Liz Stephen led a trio of Americans placing in the top 20 of Sunday’s 30-kilometer freestyle mass start in Holmenkollen, Norway – the final World Cup race of the season.
Stephen finished in ninth to earn her sixth individual top-10 finish of the 2014/2015 World Cup season. She was 2:06.7 minutes behind Marit Bjørgen of Norway, who sprinted away from teammate Therese Johaug in the final kilometer to win in a time of 1:14:10.5 and put the finishing touch on her overall World Cup title.
Stephen was fifth after 16.3 k, and led the main chase pack throughout much of the final lap. However, she fell behind in the final kilometer and came across the line 17.5 seconds outside the top five.
Stephen finished the season 10th in the overall World Cup standings and seventh in the distance standings.
The East Montpellier, Vt. native said that she entered Sunday’s race with a goal of reaching the top five and had her sights set on Norway’s Heidi Weng. She explained that to fight for her goal, risks were necessary.
“I took some chances and almost blew up at points. A good indicator for me is when my stomach is knotted and I wanted to throw up which came earlier than usual,” Stephen told USSA in a press release, adding that while she finished four spots away from her goal, she considered the day a success.
With the culmination of the 2015 World Cup season Stephen said the many personal and team achievements of the year gave her hope for the future. Stephen earned a historic fifth-place finish in the 2015 Tour de Ski and claimed the best finish by an American woman in a distance World Cup with her silver medal in the Rybinsk 10 k freestyle.
“The top of the race is closer now. It gives me hope for next year and years in the future,” she said to USSA. “I’m really happy with the day. I’m really happy with the season.”
Jessie Diggins, silver medalist in the 10 k freestyle at the 2015 World Championships, was the second American to finish, coming through by herself in 14th (+2:44.0). She claimed her eighth individual top-15 World Cup finish of the season and ended the season 22nd in the World Cup standings.
Meanwhile, Caitlin Gregg finished in 19th (+3:07.7), three weeks after taking bronze in the 10 k freestyle at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden.
Gregg said in a phone interview that in previous seasons she would be more excited about Sunday’s result, but her recent successes have left her with higher expectations.
“I’m a little bit bummed, because I was definitely skiing in a place where I was fighting for a top-ten finish and I was feeling really good,” she said.
Gregg put herself in a good position early in the race – she was eighth at the 8 k mark, just 16 seconds off the lead. At that point, she was in a chase pack of roughly six other skiers and feeling strong.
However, she said she picked her second-best pair of skis for the race, expecting the other skiers to exchange their skis at the 13 k point like in previous years. But when the leaders, Bjørgen and Johaug, did not switch, no one in the chase pack did either.
“The skis I selected were a bit stiffer … and as the course broke down I realized they were way too stiff, and areas where I usually would feel the greatest, on those long inclines through some pretty deep slush, my skis were just bogging down and I was struggling,” Gregg said.
As a result, she was caught by another pack and fell to 17th by the 24.3 k point, before finishing the race in the back of that pack.
“Skiing Holmenkollen on your second-best pair of skis isn’t really what you want to do, so it leaves you with that ‘what if?’ feeling. But that’s why we do this; it’s a fun experiment. You’re always playing and the strategy is a cool part of it,” Gregg explained.
Gregg is thrilled with the 2015 season, especially given the fact she dealt with shingles early in the World Cup season. In addition to her performance at World Championships, she won the 10 k freestyle and was second in the freestyle sprint at U.S. Nationals and took third in last weekend’s 42 k mass start Marathon Cup race in Engadin, Switzerland.
“Just being on the World Cup is a pretty incredible experience … I feel like I’ve definitely figured out how to ski on the World Cup, how to travel on the World Cup, how the whole system operates,” she said.
She added that it is a great feeling to know she is finishing strong.
Three other Americans finished in the famed 30 k. Sadie Bjornsen took 44th (+6:59.0) and finishes the season 23rd in the World Cup standings, Caitlin Patterson was 53rd (+8:53.3), and Rosie Brennan finished in 55th (+10:22.7).
The lone Canadian in the field, Emily Nishikawa, took 50th (+8:04.1).