Noah Hoffman entered Sunday’s 15 k freestyle individual start in Östersund, Sweden with uncertainty, but exited with a clear objective of improvement. The race was the 25-year-old’s first World Cup finish since March of 2014 and marked Hoffman’s first competition after a November crash in Kuusamo, Finland that resulted in a broken fibula.
Hoffman finished his day in 38th, 1:54.2 behind the weekend’s sprint and distance winner, Finn Hågen Krogh of Norway. He was the top North American finisher of the day.
According to Hoffman, the race was a good start to a season that many thought was over for the U.S. skier.
“Obviously 38th is not where I want to end up, even for top results this year after everything that’s happened,” Hoffman said in a phone interview. “It’s a great place to build from and I think I will build going forward, given how the training structure, training load, the altitude, and the injury have played out. I feel like I’m on the upswing and I can build on that.”
Hoffman explained that while he was nervous to be racing again, none of his anxieties revolved around his ankle. The Colorado native said that there was no pain during the competition, and that he didn’t think about his injury while competing in the three lap race.
Hoffman entered Sunday’s race after living at roughly 10,000 feet during his recovery in Colorado. Due to the effects of several months of high altitude training, Hoffman said he needed to focus on having a fast start. While he explained that his actual first kilometers were slower than they felt, he clocked the 33rd fastest time at the 1.8 k mark. From there he slowed, however, ranking in the 50s at 3.5 k.
As Hoffman passed the 5 k mark and lapped through the stadium, Canadian Ivan Babikov began his race and eventually caught the American. The two skied together for the remaining laps of Hoffman’s race.
“[Babikov] was charging on that lap and I got a ride. It was a challenge to stay on him on his first lap,” Hoffman said. “Then he settled a little bit. It was a little easier on the last lap but I didn’t feel quite strong enough to go around him. I got a 10 k ride from him which was nice to show me the pace.”
While Hoffman was pleased with the race, he said it demonstrated his skiing was not at the level it could be.
“I executed my plan, but none of it was that fast. I hope to continue to execute well but to do it at a higher level in the coming weeks,” he said.
U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said in a phone interview that he was excited to see Hoffman racing again and that Sunday’s effort was a good start before World Championships in Falun, Sweden, which begin Feb. 18.
“The race turned out to be a stronger result than what was unfolding at Kuusamo that day before he crashed. So, with clear fitness, he just needed a good hard effort under his belt. I think he’s anxious and excited for these races coming up, and hopefully he’s feeling more confident now that he’s got one under his belt. 38th is nothing to be disappointed with,” he said.
Three other Americans competed in Sunday’s 15 k with Erik Bjornsen in 60th, Matt Gelso in 71st, and World Cup newcomer Kyle Bratrud in 84th. Both Bjornsen and Gelso had strong starts to their races and were ranked in the high 40s and low 50s after the first kilometers, but slowed as the race progressed.
Sunday’s World Cup was Bratrud first and it started with high profile company, as the Northern Michigan University skier started ahead of Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and three spots ahead of overall World Cup leader Martin Sundby of Norway. While Bratrud only skied with the famed skiers for a several minutes, he wrote he was excited to catch a small ride.
Near the beginning of his race, Bratrud fell on an ice patch and crashed into a nearby fence. While the 22-year-old only broke the heel plate of his binding, he explained his left quad was was bruised and his hip flexor strained.
“This was definitely my biggest crash of my career, but luckily all that broke was one heel plate,” he wrote in an email. “That being said, the rest of my race was pretty hard to get into both physically and mentally. I was the last person on the course and it took my body a while to respond after the trauma. The Swedish fans were really supportive, though, and I got multiple USA chants. I am pleased to have my first World Cup in the books”
Whitcomb said he hoped the race would be the first race of an extensive World Cup career for Bratrud.
“This was very exciting, because Kyle was starting what could be a very long World Cup career. It’s going to take a few races to get things going, but he showed us in Kazakhstan that he can mix it up with the best, and he showed everyone in Houghton that he can mix it up with the best of the U.S., and I have good confidence that over time he’ll be able to mix it up with the best of the world in the World Cup. But it’s going to take some time,” he said.
With the World Cup weekend in Östersund complete, competitors now travel to Falun, Sweden where they will compete in the 2015 World Championbshps starting Feb. 18.
– Colin Gaiser contributed reporting
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.