When Jennie Öberg of Sweden finished the 1.3 k freestyle sprint in Rybinsk, Russia she checked a few items off her bucket list – it was her first World Cup sprint final and her first World Cup podium. It didn’t stop there either, as Saturday’s race marked the Swedish skier’s first victory.
The win came under challenging conditions, where skiers faced a soft, slow course due to heavy snowfall throughout the night and morning. Organizers attempted to harden the track between races to no avail, as the dry snow failed to respond to the groomer’s attempts.
With the extra challenge, Öberg skied confidently throughout the heats and won the final with a time of 3:02.54. It was a close race for the top spot, with Natalia Matveeva of Russia just 0.48 seconds behind the Swede. Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff (+0.76) won a photo finish over Anastasia Dotsenko (+0.78) of Russia to take third. American Jessie Diggins (+5.63) and Norwegian Silje Oeyre Slind (+11.17) rounded out the final in fifth and sixth.
Prior to Saturday’s race, Öberg’s best World Cup result was a 2014 freestyle sprint in Nove Mesto where she placed seventh. She raced the majority of the 2015 season on the Scandinavian Cup circuit, with her first World Cup of the year taking place in Otepää, Estonia earlier in January.
Öberg started her day with a strong qualification round in which she placed first, 2.08 seconds ahead of the next competitor. The quarterfinal was wasn’t as easily conquered, however, as the Swede fell after tangling with van der Graaff while exiting the stadium. The crash set her back roughly 40 meters, but Öberg worked to catch the group as they navigated the soft course. By the time the skiers reached the stadium, she was back in the mix, ultimately taking second to van der Graaff.
With the scare of the fall behind her, Öberg skied a smart and aggressive semifinal and final to take her debut victory. According to the Swede, the win was an important step in qualifying for World Championships, which will be held in her home country in February.
“This was my first ever sprint final so to win is just amazing. I am really so happy. I felt really strong today. I was ready to win. When I fell in the quarterfinal I panicked a little but it all worked out. This gives me confidence for the upcoming Swedish Championships, which will be final selections for Falun 2015,” Öberg said in a post-race interview with FIS.
In second place, the crowd-favorite Matveeva was happy to be near the top of the results again. Her last World Cup podium was third place in a 2012 classic sprint in Otepää.
Matveeva entered the heats as the fourth-fastest qualifier and skied to victory in her quarterfinal. In the semifinal, however, she and van der Graaff lunged for a photo finish. Although Matveeva lost by 0.01 seconds, her time was fast enough to nab a lucky loser position and advance to the final.
“This is a great podium for me. I have been sixth and fourth here before but never on the podium. The spectators were so loud. It was a great racing atmosphere here today. The conditions were challenging. I am happy with myself for this result,” Matveeva said to FIS after the final.
Unlike her counterparts, van der Graaff has been in the running for a World Cup podium multiple times this season. Before Saturday the Swiss skier had advanced to a final twice in the 2015 season, in Davos and Val Mustair. In both instances she placed sixth.
In Rybinsk, van der Graaff was dangerously close to missing the podium as she and Dotsenko were in a photo finish for third. In the end it was van der Graff who came out on top by 0.02 seconds.
“It feels really great to be on the podium today. It was a photo finish at the line but I was pretty sure that I was in third place. It was a relief to see that in the end I was third and on the podium,” van der Graaff said to FIS.
In fifth place, Diggins earned her best result of the 2015 season. The Rybinsk World Cup marked her first competition since she pulled out of the Tour de Ski due to illness earlier in January. In Friday’s 10 k freestyle Diggins placed 12th.
The night before Saturday’s competition Diggins said she was plagued by a series of bad dreams, and that she began her warm up feeling exhausted.
“I had a crazy bad night of sleep… When I got out there to warm up I was like ‘oh man I feel tired,’” Diggins said in a phone interview.
Despite the fatigue, Diggins explained that she was reminded of teammate Kikkan Randall, who has achieved some of her best results when pre-race feelings indicated a poor day. Diggins said that instead of thinking about her fatigue she decided to focus on how she was going feel in the race. That, in combination with tasty breakfast prepared by teammate Liz Stephen, gave her a boost heading into the race.
After qualifying 13th, Diggins entered the quarterfinals with more energy. She sat near the back of the pack until the course’s only major climb. There, she moved to second place behind Rikka Sarasoja-Lilja of Finland. The two crested the hill together and attacked the downhill ahead of the four other women. As the two entered the stadium, Diggins free skated past the Finn to take first place.
A similar strategy was used in the semifinal, but this time Diggins found herself in first at the top of the final hill with Dotsenko and teammate Sophie Caldwell close behind. She was worried that the two skiers would use the draft to slingshot into the stadium, but when they arrived Diggins was still in the front and easily crossed the line in second place.
Diggins said that the group dynamic of the final made for a fun heat.
“It was cool because Öberg and Slind had never been in a final before, so we were all high-fiving each other and wishing each other good luck. It was a fun positive energy going into the final,” she said.
Diggins believed she had a good shot at her first individual World Cup podium, but fatigue got the best of her as she traversed the course for the fourth time. Falling to the back of the heat from the start, the 23-year-old maintained fifth throughout much of the race.
Diggins explained that the 2015 season has been mentally challenging but that Saturday’s result was a step in the right direction.
“My confidence this year hasn’t been where it maybe should be because I’m not racing at the level where I was last year, which is hard. It’s definitely one of those things where you have to keep telling yourself that you have what it takes,” she explained.
According to the Minnesota native, the boost in confidence from the result in addition to USST dynamics will set her up for a strong showing at the 2015 World Championships, which take place in three weeks.
“I feel really good going into Worlds because the team is functioning like such a well-oiled machine. I feel like we are in a good place,” she said.
USST Head Coach Chris Grover said that he was pleased with Diggins’ result and that he was impressed with her ability to navigate the soft conditions.
“Jessie usually likes firm conditions but she was awesome. She really skied in control during her quarter and semifinals. She really executed moves exactly the way she wanted so that was pretty cool,” he said in a phone interview.
American Women Land Four in Finals
Diggins wasn’t the only American to impress in Saturday’s sprint.
Caldwell, a regular in freestyle sprint semifinals, skied to seventh in Rybinsk despite lingering fatigue. The 24-year-old qualified 16th and easily advanced from her quarterfinal. Once in the semifinals, Caldwell used similar tactics to land third place. Unfortunately, Caldwell’s semifinal was too slow for her to advance as lucky loser.
“I was feeling a little fatigued going into the day, but I think I actually felt the best in my semifinal, so I was happy with the direction things were moving… it’s a really tough course that gives your legs a pretty good beating,” she wrote in an email.
Just behind Caldwell was Sadie Bjornsen in 11th. The placement is her her second-best World Cup sprint result and was her first time in the semifinals since 2012.
“I’m really happy because it’s been three years since I made it to the semifinals. It was really fun to get there today. It was really challenging conditions with the soft snow and a hard course,” she said.
Bjornsen was lucky loser in the quarterfinals after finishing third in her heat. While she entered the semifinal hopeful to advance, a poor start prevented her from finding a strategic placement.
“I didn’t have a great starting position so I was forced into the back. That course is especially hard to ski from the back because it’s a lot of sprint-stop, sprint-stop. I was never able to get into a good position or a good rhythm. I was just hanging on by the horns. I didn’t feel like I could ski what I was capable of but it felt great to be skiing in the semifinals,” she explained.
Ida Sargent entered the quarterfinals as the fifth-fastest qualifier but ended her day after finishing third in the same quarterfinal as Caldwell.
“The qualification was really good for me. I was bib #1 which I was a little nervous about but I think it was really good for me because I was able to stay focused in my own race rather than getting distracted by everything going around me like I often do,” she wrote in an email.
“I was not satisfied with how I skied the quarter and crossed the finish line feeling like I had a lot more to give,” she explained, “Then going into the finish I tried taking the left side which was a shorter line but it was a lot softer so then I went behind Sophie in the lane but the Italian came up on the far right.”
The final American in Rybinsk, Rosie Brennan, placed 31st, 0.12 seconds from qualification.
Grover was pleased with the overall team effort, even though he said the team had the potential to preform even better.
“They did well. Even some of our athletes that traditionally struggle in deeper snow skied really well,” he explained. “We had 4 women in the top 13 so we can’t complain to much… Overall a pretty solid day and nice to have someone in the finals and fight for the podium.”
Racing continues in Russia Sunday with a 15/30 k skiathlon.
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.