DAVOS, Switzerland—With three women making the quarterfinals and one more just barely okay, today’s World Cup skate sprint was moving in the right direction for the U.S. Ski Team.
“I would put it as a good day,” women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said. “I wouldn’t use any other word that celebrates it more than that. It was certainly solid. We came into this knowing that this is a good course for us, and we expect to have a good day. So I’m satisfied.”
Three performances were great, for three different reasons: Ida Sargent qualified 19th and finished 16th; Kikkan Randall made the heats and finished 20th, feeling better than in the last two weeks; and Sophie Caldwell made her first heats of the season on her way back from an elbow injury, finishing 22nd. We’ll get to those performances, and why each was so positive, later.
But for every great day, there was also a frustrating one. Sadie Bjornsen was left out of the heats, placing 31st, just half a second out of the quarterfinals. Jessie Diggins finished 43rd, unable to get her mojo back and re-start her previously long streak of qualifying in skate sprints. Caitlin Gregg finished 60th.
“This is exactly what we built this team for,” Whitcomb said. “You don’t build it for the easy days. You build it for the periods when you need it. We’ve been able to really tap into this team in period one, when we have some ups and downs. Some people skiing exceptionally here and there, but also quite a few disappointing races. I’ve been pleased with the way that the team is floating and sort of rolling with the punches.”
Coming off a banner year last season where Randall won her third straight Sprint Cup title, Caldwell racked up a best-ever Olympic finish for a U.S. woman, and the team was generally better than they’d ever been before, things feel a little different this time around.
“It’s hard not to have amazing results right off the bat,” Caldwell said. “We’re trying to build into the season, and by the time February rolls around we’ll be ready to go.”
Randall echoed Whitcomb’s sentiments: these challenges are making them stronger. Last year, she was second in this race, losing by a toe to Norway’s Marit Bjørgen. Today she was just happy to make the quarterfinals.
“This has been a really good test for our team,” she said. “I think the fire in our bellies is really growing right now. We all really wanted to focus on World Champs this year, to prove as a team that that’s where we can really show up. So everybody is starting the season a little less hot. That of course tests your patience and your confidence. But we have a really good feeling on the team right now and we’re all skiing really close, so that will help us push it to the next level.”
Sargent Close to Her Best
One of the highlights of the day was Sargent’s performance. Earlier this season, she had a breakthrough placing fifth in the classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland. On paper, Davos wouldn’t seem like the best venue for her: it’s a skate sprint, and has a long flat section. Sargent typically excels on the hills.
But she was the top U.S. qualifier, overcoming the hurdle that sometimes seemed challenging last season: to consistently get in the heats.
“Today she showed that she could not just squeak in there, she qualified firmly,” Whitcomb said. “Just three seconds out of third place. She showed that this is an event that’s opening up for her.”
The classic sprint provided her with some extra confidence in skating, too, Sargent said.
“Making it to the final, I could tell that my fitness was really there, and I had felt like training skating was going well,” she explained. “But then getting sick after Finland and first trying to race through it and then having to kind of take a break wasn’t ideal. I was not feeling great. A little bummed out after yesterday, so this is a good confidence booster.”
Sargent planned to stay at the front of her quarterfinal, but it proved a tough task as she was matched up with Bjørgen, who finished fourth on the day, and perpetual finalist Katja Visnar of Slovenia (who, okay, finished 11th today).
“It felt like it went out quite fast, and I wasn’t really ready for that,” Sargent said. “I didn’t want to flood [my legs] too soon. I felt really strong climbing on the hills and just tried to move up there. I wish I’d had a little more space. I just got a little gap to Visnar, and I wish I had been able to hang a little tighter to her.”
Bjørgen won the heat by a whopping three seconds, and Sargent skied an aggressive finish, almost catching Visnar. She ended up in a photo finish with Sandra Ringwald of Germany. She lost it by 0.4 seconds and wound up fourth in her heat. Unlike in Kuusamo, she didn’t get a lucky lose spot in the semifinals, either.
“It was still really fun,” Sargent said. “It was my best skate qualifier maybe ever, so I was really happy with that… I know I can be there. Even a day like today, I can tell that I was skiing with all those girls. Some heats go your way and some heats don’t go your way. That’s what makes it really fun and exciting. Every day is different.”
According to Whitcomb, this might have been another breakthrough, this time in freestyle sprinting.
“She’s had better results in Sochi and Moscow and Canmore,” he said. “But this is a really stacked field, it’s on a unique course that has a very high speed V2 section, twice, and that has never been Ida’s forte.”
Randall Inches Forward
The season did not get off to a good start for Randall, the team’s biggest star. In Kuusamo and Lillehammer, she looked like a shell of her former self. But after today’s competition everyone agreed that she’s on her way back to her winning habits, even if she’s not quite there yet.
“I actually had a gear going up the hill that time,” she said, relieved. “It’s definitely a step better. But I definitely want more.”
It wasn’t clear whether Randall would make it into the heats or not; she eventually qualified in 28th (“It was kind of nailbiter when I saw my name slipping down the board, and I’m like, oh, I don’t want to spend another week not qualifying,” she said). But once she got to the quarterfinals, she was able to think like her usual tactical self.
“This course, it pays to be a little bit patient,” she said, explaining that she didn’t worry too much after she got boxed out of the front of the heat early on. “That wasn’t so bad, because there was a good open lane on the outside on the hill and we had good boards today. I was able to come right into the pack on the downhill, and I decided to go for it on the inside.”
But she also had a tough heat, with eventual runner-up Maiken Caspersen Falla and Swedish star Ida Ingemarsdotter. The Norwegian Olympic gold medalist was a frequent foe of Randall’s last season, but today she couldn’t match Falla’s pace.
“I actually came off the corner in a good position and then across the flats, the pace picked up and I wasn’t able to respond right away,” she said. “About 2/3 of the way I was able to remind myself to dig in a little bit and found a gear… I was happy to be not just blown off the back. I think all the right things are in there, I’ve just been struggling with being sick and down all summer.”
Like Sargent, Randall made a charge at the end of her race and ended up on the losing side of a photo finish for third. This might have been one of those performances that Whitcomb said was good. Is it the old Randall? No. But it’s closer – she had at least a little bit of juice – and everyone involved is keeping the real goal in sight.
“She’s going to have her day again soon,” Whitcomb said.
Caldwell: What Elbow?
Finally, Caldwell is working on a comeback of her own after missing a chunk of training when she broke her elbow in Park City this fall.
“It is a terrific day for Sophie,” Whitcomb said, getting a bit more animated. “She’s been wondering just how close she is to her return, and we have felt all along that she was going to return in qualification form. And we were proven wrong in Lillehammer. That was something we had to swallow. But we stuck to our guns, and kept trying to encourage her and let her know that she was closer than she feels.”
Caldwell has been carefully managing her expectations, and qualifying in 23rd place fulfilled a secret one she hadn’t been saying out loud.
“I was trying not to have any expectations and just keep improving a little each weekend,” she said. “That was my goal. But obviously in the back of my head, I thought, it would be really cool to qualify. So I was just thrilled to be back in it today.”
She raced in the same quarterfinal with Randall, but slipped back over the course of the second lap and finished a bit over four seconds off the pace, good for fifth place in the heat and 23rd overall.
“We were happy to be in the last heat because this course has so many tactics, with two laps and the corner,” she said. “So we watched the heats and saw what was working. We practiced the corner with Ida, and the start, and tried to get the hang of things. Otherwise, it was just the same strategy as always.”
The heat was “a little rough,” she said, but like Randall she was happy to be moving in the right direction.
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.