A career-best 13th sounds great until you realize that you were skiing as high as third at one point in the race, which is how Scott Patterson of Alaska Pacific University (APU) felt on Thursday after the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle at U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Patterson, who turned 23 on Jan. 28, started 50th of nearly 60 men and was tied for third at 1.7 k with Russia’s Andrey Melnichenko, 2.2 seconds behind another Russian, Roman Tarasov, and 1.2 seconds behind France’s Mickael Philipot.
By 6.7 k, Patterson remained in the top 10 with the ninth-fastest time, while Melnichenko had improved to fifth and Tarasov’s time ranked fourth. However, the last of three laps proved particularly challenging for several competitors, as Patterson slipped from ninth to 13th in the last three kilometers. Earlier in the final 5 k lap at 11.7 k, Melnichenko dropped to 12th and Tarasov fell to 17th, while Philipot ranked 22nd.
Patterson ended up 13th, 1.27.8 behind winner Florian Notz of Germany, who improved from 11th early in the race to second at the 11.7 k checkpoint and finally, first at the finish in 35:55.3. Melnichenko finished 14th, Tarasov was 20th, and Philipot 23rd.
“Honestly, I am a little disappointed with the result,” Patterson wrote in an email after his career-best performance at U23 World Championships. He had previously finished 18th in two races at 2014 U23 worlds (the 30 k skiathlon and 15 k classic), and 17th in the 10 k classic at 2010 Junior World Championships.
“For most of the race I was fighting for a top 10,” he explained. “However, I faded as the race progressed while some of my competitors maintained the pace or got stronger. At the finish I had heard I was in 8th so dropping to 13th in the end was a bit of a bummer. Luckily I still have one more race to improve on my finish. Coming into these championships, I had definitely been aiming for a top 10 with hopes even higher than that so I will continue that in the pursuit [skiathlon].”
Patterson led three American men in the top 20, with Patrick Caldwell (Dartmouth College/U.S. Ski Team) placing 15th (+1:40.1), and Kyle Bratrud finishing 19th (+1:49.1).
“This was definitely one of my target races,” Patterson explained. “U23s is always an important part of the season and 15k skate races have historically been pretty successful for me, but the 30k pursuit is just as much of a target race.”
While a top result at U23 worlds could draw the attention of the U.S. Ski Team and make a case for being considered for the U.S. Senior World Championships team, which will compete in Falun, Sweden, later this month, Patterson explained he wasn’t thinking about that.
“Senior world championships would be awesome, but really I am here to race this week not race for a couple weeks later,” he wrote, adding that OPA Cup Finals in Chamonix, France, will likely be his next focus.
Thursday’s course was tough, with “mostly relentless gradual uphills and working downhills with a few steep kickers and technical descents thrown in to keep it interesting,” he added. “Conditions were also quite interesting today with significantly faster almost icy section in the shade but almost slush in some spots. I think overall I skied it quite well but there were parts that could have gone better. By the third lap, I wasn’t working the transitions as hard as I should have been.”
He paced his race aggressively, but found himself losing positions as the race continued.
“I went out pretty hard with the idea that I was not going to be timid at U23s,” Patterson wrote. “Even in the first lap I could feel that this might cost me, later in the race. Although I hung close, I was gradually fading and transitioned into survival mode for the final few hills. Maybe it would have been better to go out a bit more conservative and ski into it, but I chose the opposite and it kind of worked out.”
Just over three months ago, Patterson suffered a pulmonary embolism after a freak skiing accident with a teammate. He was limited to short walks for about a month, and it seemed the University of Vermont graduate’s first season as a professional skier was over before it had begun.
“While I was injured there were definitely moments where I was questioning whether I would be able to qualify for this trip or even be able to race at nationals,” he reflected.
He went on to win his first race back in December, a 15 k freestyle at home in Anchorage, Alaska, and placed eighth in the 30 k classic mass start at U.S. nationals last month.
“The hardest part has been to keep everything balanced between the perspective of being injured and the perspective of it being a normal season,” he wrote. “On one hand everyone keeps telling me how amazing I am doing for where I was in November, but then there is the other side of me always wanting more and being quite close to where I actually want to be. Sometimes the injury just feels like it’s an excuse holding me back.”
“Everyone keeps telling me how amazing I am doing for where I was in November, but then there is the other side of me always wanting more and being quite close to where I actually want to be.” — Scott Patterson, 13th in 15 k freestyle at U23 World Championships
Heading into these championships, Caldwell explained in his email that his goals were to “race hard and stay healthy.” On Thursday, he was specifically aiming for a top 15 and was relieved he lunged at the line to do so.
The 20-year-old Dartmouth ski team member finished 0.1 seconds ahead of Great Britain’s Andrew Young in 16th and edged Russia’s Krill Vichuzhanin in 17th by 0.3 seconds. In 15th, Caldwell was 11.4 seconds back from Melnichenko in 14th.
“I’m really psyched with how things went today. It is a pretty tough course: lots of steep uphills, long gradual grinds and not much rest,” Caldwell wrote, adding that he focused on “staying relaxed on the climbs and really pushing it on the flats and gradual ups.”
In his first race at a U23 World Championships, 15th marked his second-best result at a world championships since placing 10th in the 20 k skiathlon at junior worlds last year.
“Many aspects of the competition are very similar so far,” he explained. “The biggest difference is that the top end for U23s are also competitive on the World Cup. Its pretty cool to be out there with some really successful World Cup skiers. … I think everyone is particularly fired up with the World Championships coming up soon. The upcoming races in Falun haven’t changed my approach to these races but have definitely added to the overall excitement at this event.”
Bratrud placed 19th in his U23 worlds debut, after having competed at the 2013 junior worlds in Liberec, Czech Republic.
“My goal going into today was to be in the top 15 or even top 10 so I am disappointed about that,” Bratrud wrote in an email. “I was in the hunt for the first two laps, but faded and leaked quite a bit of time on the last lap. That being said, it is hard not to be excited about a first top 20 and seeing two teammates in the top 15. This male U23 group is the future of US Skiing and it is a blessing just to be a part of it.”
“This male U23 group is the future of US Skiing and it is a blessing just to be a part of it.” — Kyle Bratrud, 19th in 15 k freestyle at U23 World Championships
Bratrud, who turns 22 on Feb. 9, started 44th — right behind Caldwell in bib 43 — and improved from the 25th-ranked time at 1.7 k to 12th at 6.7 k. He slipped to 16th with just over three kilometers remaining and ultimately finished 2.2 seconds within the top 20.
“Anyone who knows me knows I put a lot of pressure on myself, so following a very successful US Nationals [where he won the 15 k freestyle and placed third in the 30 k classic] I certainly have new expectations for myself,” Bratrud said.
Last week, he was named to the U.S. Senior World Championships team.
“I constantly feel I need to justify my naming,” he added. “But at the end of the day I am on this trip with some of the best skiers in the US and if you are slightly off one day than a lot can happen. I went for it and came up short, but I am happy that I tried and excited for what lies ahead. This is certainly a new level. There are regular World Cup skiers racing with us and it’s fun to see where you compare.”
Also for the U.S., Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska Fairbanks) placed 40th, 2:54.1 behind the winner.
Germany’s Notz kicked it into high gear on the last of three laps for his first podium at a U23 or junior worlds, beating Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krueger by 9.5 seconds and French bronze medalist Adrien Backscheider by 26.7 seconds.
Notz started last in bib 58 and paced himself accordingly to beat the times of both Krueger and Backscheider in bibs 56 and 57, respectively. Italy’s Giandomenico Salvadori held on for fourth (+34.7) and Norway’s Magne Haga, brother of women’s World Cup skier Ragnhild Haga, placed fifth (+40.2).
Raphaël Couturier of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) and national U23 team placed 41st (+2:56.4) to lead the Canadian men, while teammates Knute Johnsgaard (Whitehorse/Yukon Elite Squad) finished 47th (+3:51.1), Scott James Hill (Thunder Bay NDC) took 48th (+3:54.3), and Colin Ferrie (Black Jack) placed 50th (+4:06.8).
The U23 World Championships wrap up with the women’s and men’s 15/30 k skiathlons on Saturday.
— Chelsea Little 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.