Ben Saxton of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team and U.S. Ski Team had a a lot to celebrate after the finish of Tuesday’s 1.3-kilometer classic sprint at the U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He notched a top-10 result in the qualifier, he dominated a challenging quarterfinal, survived the fastest semifinal of the day, and was in strong position near the last meters of the final before falling victim to a crash.
Saxton ended his day in sixth behind eventual race-winner Sondre Turvill Fossli of Norway. Despite being a U23, Fossli has skied to much success on the World Cup circuit with several qualifier wins and podium finishes. He was recently named to the Norwegian World Championships team. In Tuesday’s sprint, Fossli skied to a time of 2:56.46 in the final to best teammate Sindre Bjørnestad Skar by 2.02 seconds. Taking the final podium spot was Russian Emil Vokuev, who finished 3.42 seconds off the winning time. Rounding out the final were France’s Richard Jouve (+4.66), Norway’s Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget (+6.48), and Saxton (+17.54).
Saxton entered the classic sprint looking to crack the top-10, a feat he had yet to accomplish as a junior or U23 skier. He did just that in qualifier, placing 10th and 3.59 seconds off the pace of Fossli.
Saxton used a strong start in his quarterfinal to catapult himself into the lead. He and Fossli led the pack through the winding course, which featured many twists and turns in the form of switchbacks and 180 degree turns. The group crested the final hill and Saxton powered down the finish to place first, easily qualifying for the semifinals.
“I was able to get out front for most of my races today and control that. It’s not like I was working that hard but I was controlling the rest of the field,” Saxton said in a post-race phone interview. “I had a clean run up the hill and I was able to go up with Fossli. I’m not exactly sure how but I beat him in the quarterfinal.”
Saxton employed similar tactics in the semifinal but was unable to ski the heat with the ease of his quarterfinal. Forced to tactically maneuver around competitors when his preferred tracks were blocked, Saxton recovered from a fourth place standing to finish third. The heat was the faster of the two semifinals, meaning Saxton advanced to the final as lucky loser.
“I’m supposed to be racing with them at their level on a regular basis. I’m capable of that and that’s the biggest thing I took away from today. It’s not just some pipe dream. I’m here and I can race them.” — Ben Saxton on finishing sixth in the 1.3 k classic sprint at 2015 U23 World Championships
In the final, Saxton was sitting in fourth and close to the leaders at the bottom of the final hill. A lane opened in front of him, giving him a chance to power forward. However, the chance was denied as Russia’s Vokuev skied from the far left track to cut in front of Saxton. In the process, the Russian clipped Saxton’s pole, which he subsequently planted between his legs. The resulting fall took Saxton out of contention and he skied the remainder of the race behind the pack to finish sixth.
“It was probably a clean move, but the tail of his ski clipped my pole and I just planted between my legs and went down. After that I just got up, finished, and enjoyed it because it was still a really fantastic day,” he said of the fall. “Honestly right now my biggest emotion is a little bit of regret. I didn’t put myself in 100 percent the best position [in the final] and I paid for it.”
Saxton said that the sixth-place finish is a strong indicator of where his fitness and abilities are in the 2015 season. According to the SMST2 skier, his previous results, especially at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in early January, were not representative of his potential as a skier. With a strong showing in Kazakhstan, Saxton is confident that he has reached his top shape.
“I qualified less than four seconds out from Fossli who has won World Cup qualifiers and I beat him in a quarterfinal and skied with him all the way up the climb in the semifinal,” Saxton said. “All those things are representative that I belong with those guys and I’m supposed to be racing with them at their level on a regular basis. I’m capable of that and that’s the biggest thing I took away from today. It’s not just some pipe dream. I’m here and I can race them.”
Saxton wasn’t the only North American to find success in Tuesday’s sprint.
Canada’s Knute Johnsgaard (Yukon Elite Squad) finished just out of the semifinals with a 14th place finish. He improved two spots from his qualification placement in 16th after finishing third in his quarterfinal heat. Johnsgard explained that his results on the domestic circuit this season haven’t matched his expectations but that his performance in the U23 classic sprint demonstrated his fitness is back.
“Last year my best result was 21st so I was happy to improve on that today. Every opportunity I get to race in Europe is always a learning experience so for sure it helps having gone to World Juniors and U23s before,” he wrote in an email.
The third North American finisher of the day was Logan Hanneman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Hanneman skied his way to 21st in the qualifier and finished fifth in his quarterfinal — the same as Saxton and Fossli — to take 23rd overall.
“It was just awesome to be in a heat with [Saxton], and with Sondre Fossli,” Hannmen wrote in a post-race email.
Hanneman, who achieved his goal of a top-30 finish, wrote in an email that he was pleased and proud of his result.
Canadian Sebastian Townsend (Alberta World Cup Academy) narrowly missed the heats, finishing 31st and 0.15 seconds out of qualification. Rounding out the North American finishers were Canadian Raphael Couturier (CNEPH/NST-U23), American Scott Patterson (Alaska Pacific University), and Canadian Scott James Hill (Thunder Bay NDC) who placed 33rd, 39th, and 40th in the field of 52.
Beatty Top North American Women in 20th
In the U23 women’s 1.3 k classic sprint, Canada’s Dahria Beatty (AWCA/NST-U23) led the North American contingent in 20th place. She qualified 27th and finished fourth in her quarterfinal. Beatty explained in an email that her goal for each race of U23s is to place in the top 20 and that Tuesday’s result was a good start to the week.
“I had a poor qualifier and was glad to be able to move up a bit. I was hoping to contend for a lucky loser spot but the last little pitch I ran out of energy and dropped back a bit from the first three ladies,” Beatty wrote. “I placed exactly the same this year as I did in the junior sprint last year. I am hoping to have stronger results in the distance races.”
Just behind Beatty was Canadian Olivia Bouffard-Nesbit (Rocky Mountain Racers) in 21st. Bouffard-Nesbit had a strong to start the day and placed 12th in the qualifier. She finished fifth in her quarterfinal to end the sprint as the second North American.
Anne Hart (SMST2) was the top American finisher in Tuesday’s race after qualifying in 21st position and finishing fifth in her quarterfinal.
Hart, who earned her best-ever international finish, explained that she was confident going into the quarterfinals, but got “caught a little off guard” at the start of the race.
Regardless, she was able to maintain her position in the pack of skiers until one of leading women forced the heat to nearly stop, and subsequently charged ahead to leave the pack behind her. After the move, Hart explained that she was unable to match the fast pace and maintained her fifth-place standing into the finish.
“It was unlike any race I had ever done, with very aggressive lane changing, cornering, and skiing,” she wrote in an email. “There is no room for error, no time for panicking, and no time to let off the pedal. Everyone really just sends it the entire way, and it was pretty cool to be a part of. In a perfect world I would have moved on past the quarters, but for my first international heat experience I would call the day a smashing success.”
Canada’s Cendrine Browne (CNEPH/NST-U23) also finished in the top 30. She placed 23rd in the qualifier and skied to fifth in her quarterfinal to take 26th overall.
Tuesday’s race was dominated by Italian Francesca Baudin who won the qualifier and ultimately the final. Her final time of 3:27.66 bested second place finisher Silje Thødorsen of Norway by 0.48 seconds. Fellow Italian Giulia Stuerz claimed the remaining podium spot, 1.59 seconds back.
Other North American finishers in the women’s 1.3 k classic sprint were Deedra Irwin (Michigan Tech), Annie Pokorny (SMST2), and Paige Schember (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) who finished 31st, 32nd, and 35th, respectively, in the field of 39 women.
Conditions in Kazakhstan
Organizers were forced to reschedule the classic sprint, which was originally planned for Monday, due to an unprepared course and need for more snowmaking. While organizers were able to create a 1.3 k loop, there were still complaints of rock and dirt in the snow. In addition, pollution continued to be a problem at the Almaty venue with many skiers using air masks during training to prevent the inhalation of unhealthy air.
Despite any problems, the possible 2022 Olympic venue still has promise.
“This place has the potential to be an absolutely amazing venue. Huge mountains as backdrops with the city below. Yes the smog is an issue. It is quite bad. But everyone is in the same boat, so you just have to go with it. I am looking forward to the clean air back home…we don’t know how good we have it,” Hanneman wrote.
Beatty agreed, but explained that she had become accustomed to the air quality after several days of training.
“The smog is bad but after having been here a week I barely notice it anymore. Since everyone is having to race in it I don’t think it plays a big part in performance,” she wrote.
Racing continues in Kazakhstan on Wednesday with the Junior World Championships 5/10 k freestyle races.
— Chelsea Little 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.