Last year in his FIS Junior World Ski Championships debut, Thomas O’Harra placed 54th in the freestyle sprint in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Another year older and with another season of training under his belt, the 18-year-old Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier placed 14th on Tuesday in the opening race of 2015 Junior Worlds in Almaty, Kazakhstan: the 1.3-kilometer classic sprint.
O’Harra qualified 18th and went on to place third in his quarterfinal, 2.92 seconds behind the winner of his heat, Ludek Seller of the Czech Republic, and 0.35 seconds behind Russia’s Alexander Bakanov, who also automatically advanced in second.
O’Harra’s quarterfinal was the slowest of the five, which prevented him from moving on to the semifinals as a lucky loser. But at the end of the day, 14th was still way better than 54th.
“I don’t know if I can say I was expecting it, but I definitely knew that if I had a good race, I could get into the top 30,” O’Harra wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Coming into the sprint, my goal was to qualify. Ultimately though, my goal was to get into the top 10. Once I had qualified, I focused more on trying to advance out of my quarterfinal.”
He reflected that his quarterfinal was “pretty hard right off the bat … everyone was jostling for position.” Knowing that he needed a top-two in his heat to guarantee a spot in the semifinal, O’Harra followed Bakanov in his track to the finish and lunged between the Russian’s legs as Bakanov let up near the line. And while it wasn’t quite enough, O’Harra was pleased to finish well within the top 30.
“Today was a much better experience than last year’s sprint!” he wrote. “Last year I tripped myself going up the first hill and ended up 54th — not exactly super-duper. I think that a year’s more experience helped a lot. I was definitely a lot more collected and calm this year, both going into the race and during the race.”
He was also optimistic about another top 30 in Wednesday’s 10 k freestyle.
“I think that I’m in a really good place right now, but I didn’t actually try to peak specifically for these races, mainly because there is still a lot of racing left this season,” he wrote.
“Last year I tripped myself going up the first hill and ended up 54th — not exactly super-duper. I think that a year’s more experience helped a lot.” — Thomas O’Harra, 14th in 2015 Junior World Championships 1.3 k classic sprint
O’Harra led the North Americans in the junior men’s sprint, which Norway’s Fredrik Riseth won outright in 3:01.25. The Norwegian qualified fifth behind Finland’s Lauri Vuorinen (the top men’s qualifier in 3:01.88), and Riseth went on to win his quarterfinal and his semifinal before beating Bakanov by 4.85 seconds in the final.
Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo made the podium as well in third, 8 seconds behind Riseth. Germany’s Marius Cebulla was fourth (+10.04), Sweden’s Oskar Svensson finished fifth (+10.11), and Vuorinen was sixth (+21.67).
Riseth’s father, Svein Riseth, told Langrenn that he was impressed with his son’s result. While he knew Fredrik was in great shape, Svein wasn’t sure he had enough left after dominating his quarterfinal and semifinal. The contender he was most concerned about was Fredrik’s Byåsen IL teammate, Høsflot Klæbo.
“Johannes is not only a good skier, but he is mentally and tactically strong,” Svein said, according to a translation. “It is outrageously fun two Byåsen runners entered the podium. Not just for the team but for [Trondheim] skiing.”
While no other North American men qualified in the top 30, Canada’s Julian Smith (Georgian Bay) placed 39th, 3.82 seconds from 30th. Americans Evan Weinman (Middlebury) and Peter Holmes (University of New Hampshire) were 46th and 48th, respectively, Canada’s Alexis Dumas (CNEPH/NST-Junior) ranked 53rd, Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier (CNEPH/NST-Junior) was 56th, American Gavin Hess (UNH) 58th, and Canadian Philippe Boucher (CNEPH/NST-Junior) 59th.
Stewart-Jones Leads Three Canadian Women in the Heats
In the women’s 1.3 k classic sprint, Katherine Stewart-Jones knew what was coming, or at least what to expect, in her third time qualifying for the Junior Worlds heats.
The 19-year-old Canadian National Junior Team member qualified in 19th, 13.61 seconds behind Russia’s Yulia Belorukova, the top qualifier in 3:29.24. Stewart-Jones then finished fourth in her quarterfinal, 9.77 seconds after another Russian, Natalia Nepryaeva, who won the heat. Their quarterfinal was the second slowest and Stewart-Jones did not advance, putting her in 19th overall.
“I am satisfied with my result,” Stewart-Jones, the top North American female junior of the day, wrote in an email. “I definitely had the goal to make it past the quarter-finals because last year I was extremely close. I can’t really be disappointed with how it turned out because I gave everything I had.”
“I definitely had the goal to make it past the quarter-finals because last year I was extremely close. I can’t really be disappointed with how it turned out because I gave everything I had.” — Katherine Stewart-Jones, 19th in 2015 Junior World Championships 1.3 k classic sprint
Last year at Junior World Championships, she placed 15th in the freestyle sprint, and the year before, she was 25th at the 2013 Junior Worlds in Liberec, Czech Republic.
But for the first time on Tuesday, she raced against one of her fellow national-junior team members in the heats: Maya MacIsaac-Jones of Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR).
“We both had a really good start so it was fun to ski at the front together for the first part of the race,” Stewart-Jones explained. “After the long downhill I was in third place but then I made a bit of a tactical mistake. At the start of the long uphill I went right behind a Russian but she slowed down. When I went to make the pass and change lanes I lost my momentum.”
MacIsaac-Jones, 19, made the top-30 qualifying cutoff in 29th and ended up fifth in her first time racing the heats at that level, 12.05 seconds behind the winner.
“Katherine and I have raced together for a long time, and since there are so many things at World Juniors that are different from racing in Canada, it was nice to have a familiar face beside me,” MacIsaac-Jones wrote in an email. “My ‘realistic’ goal for today was to qualify, and my ‘dream’ goal was to get a top-15 result. I am very happy to have qualified for the heats, especially to have qualified with two of my teammates, but I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to move on past the quarter final.”
Her previous best in her last Junior Worlds in 2013 was 36th in the classic sprint. On Tuesday, she placed 25th overall. The third Canadian woman to make the rounds, Sophie Carrier-Laforte (Skinouk/NST-Junior) qualified in 23rd and placed 22nd overall after finishing fifth in her quarterfinal, 12.21 seconds behind Austria’s Lisa Unterweger, who won the heat.
“It was a lot of fun to be racing with so many other Canadian girls in the heats today,” MacIsaac-Jones wrote. “We have all been training really hard for these championships, so it feels great to show the world what Canadian girls can do!
“This experience is definitely different from my experience in Liberec 2013,” she explained “I feel like I am in a lot better distance racing shape than I was in Liberec, and I should have a chance to race most or all of the distance races, which will be a lot of fun. This being my second Championships, I feel like I have a bit of a better idea of what to expect and how to prepare for racing on the international scene.”
Stewart-Jones was also looking forward to the distance races after placing 31st in the skiathlon in Val di Fiemme last year.
“I would like to make a top 15 in a distance race and I believe that I can,” she wrote.
Nakkertok Head Coach Kieran Jones wrote in an email that Stewart-Jones’ performance on Tuesday wasn’t a surprise.
“We have been targeting top 30’s at World Juniors since the start of the year. While I was pretty excited for the classic sprint, I would say that it’s definitely not her strongest event,” he noted. “It’s more of a good indicator that the fitness and speed is where we want it to be. Katherine is rock solid — once she gets rolling, she’s great at managing her energy, enthusiasm, and focus.”
He explained that she’s shooting for top-30 results in both Wednesday’s 5 k freestyle and Friday’s 10 k skiathlon.
“Personally, I think she has a shot at a top 10 in the 5 km if everything goes to plan,” Jones wrote. “She is also really looking forward to the relay — this year the Canadian women’s team is one of the strongest it has been in a long time, and she wants to help them have a strong finish.”
Just 0.26 seconds from qualifying in the top 30, Julia Kern of the Cambridge Sports Union led the U.S. junior women in 31st. Vivian Hett (Northern Michigan University) placed 36th, 3.89 seconds from 30th, and Hailey Swirbul (Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club) was 40th.
Canada’s Annah Hanthorn (Whitehorse) finished 45th, and American Kristen Bourne (NMU) placed 46th.
Germany’s Victoria Carl racked up her second Junior Worlds title since she last raced at the championships in 2013 (where she won the 5 k freestyle and placed second in the classic sprint). Carl, 19, qualified fourth and won her quarterfinal and semifinal before topping the final as well in 3:29.01, 1.64 seconds ahead of Belorukova in second.
Another one of the women in the Stewart-Jones/MacIsaac-Jones quarterfinal, Nepryaeva placed third in the final, 2.18 seconds back from the win. The Russian edged Norway’s Lotta Udnes Weng by 0.2 seconds for the podium, and Weng’s sister Tiril Udnes Weng placed fifth, 6.42 seconds after Carl. Germany’s Jenny Mann finished sixth in the final (+30.43).
The junior classic sprint was originally scheduled for Monday, then pushed back a day to allow more time to extend the 800-meter loop to 1.3 k. In addition to concerns about dirt and rocks on the trail, the air quality in Almaty continues to pose one of the biggest problems for athletes, with several U.S. athletes bringing ventilation masks to the championships.
“The air quality is certainly an issue, but we all share this challenge,” U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish wrote in an email. “Many of our athletes purchased filtering masks before arriving. The same ones used [at the Summer Games] in Beijing.
“They don’t wear them all the time — primarily when skiing,” he added. “The trails are uphill, so it depends how high the inversion is. Unfortunately there is no way to escape it in the city. All the teams are staying in the city except Russia is an hour away in the mountains.”
According to O’Harra, “Skiing here is… thin. When we arrived, there was only about 2.5k of trail, and that was full of rocks. The volunteers and organizers have done an amazing job, though! They have been blowing snow around the clock, and their hard work definitely shows,” he wrote. “The smog varies. It pretty much always sits down in the bottom of the valley, and most days it creeps up to where the trails are as we ski. It was definitely hazy today, but there have been worse days. I don’t think that it hindered my performance, but I still don’t like having it around.”
MacIsaac-Jones wrote that the skiing over the last week had not been ideal; the postponement of the first race “altered everyone’s race preparations, and we have been dealing with heavy smog all week.”
She added that there was adequate snow on the sprint course, “and there should be enough for the skate race tomorrow. The snow here is artificial, cold and hard-packed right now, which is great for me because it is similar to the snow I am used to training on in Canmore, Alberta,” she wrote.
“The skiing here is nothing like I have seen before,” Stewart-Jones explained. “The race site is built at the top of a huge sand hill in the middle of the city. All the trails weave around the hill and the snow is all man made. … The smog is definitely an issue; I have been coughing a lot more than usual.”
Through email exchanges, her coach Jones has been keeping tabs on the conditions.
“That stuff is out of our control,” he wrote. “That’s always been the message — control what you can, and don’t worry about anything else. … Kath is great at that, so I wasn’t worried.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
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- 1.3 k classic sprint
- 2015 Junior World Championships
- Alexander Bakanov
- Alexis Dumas
- annah hanthorn
- Evan Weinman
- Fredrik Riseth
- Gavin Hess
- hailey swirbul
- Jenny Mann
- Johannes Høsflot Klæbo
- Julia Kern
- Julian Smith
- Junior World Championships
- Katherine Stewart-Jones
- kieran jones
- Kristen Bourne
- Lauri Vuorinen
- Lotta Udnes Weng
- Ludek Seller
- Marius Cebulla
- Maya MacIsaac-Jones
- Natalia Nepryaeva
- Oskar Svensson
- Peter Holmes
- Philippe Boucher
- Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier
- Sophie Carrier-Laforte
- Svein Riseth
- Thomas O'Harra
- Tiril Udnes Weng
- Victoria Carl
- Vivian Hett
- Yulia Belorukova
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.