SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Maybe it’s the Rocky Mountain sun, carefree atmosphere or the successful World Cup season behind her. Whatever the reason, it seems that Sadie Bjornsen can’t stop winning at the 2015 SuperTour Finals.
Bjornsen claimed her second victory in two days, skiing to a time of 2:43.65 in the 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint on the trails of Galena Lodge. Middlebury College’s Kelsey Phinney earned second, trailing the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier by 1.6 seconds. In third was Jennie Bender of Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF), who finished 2.16 seconds back.
Eliska Hajkova (+2.84), a coach with the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team and former University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) skier, claimed fourth, while Liz Stephen (USST/Burke Mountain Academy) finished fifth (+4.14) and Becca Rorabaugh (APU) placed sixth (+7.34) in the final.
The day started with a different set of leaders as CU’s Petra Hycicova, APU’s Rosie Brennan, and the University of Vermont’s Linda Danvind Malm claimed the top three positions in the qualifier. Bjornsen qualified in seventh position, 7.2 seconds behind Hycicova. The field was missing several strong skiers who are present in Sun Valley, including Sophie Caldwell, Caitlin Gregg and Ida Sargent. Caldwell is recovering from illness, while both Gregg and Sargent are dealing with concussions.
The preliminary round was a test of balance and stability as the rolling course featured 1.2 k of ice caused by low overnight temperatures. Bjornsen said the fast, but treacherous conditions were difficult and far from favorable.
“This year, I’ve struggled with skiing on ice, it was the same thing in Lahti so I was really trying but I knew that it was going to get softer and better,” Bjornsen, 25, said in a post-race interview.
Just as she predicted, the course became softer and more stable as the day progressed. By the time the APU skier entered the heats, she was ready to fight for her second win. Bjornsen took an early lead in her quarterfinal and maintained her position until the final meters. She slowed to save energy after realizing her advancement was all but clinched, and was passed by Far West’s Anja Gruber as the two crossed the line.
Although her strategy was successful, Bjornsen switched tactics in the remaining heats.
“[In the quarterfinal] I just went from the gun and realized it’s a lot harder to work from the front, so then I decided to use a little tactics and let some others lead,” she said. “This is my favorite grade, so I was just relying on having a lot of speed out of the corner and pushing.”
Bjornsen, along with five other women, survived the semifinals and advanced to the final. There, Stephen, a distance specialist, took control and set a fast pace from the start in an effort to break up the competition. Meanwhile, Bjornsen sat in third before the downhill, but gave several strong skates to rocket to first after the final corner.
“I was just trying to push over the tops hard because you could really make up some time, especially when you’re a bigger person, you can always make up some time pushing a little bit harder than the person in front of you,” she said. “I think I just relied on that because that’s something I’ve been working on a lot on the World Cup, pushing over the top. I could see that was an opportunity here.”
As the pack ascended the slightly uphill finish, Bjornsen maintained a comfortable margin across the line. Behind her, Phinney advanced from fifth position at the top of the hill to claim second, while Bender skied in the same lane behind Phinney to nab third.
Bjornsen said that the win was unexpected given how she was feeling after Saturday’s 10 k win.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I was not feeling that was going to happen this morning. I am exhausted, but everyone’s exhausted. It makes it fun when you’re exhausted when you’re winning, so that’s lucky. Two more to go.”
Just over a second behind Bjornsen, Phinney earned her first major podium on the domestic elite circuit. Phinney, a junior at Middlebury, has seen a breakthrough year in which she has risen to the top ranks of eastern collegiate racing.
Sprinting, however, is rare on the collegiate circuit and Sunday’s race was one of only a few opportunities for the 20 year old to participate in the format. Earlier this year she finished ninth in the Craftsbury SuperTour freestyle sprint.
Phinney said the icy course in qualification prevented her from skiing powerfully, and afterward she wasn’t confident the effort was enough to qualify in the top 30. Her fears were proven wrong, as Phinney ultimately qualified in 18th.
With warmer temperatures transforming the snow, the Boulder, Colo., native was able to tackle the course with ease later in the day. In both the quarterfinal and semifinal she maneuvered to ski the inside of the ultimate corner, gaining an advantage into the uphill finish. Once there she used her finishing kick to seal the deal.
The final was no different.
“In the other heats, too, I had taken the inside corner and instead of going into that far left lane at the finish I went in into the middle lane,” she said of her tactics in the final. “I realized coming in that I was parallel with those girls and if I just gave that little extra something I could stay with them. I just saw Sadie make the move and I tried to jump on it and it was hard.”
After the corner, Phinney realized she was in second, and to keep her momentum, she told herself, “You can do this, you can do this.”
“A lot of the final was just telling myself that I belonged there,” Phinney explained. “I’m still in shock I can’t believe that just happened … I’m just having the time of my life”
According to Phinney, SuperTour Finals is not only a chance to participate in fun, low-stakes racing, but also to see where she stands at the national level.
“Spring Series is a lot of fun. We get to come out to Sun Valley and ski in the sunshine,” Phinney said. “I also see it as a really good bridge between college skiing and skiing in the future and seeing where you measure up against the rest of the country. To come out here and have good results is reassuring and great.”
Following Phinney in third, Bender entered the race with little training in the two weeks prior to SuperTour Finals. After what she called a frustrating winter, the BSF skier took roughly two weeks off from skiing to reboot.
“I’ve been kind of having a rough mid-season. I took two weeks off and didn’t get on my skis,” Bender said. “Then I came here and it was a good decision.”
The 2013 and 2014 sprint national champion said that Sunday’s course suited her strengths – it was short, fast, flat, and ended on an uphill. Despite the nature of the course, Bender said that she missed several opportunities to further her placement in the final.
“A lot of the race was that last corner and the finishing stretch. I made some technical mistakes in the final. I got blocked here and there and didn’t go when I should have,” she explained. “I’m still happy with third. I wanted to get on the podium today and I did that.”
SuperTour Finals action continues Tuesday with a mixed team relay.
— Alex Kochon 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.