On what U.S. Ski Team (USST) Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb called a “wild-and-crazy course,” Simi Hamilton was the lone American to reach the semifinals in Saturday’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint in Östersund, Sweden.
However, Hamilton would fall while ascending a hill during the first lap of his semifinal heat and took sixth, ending up 6.33 seconds behind semifinal winner Sondre Turvoll Fossli of Norway (who won the heat in 2:27.83) and finishing 11th overall.
Hamilton explained in a phone interview that the difficult course was breaking down quite a bit throughout the day, and the snow was getting deeper on the steep hills that required the skiers to herringbone.
“My right ski just got caught behind me a little bit in the powder, and I just put my right pole right through the top of that ski,” he said. “When you’re trying to hammer a herringbone your poles are just coming so close to your ski it’s definitely a pretty thin margin between a good pole plant and planting right on top of your ski.”
After falling, Hamilton focused on getting up as fast as he could and surged through the end of the first lap in order to make up lost time.
“I made contact with the back of the group again, but just didn’t have a ton of energy left after that to try and get around anyone,” he said.
After qualifying in 12th, 2 seconds behind Norwegian qualifier winner Timo André Bakken, who posted the fastest time in 2:28.25, Hamilton won his quarterfinal in 2:31.97.
“My energy felt really good all day, so I knew I’d be able to put in a good, sustained effort, hoping that a few of those guys in the quarterfinal would start to drop off a little bit,” he said.
Hamilton explained that he was able to put himself in second place, behind Finland’s Toni Ketelä, as they went up the hill above the stadium for the second time. By the last climb before the short, final descent into the stadium, he went as hard as he could and took an open lane on the left.
“I had some room to do my own thing, so I could hammer up and over the top of that climb and focused on having a good double-pole finish,” he said.
“I felt like some times in the past, especially with classic sprinting I haven’t been able to lay down a really good qualifier and haven’t been able to find the energy,” he continued. “So I was definitely pretty happy with the quarterfinal.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s teammate Andy Newell took third in his quarterfinal after qualifying in 17th (+2.68). He finished 12th overall for his best World Cup result of the season.
Newell explained that if he had made “one or two better moves” going into the final uphill of his quarterfinal, he might have had a shot at placing into the semifinals or moving on as a lucky loser. But he ended up 2.61 seconds behind Norway’s Thomas Northug, who was second in his heat, and 1.10 seconds short of a lucky loser spot.
“It was a pretty unique course, that’s for sure. It’s fun in that we don’t get to race courses like that very often,” Newell said in a phone interview. “You had to have a unique technique of herring bone in order to do well.”
Newell was happy with the result, especially in light of his struggles earlier in the season due to both allergies and physical injuries.
“You have years where a 12th-place finish is a disappointment … But at the same time I’m feeling really good, and it’s not always reflected in the results,” he said. “As an athlete you have to gauge your excitement and your momentum on how you’re feeling and not necessarily on your results.”
Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh would eventually win the men’s final in 2:25.28, holding off Canada’s Alex Harvey by 0.47 seconds. Bakken took the final spot on the podium in third (+1.41).
Bjornsen, Caldwell Lead U.S . Women
In the women’s sprint, Sadie Bjornsen qualified in 27th, 10.02 seconds behind Norwegian qualifier winner Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, the fastest in 2:47, while Sophie Caldwell qualified in 24th (+9.84). They raced in the same quarterfinal heat against Sweden’s Stina Nilsson and overall World Cup leader Marit Bjørgen of Norway.
Bjørgen won the heat in 2:50.88, while Bjornsen placed fourth (+4.53) to finish the day 20th overall, and Caldwell took fifth (+5.57) to place 22nd.
Bjornsen said in a phone interview that the course was fun, and much different than what the skiers are used to on the World Cup circuit.
“I knew it was going to be very dependent on my herringboning skills, which I’ve been working a lot on the last couple of years, because I used to be terrible at it,” she said, adding the course featured very little striding and consisted mostly of herringbone, double pole and downhill tucking.
Because of the chevron start, Bjornsen and Caldwell had to begin the quarterfinal heat in unfavorable, outside positions.
“I didn’t have a great start, but I tried not to panic,” Caldwell wrote in an email. She explained that it was difficult to move around skiers because of the constant herringboning, so she spent most of the race in fifth place.
Bjornsen described the race as a “busy scene.” She said that with six skiers trying to funnel into small areas, there were a lot of tangles and opportunities for blocking.
She explained she was not able to close in on the leaders as much as she wanted to at the end, but she said that she definitely felt confident about her fitness.
“I didn’t want to set a goal this weekend that was going to dictate how I felt about my fitness – so it was kind of just for fun today. I’m definitely going into [World Championships] feeling happy and confident,” she said.
Whitcomb said in a phone interview that it was a solid result for the American women and its team’s sprinters would not leave Östersund discouraged.
“You’re always hoping for a top 10 … but it was a tricky course, with a variety of unique demands,” he said.
Based on their positions after qualifying, Caldwell and Bjornsen made the most of what they had, he said, as it was nearly impossible for them to be better than fifth and sixth coming off the top of the steep hill leaving the stadium.
“For Sadie to mix it up in third and fourth, and for Sophie to be able to finish fifth – in good contact with people – I was pretty happy with that. It was a course that was really difficult to move around on, and your place at the start in many cases didn’t change,” he explained.
Rosie Brennan narrowly missed the quarterfinals, qualifying in 33rd (+11.03), 0.72 seconds out of the top 30.
Brennan said in a phone interview that while it is frustrating to be so close to qualifying – especially three weeks after placing 31st in the Rybinsk, Russia freestyle sprint – she is still happy with the result.
“I am really happy with the way I skied so I will just have to work on perfecting the details … As with every race I enter, my goal is simply to push as hard as I can and ski well,” she said.
Whitcomb said that Östersund does not suit Brennan’s strengths, as the Alaska Pacific University skier benefits from powerful striding and not the herring boning the course requires.
“Thirty-third is definitely a success, one of the successes of the day,” he said. “It’s an indication that she’s in the best shape of her life and she should be looking forward to a really positive World Championships.”
Two other American women raced in the qualifying round – Ida Sargent finished 41st (+13.11) while Kikkan Randall was 51st (+16.92).
Whitcomb said that Randall and Sargent were not pleased with their results. He said Sargent reported that she was skiing frantically, while “it took Kikkan a lap to get things going, and you don’t have time for that in a short sprint like this.”
Randall wrote in an email to the press that her qualification was not as strong as she was hoping for after a month-long break from racing.
“I skied too tense and didn’t quite have enough tempo out there, kind of like I was blowing the cobwebs out,” she wrote.
However, she added that she is still confident in the recovery and preparation she has undergone over the last month, and believes it was a good decision to go home and “get a chance to complete reset and get back to basics.”
Bjørgen would end up expanding her overall lead by comfortably winning the final in a time of 2:46.82, 1.80 seconds ahead of teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla. Nilsson placed third (+2.03) in front of a roaring home crowd.
World Cup racing in Östersund continues on Sunday with the 10/15 k freestyle individual starts.