After her second-place finish in Friday’s World Cup 10-kilometer freestyle in Rybinsk, Russia, Liz Stephen had a lot to celebrate – it was her first individual World Cup podium, just two weeks after her historic fifth-place finish in the Tour de Ski.
But there was something the 27-year-old hadn’t realized.
As she sat down for the press conference with FIS Marketing Support Jeff Ellis, he informed her of another historic accomplishment – Stephen had posted the best distance result for an American woman on the World Cup, besting Ellis’ wife, Kikkan Randall’s third place in Gällivare, Sweden in 2012.
With the realization, Stephen said she there was only one word to describe the plethora of feelings surrounding the result.
“To sum it up in one word, I’m ecstatic. I’m really happy to put it all together on one day. I’m ecstatic for sure and a little emotional,” Stephen said in a phone interview.
The results in Rybinsk marked a respite from the familiar podium names with major players such as Norwegians Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, and Heidi Weng avoiding the long journey to Russia in order to rest for the remaining races of the season. However, with strong competitors like Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen in the mix, no result was guaranteed.
Stephen placed second to Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen, who finished the 10 k in 28:12.5. Stephen was off-pace by 14.4 seconds, but placed ahead of Germany’s Stefanie Böhler (+36.4) who claimed the final podium spot. Rounding out the top-five were Yulia Tchekaleva (+37.6) of Russia and Kristin Størmer Steira (+41.4) of Norway. Until Friday, Størmer Sterira had been absent from the World Cup after a double hip fracture in October.
The Comeback Podium
Friday’s win was Jacobsen’s first since 2008 when she won the World Cup 15 k pursuit in Falun, Sweden. In the nearly seven years since, Jacobsen has been on the World Cup podium many times but another victory was always been elusive.
Jacobsen’s path to the top of the podium was a difficult one. Just one day before the start of the 2014 Olympic Games, her brother and training partner passed away unexpectedly, causing emotional hardship for the Norwegian throughout the event and remainder of the year. Later that season she crashed into a lamppost in the Holmenkollen 30 k and was rushed to the hospital. With no serious injuries resulting from the crash, Jacobsen began what looked to be a productive training season that spring. By the fall, however, Jacobsen told NRK that her body was no longer responding to training.
According to NRK, the physical hardship lasted through the beginning of the season where Jacobsen raced to uncharacteristic results over the Lillehammer World Cup weekend. With her body feeling out of whack, Jacobsen decided to rest. After seeing improvement since the begging of the year, she participated in Scandinavian Cups while her teammates competed on the World Cup circuit. Her most recent was in Falun, Sweden, the site of the 2015 World Championships, where she won the 15 k skiathlon and placed third in the 10 k freestyle.
“I have felt since New Year that the shape has been better and better. I had some good races in Falun, but today it was even better,” she told NRK Sport.
In Friday’s race, Jacobson dominantly skied the hilly course to earn top splits throughout the race. Skiing one bib behind Stephen for the entirety of the 10 k, she crossed the finish line with her arms outreached and a smile on her face.
“I have had to be very patient this year. My body has not handled training as it should since August. So I am very happy to have such a result today,” she told FIS in a post-race interview. “It is a difficult course with challenging conditions today so I was cautious on the first lap and I think that helped very much.”
Rybinsk has been friendly to Jacobsen in the past. In 2007 she earned her first World Cup win in the 15 k mass start.
Third place finisher Böhler also has fond memories of Russia. In 2009 she earned her first and only other individual World Cup podium in a Rybinsk World Cup 10 k mass start.
“This is a great result. My only other podium on World Cup was here in 2009 so I am really happy to be back on the podium here again,” she told FIS. “I always like coming here. The courses are hard, the people are so friendly and there are many spectators. It’s just really nice to be here in Rybinsk.”
Böhler has faced her share of challenges as well. In 2012 she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but fought back to compete in the 2014 Olympics where she and her teammates earned a bronze medal in the 4 x 5 k relay.
Stephen, who is close with Jacobsen after the two exchanged training time in Alaska and Norway, said she was happy be on the podium with both her friend and Böhler.
“It was a really fun podium to share. For [Jacobsen] to come back and get a win is pretty special for her,” Stephen said. “After last year’s really challenging year with her it’s really special to be on the podium with a friend and someone who has had her fair share of ups and downs, in skiing and in regular life too. Steffi is the same. She battled cancer a couple years ago and she’s one of the more smiley people on the World Cup and always rooting for everyone else.”
History in the Making
With many of the biggest names absent from Rybinsk, Stephen knew there was an opportunity to land a spot on the podium – and she was ready to take it.
“I really wanted to get on the podium today,” Stephen said of her ambitions. “In order to do that I focused on each section of the course.”
Known for her climbing abilities, the hilly course in Rybinsk favored the Vermont native. Stephen explained that her main strategy for the competition was to ski the flats smoothly. She also focused on skiing over the top of each hill aggressively – an area in which she’s struggled in the past.
“I just like to go up hills, but over the top can be an issue for me so I saved enough to really go over the top and carry good speed on the downhills and grab a low tuck,” she said.
The strategy worked and as Stephen sped around the course, consistently earning the second-fastest splits. When she crossed the line it was all but certain she had secured her first World Cup podium. Stephen said she hadn’t thought about the historic possibility of earning the top finish in a distance World Cup by an American woman until Ellis told her in the press conference.
According to USST Head Coach Chris Grover Stephen’s success is due to her superior fitness.
“Obviously she came out of the Tour de Ski where she was in really good shape and then she was able to stay healthy and recover. She’s in good form right now and that’s the absolute key,” he said of Stephen.
Stephen also explained that her result was not just a product of her individual abilities, but also the support of her team. Pointing to her fellow American skiers and coaches, Stephen said that everyone, especially women’s team coach Matt Whitcomb who taught Stephen how to ski at Burke Mountain Academy, played a role in Friday’s historic result.
“It means a lot to be with this team, having this result, and knowing that you’re never ever out there by yourself. Good days, bad days, great days, this team forms around you,” she said.
With World Championships three weeks away, Stephen said she hoped to inspire the team to reach their best results of the season in Falun.
“Having these results going into World Championships for me personally is, of course, wonderful but I also think and hope that it boosts everyone else’s confidence and belief in themselves,” she explained. “I’ve seen it in the past with Kikkan and other teammates having best-ever results for them, or making history. The whole team gets pulled up by it. I think it will.”
U.S. Women Solid in Top-20
It seems that Stephen has already inspired one of her USST teammates.
Finishing Friday’s race in 12th place, Jessie Diggins explained the 2015 season hasn’t met her expectations, but that Stephen has helped her work towards a stronger mental attitude.
“Liz has actually been encouraging and inspiring me to work harder with Sports Psychology and start believing harder that I have what it takes,” Diggins wrote in an email. “This season has been tough on my self confidence so far… and I’ve been working on having more confidence when I step onto the snow. Especially after getting quite sick and having to drop out of the Tour de Ski, there were a lot of thoughts running through my mind – wondering if I would be in good enough shape to race after being sick and not being able to train as planned, etc.”
After taking over week of rest between the Tour de Ski and Rybinsk, Diggins said that she was able to “put those thoughts away” in Friday’s 10 k and ski a focused and driven race. However, even though she was able to perform mentally, said her body was not responding.
“I definitely am not in my greatest race shape right now as I think everything came together quite smoothly in this race and my results weren’t close to what they were a few years ago on this course. I need to be patient as I come out of being sick and let these three races this weekend help me get back in my best race shape!” she wrote.
Just behind Diggins was Rosie Brennan, who earned her best ever finish in a World Cup. As the period one SuperTour leader, Brennan is participating in her second weekend of racing with the USST.
Throughout much of the competition Brennan’s splits were in and out of the top-10, indicating a rapid start. According to Brennan it was all part of the plan, even if it meant her finish speed was reduced.
“I started pretty hard, maybe a little too hard, but I believe it takes putting yourself out there to really find out what you are capable of. With that in mind, I just tried to keep pushing the whole way. I think I faded a bit at the end, but held it together just enough for a sold result,” she wrote in an email.
Brennan said she was excited to have “broken that barrier” to earn World Cup points and that she hoped the result would give her confidence through the rest of her time in Europe.
“Huge race for Rosie, who really skied exceptionally well. That was really exciting to have her in the mix,” Grover said of her race.
Racing continues in Rybinsk Saturday, with a freestyle sprint.
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.