4 k freestyle sprint, accounting for the small numbers of American skiers on the race course Saturday. Those skiers include Simi Hamilton, Kikkan Randall, Sophie Caldwell, and Ida Sargent who will return to competition Sunday. Also missing from the distance start lists were Andy Newell and Reese Hanneman who both recently traveled back to the U.S.
Newell will return to Europe for the Tour de Ski, while Hanneman will rest in Alaska after a difficult three weekends of racing on the World Cup. He will then compete in U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich., starting Jan. 4.
Heading into Sunday’s freestyle sprint, Grover said the entire team was confident that it could improve on last week’s results in the same event.
“We are optimistic that we can have a better day than last week… We will have a bigger group, but we still won’t be back to where we are when we are at full strength… but we will be headed in the right direction,” he said.
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.