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 — Leading up to the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, Sophie Caldwell had raced six World Cup sprints this season. Five of them were skate sprints.
On Thursday, the 24-year-old U.S. Ski Team member embarked on her second classic-sprint outing of the winter. Just over a month ago in Otepää, Estonia, Caldwell missed qualifying in her first classic sprint by nine-hundredths of a second in 31st.
So while she was happy to simply qualify in the opening race of World Championships, the 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, Caldwell was certainly looking for a little more beyond that.
The top North American women’s qualifier in 21st, 7.87 seconds behind qualifying winner Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, Caldwell went on to place third in her quarterfinal behind Kowalczyk and Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie, respectively.
Fortunately for her, her finishing time of 3:31.75 (which was 2.2 seconds back from Kowalczyk) was the fastest among all the third-place finishers in the quarterfinals, and Caldwell advanced to the semifinals as one of two lucky losers (the other being Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter).
“I tired a little in this long double-pole stretch, but our skis were awesome,” Caldwell said after the quarterfinal, in which she found herself in fourth early.
Before descending down into the stadium for the final push up and over the last hill, Caldwell put herself in third behind Kowalczyk and Brun-Lie, then nearly caught Brun-Lie, finishing 0.52 seconds behind her.
“I wanted to get into their draft and I still had no idea how close people behind us were,” she explained, still unsure at the time whether she would advance to the next round.
“I felt like we went really fast and I’m hoping the time shows that, too,” Caldwell said.
It was as the Vermont native, who placed sixth in the 2014 Olympics freestyle sprint but sustained two separate elbow injuries last summer and fall that kept her from competing on the World Cup until early December, made it to the semifinals in her second World Championships appearance.
Two years ago at the last World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, she competed in one race — the classic sprint — where she placed 20th as the second-best American woman (U.S. teammate Kikkan Randall finished 19th).
Even that year, Caldwell didn’t make the semifinals.
Knowing her strengths in skiing efficiently and relaxed, she aimed to keep her cool on two of the biggest climbs of Falun’s sprint course. But the pace out of the start of her semifinal was “pretty fast,” she said.
“I found myself at the back of the pack, definitely getting tired on the ups, but I knew I had fast skis so I just focused on getting a really low tuck through [the stadium] and picked off sixth place,” she said.
Caldwell skied up from sixth to fifth, finishing 5.86 seconds behind Norwegian semifinal winner Marit Bjørgen, who went on to win the final as well. Two Norwegians placed second (+0.41) and third (+1.08) behind Bjørgen — Maiken Caspersen Falla and Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, respectively — and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen finished fourth, 5.34 seconds back from the winner and 0.52 seconds ahead of Caldwell.
“My upper-body strength has improved a lot, but I still have some work to do on my double pole,” Caldwell said after the semifinal, which put her in 10th at the end of the day. “I held off sixth, which was great but it would’ve been nice to make a move on fourth, but I’m happy with the day.”
“That’s three championships in a row where Sophie’s our best sprinter,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Grover said Thursday night. “She’s continually showing that she’s a big-game, big-competition skier and she skis well in that arena when the pressure is up.”
Another American and Caldwell’s boyfriend, Simi Hamilton achieved his second-best classic sprint result of the season (and made the semifinals for the second race in a row) less than a week after placing 11th in the World Cup classic sprint in Östersund, Sweden.
Hamilton qualified 28th in the men’s 1.4 k sprint, 6.64 seconds behind Russian qualifying winner Nikita Kriukov and 0.69 seconds within the top 30. His teammate, Andy Newell qualified 10th, 3.64 seconds back for his best qualifier of the season.
Hamilton went on to place fourth in his quarterfinal, 2.74 seconds behind the winner, Norway’s Thomas Northug. Older brother Petter Northug — the eventual men’s final winner — took second, 0.09 seconds behind Thomas, who won the heat in 3:00.42, and a third Norwegian, Eirik Brandsdal placed third (+0.71).
Hamilton’s quarterfinal ended up being the fastest by more than three seconds, and he advanced to the semifinal as the second lucky loser with Brandsdal. With about 10 minutes before the first men’s semifinal, Hamilton spent a few minutes on the spin bike trying to regroup for his next big effort.
“I felt like I was able to maintain a good effort through the quarter, which sometimes, at least in the past I’ve struggled with a little bit,” Hamilton, 27, reflected. “I’ve always had good top speed, but I think my fitness has been one of my shortcomings. I feel like my fitness is good right now.”
In his quarterfinal, Hamilton left the stadium trailing the pack in sixth, then moved to fifth by the top of the first major climb. He picked off another place in fourth ahead of Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger while making his way back into the stadium, the followed the Northug brothers and Brandsdal into the finish.
Catapulted into the first semifinal, Hamilton once again found himself in sixth shortly after the start. He improved to fifth on the long climb, then slipped back to sixth, finishing 8.14 seconds behind Kriukov, the semifinal winner. Italy’s Federico Pellegrino placed second in that semifinal (+0.14), Sweden’s Teodor Peterson was third (+0.77), Switzerland’s Ueli Schnider was fourth (+1.05), and Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola fifth (+2.18).
“I actually felt really good for the first probably 500 meters of that semi … then the wheels kind of came off,” Hamilton said after placing 12th overall. “I think the effort in the quarter just kind of caught up with me pretty quickly. But it was still sweet … great day, it’s always fun to be here in Falun where the fans are so amazing. This venue’s so great. The trails are awesome. Good first day to the championships.”
Six U.S. Ski Team skiers in the heats
In all, six of the eight U.S. athletes who started Thursday’s sprint qualified for the rounds, including Newell and Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess on the men’s side (in 10th and 30th, respectively), and Sadie Bjornsen and Ida Sargent for the women (in 26th and 29th).
Kikkan Randall placed 36th in the qualifier, missing out on the necessary top 30 by 3.22 seconds, and 21-year-old Ben Saxton was 54th in his World Championships debut.
Grover noted that the team’s overall performance on Thursday essentially matched its freestyle-sprint showing at last year’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where four women (Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Randall, and Sargent) and two men (Newell and Hamilton) qualified for the heats.
But at the end of the day, the U.S. didn’t get the A-final it had been aiming for.
“I think when we set out in the year, we were hoping for more by today, for sure, but at the same time it’s just the first race of the championships,” Grover said. “Classic sprints have always been a hard one for us. … It’s hard to take those podiums away from the Scandinavians in the classic sprints … those athletes were in a different class that ended up on the podium and at this point at the moment, we’re not at that level.”
With changing conditions throughout the afternoon, mostly well above freezing but with a dampness that firmed the tracks before dusk, Grover explained that the team’s wax technicians worked well together to keep their skis competitive.
“It was a good day,” Grover said. “Good kick, good glide … It wasn’t perfect for every skier on every round, but it worked out good.”
Sadie Bjornsen fell behind early in her quarterfinal when Sweden’s Hanna Falk obstructed her on their way out of the stadium. For Falk, it was her second yellow card within moments of her first (she received a yellow card for a false start) and she was disqualified after the heat finished.
“Hanna just came on the top of me with absolutely no room and it forced me to have to stop,” Bjornsen said of the obstruction that set her back to sixth early on.
From there, she lost contact with the pack on the long-and-winding uphill, and despite trying to catch Italy’s Francesca Baudin in third, Bjornsen ended up fourth, 9.51 seconds off the winning pace set by another Swede, eventual-silver-medalist Stina Nilsson. Bjørgen placed second in that quarterfinal (+0.84), and Baudin was third (+6.5).
“I wasn’t in the draft with them and it’s a bit hard to work your way back into that,” said Bjornsen, who ended up 19th overall. “It’s a bummer because I felt really good, but I guess that happens, it’s racing. Everybody wants to be aggressive at World Champs. I gave it a go and I’m still looking for more at the championships.”
The first starter of the day, Sargent went out in bib No. 1 and qualified 29th. She then placed sixth in her quarterfinal, 8.56 seconds behind Falla as the winner.
“Not what I was hoping for, but that’s ski racing,” Sargent said. “I had trouble finding any kick. My strength right now is really my striding so having three big hills and not being able to stride on them was a challenge for me.”
While she was able to get out of the tracks and regain contact on the first long climb, she explained she got hung up behind Germany’s Denise Herrmann and lost contact with the leaders.
“I just didn’t have much left after fighting the whole time for the finishing stretch,” Sargent said. “Mona Lisa [Malvalehto of Finland is] really powerful, and I didn’t have anything when she went by me.”
Malvalehto finished fifth, 1.82 seconds ahead of Sargent. While the sprint didn’t go as the American had hoped, putting her in 29th overall, she explained she’d never forget that experience of starting first.
“The crowd just erupted when I started,” Sargent said. “That was a really special feeling. I prefer not to be the first starter. I’ve been the first or second starter in the last three World Cups so I think it would’ve been nice to have a little more course reports … especially on a day like today when you’re not allowed to ski on the course until you’re in the race, [but] being the first racer in the World Championships, that’s a really special moment that I’ll always remember.”
Newell finished 17th overall and Blackhorse-von Jess placed 30th after the two faced off in the same quarterfinal. Newell skied up to third early out of the start, then second, before Blackhorse-von Jess surged up alongside Newell and then ahead of him near the top of the first climb.
“They talk about how fast the World Cup is, but also no one’s going as fast as they can, especially in the quarterfinal,” Blackhorse-von Jess said after rising from sixth out of the start to first at the top of that hill. “I had to really disadvantageous start position being the last [qualifying] bib and I just waited. Nobody wants to ski the edge tracks and I didn’t mind being there.
“I didn’t really mean to take the lead up the first hill, but I wanted to be in the top few coming down the hill,” he continued. “The first thought in my head was, ‘Damnit!’ … I thought somebody was moving on the outside and I was hoping they would hammer around and take the lead. They didn’t do that.”
By the second uphill, Peterson took control for a moment before Canada’s Lenny Valjas moved ahead of him over the top. Newell tripped up slightly on that same horseshoe corner and Blackhorse-von Jess slipped to fifth.
Valjas held his own until the last rise, but at the finish, Peterson had the edge by 0.17 seconds over Kriukov, who took advantage of some others’ slip-ups to move to second, and Valjas finished 0.68 seconds back in third.
Newell nearly fell on his way down into the stadium after riding too close behind Germany’s Sebastien Eisenlauer and took fourth (+1.06), Eisenlauer was fifth (+2.35), and Blackhorse-von Jess was 2.9 seconds back in sixth.
“It went completely to plan up until then and then I was out of it all of a sudden because I lost a lot of speed,” Newell said of his second tangle of the heat, in which he “came in really tight on [Eisenlauer’s] draft” and had to free his ski from the German’s boot to move around him.
Newell balanced on one ski for a moment then pushed to come back from fourth, but wasn’t able to make up for the lost time.
“It’s just little mistakes like that that can take it out of you, especially in a quarterfinal,” Newell said. “I feel like my shape’s good, my speed’s good, my fitness is good, but I’m just struggling in the finish there and I think it would’ve been a good day if I was able to get through.”
Recapping his first World Championships race, Blackhorse-von Jess described it as “incredibly fun. It’s hard coming to World Championships and having it be your first sprint heat,” he said. “You make one tactical error and that really is the end of your day, and I was hoping to bring it back. … I was just a little too far back.”
“I was definitely excited for Dakota,” Grover said. “I was excited to see him sneak in there for his first time getting into the points [in a World-Cup-level race]. I was excited for Andy’s qualification. To be just three seconds back [from the top qualifier], that was showing he was kind of coming into form. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the best quarterfinal; he just got hung up at the end.
“Simi skied great, but unfortunately he just didn’t have time to recover [between heats],” he added. “[Those were] good signs from Simi but we’ve had those all year. … and Sadie probably didn’t get the fairest shake at it with the obstruction.”
With Sunday’s freestyle team sprints on the horizon after the men’s and women’s skiathlons on Saturday, Grover said the discussions for who would comprise the women’s team in particular were still ongoing.
“We really just don’t have the athletes that have made the 100-percent solid case [for their selection],” he said, adding that the decision would be based off “today’s results, recent trends and historical trends,” as well as the track conditions.
“[We have] a lot of discussion to do this evening in order to figure out how we’re going to approach the team sprint and how we’re going to approach the skiathlon,” Grover added.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.