FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — “Today gives us a real appreciation for when we were on podiums and when we were winning these events,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said Sunday from the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. The day marked the much anticipated freestyle team sprints, where Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell joined forces to place eighth in the women’s 6 x 1.2 k, and Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton skied to seventh in the men’s 6 x 1.4 k.
The U.S. women’s team entered Sunday’s race wearing the customary bibs marking them as reigning world champions. Two years ago in Val di Fiemme, Italy Diggins and star-sprinter Kikkan Randall paired to win the first-ever world championship gold by U.S. cross country skiers. The atmosphere was different in Falun, however, with the Americans acknowledging they were far from the level of skiing witnessed in 2013.
An unstoppable Norwegian team of Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Maiken Caspersen Falla claimed the women’s team sprint with a time of 14:29.57. Sweden and Poland rounded out the podium, while the U.S. finished 34.06 seconds back from the winners in eighth.
While a medal was out of reach for the Americans in the 2015 team sprint, they walked away from the competition with their heads held high, proud of the effort they gave on the fast, hard 1.2 k course.
“I was so proud of Soph and I have to say, I think we had at least twice as much fun as anyone else out there,” Diggins said in a post-race interview. “We got to put on those defending world champ bibs and that’s a cool thing.”
The Americans started their day in the second women’s semifinal where they skied to claim an automatic advancement to the final. They entered the heat with the usual team sprint strategy – save as much energy as possible – which kept them in the top-two for the majority of the race. By the time Caldwell tagged Diggins for her last lap, however, the team was sitting in fifth and nine seconds out of first.
Diggins explained that while it was likely their team would have qualified as a lucky loser had she held position, she decided to give it her all and fight for an automatic qualification to the final “just in case.” Diggins soon gapped the women fighting for second behind Germany, and skied the rest of the race in a comfortable qualifying position.
With their spot in the final secured, the two Americans once again focused on conserving their energy. Thier rest was hampered by the unlucky draw of the second semifinal heat, which resulted in a half hour of rest less than the first semifinals competitors – including the three eventual podium finishers: Norwegians, Swedes and and Poland.
Despite the deficit in recovery time, Caldwell started the final in third position. She eventually fell to a close sixth as she entered the exchange, just two seconds out from the Norwegian leaders. Diggins exited the stadium in fifth holding a constant position throughout her first leg. The four skiers in front of her pulled ahead on the hills, but Diggins caught them on the downhill into the stadium.
“I was behind the first four girls and trying to do as little as possible, so I let them gap me over the top,” Diggins said. “My skis were so fast that I came into the tag zone with them.”
Diggins said she entered the stadium with too much speed. Unable to slow before colliding with a German skier, and the Minnesota fell after tagging Caldwell for the next leg.
“I had a couple falls out there today,” she explained. “We came into the tag zones way faster than we thought. The first time I came in, Germany wasn’t going fast enough and I couldn’t go right and I couldn’t go left so I went into her and fell. The second time it was a similar thing.”
Caldwell dropped to seventh in her second leg after the exchange, and from there the U.S. remained between seventh and ninth for the rest of the race.
“The first leg was good but by no means easy. I started to get some tired legs and Grover told me to pace the next laps so that I could stay as close as possible,” Caldwell said of the strategy in her final two laps. “If I was going to try and go out and stay with them from the start I would blow up big time and then I’d lose even more time. I let them go a little and gave Jessie have the tough job of trying to catch up. I tried to judge how I was feeling and ski at the smartest race I could based on that.”
Diggins explained that she attempted to catch the leaders in her second leg, but spent too much energy and ‘blew up’ in the third and final pass around the 1.2 k course. The 23-year-old was in a close battle for seventh with Laurien van der Graaff of Switzerland in the last meters but ultimately lost in the final lunge.
Despite her status as a defending world champion, Diggins explained that she entered Sunday’s team sprint with less pressure than in 2013. According to the American skier, she and Randall were the favorites to win the race after strong performances earlier that season. The Americans didn’t enter the 2015 event with the same expectations, though the team often referred to it as their best chance of a medal in Falun.
Despite the lowered expectations, Diggins said she had been focused on Sunday’s sprint since the previous year.
“This is one of those races where I’ve visualized skiing this course since May,” Diggins siad. “I’ve been psyching it up in my mind, which is both good and bad because by the time we raced it I had already done it a million times.”
Caldwell also felt the pressure of racing in the USST’s best chance at a medal. “I’ve never been this nervous for a race in my life,” she said. “You can ask all my teammates, I wasn’t able to function for the past 24 hours. Everyone did a really good job of reminding us that even though they (Diggins and Randall) were defending championships, we’ve never done a team sprint together and I’m not 2013 Kikkan.”
Caldwell added that she hoped to team with Diggins again, and explained that even though Sunday’s race wasn’t medal worthy she believed the two could be ‘great’ in the future.
Newell, Hamilton Team Up to Take Seventh
Newell and Hamilton took to the line of the men’s team sprint final following their third place finish in the semifinals. Like their female counterparts, the men were in the second heat of the day and thus had less time for recovery.
Skiing outside podium contention for the majority of the six laps, the American men eventually raced to seventh behind the dominant performance of Norway’s Petter Northug and Finn Hågen Krogh. Second went to Russia, while the Italians defended their 2013 bronze in exciting fashion. The American team ultimately finished 17.48 seconds behind the winning time of 15:32.89.
Hamilton explained that while the pace was relaxed at first it became more challenging as the leaders increased the tempo. He added that the course was challenging due to the varying terrain.
“It was a course where in some places it’s really advantageous to be leading and in others it is not, Hamilton said. “It’s tough to make yourself hang out in the pack because there are some technical corners where it’s a big advantage to be in front.”
For the first half of the race the Americans sat between fifth and seventh. By the final exchange, however, Newell tagged Hamilton in ninth. “You’re actually not breathing that hard but your legs are so blown out by the finish,” he said of the demanding race.
Hamilton said he entered his final lap ready to “let it fly.” He ultimately brought the U.S. to seventh after passing Sweden, when Teodor Petterson lost his pole, and France, after Baptiste Gros fell in the last 500 meters and lost a ski.
Reflecting on Sunday’s race, Newell explained he cared less about the placement of the team and rather how close the two were to the sprint’s leaders.
“It’s not so much that we care about places,” Newell said of Sunday’s objectives. “We want to stay as close as we can to the leaders. To us there’s not really a big difference between finishing seventh or eighth, or even sixth. We want to be close to the podium and that’s our ultimate goal.”
Hamilton agreed, adding that he set a personal goal of sixth for the day.
“We skied alright but we can both do better than that,” Newell said. “At least we were in the final and at least we were pretty close to those guys. Just a little more improvement and we’ll both be in there.”
Grover said he was pleased with efforts from all four athletes gave in the team sprint. At the same time, he acknowledged that the U.S. teams in Sunday’s race were below the high level of competition shown by Sunday’s top competitors.
“I think people for sure skied really well all day. That’s just where we are right now,” Grover said of Sunday’s performances. “Of course we wanted to be ahead of there right now, but it gives you appreciation for when you do have two athletes that are at an extremely high level and can put them together to create that podium.”
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.