It’s easy to get caught up in results and what could have been. Ask Sadie Bjornsen. The 26-year-old U.S. Ski Team member was shooting for a top 10 in Sunday’s 10-kilometer classic pursuit at the World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland.
After putting herself in 11th to start the final stage of the Ruka Triple mini tour, Bjornsen considered 10th or better to be a reasonable goal. That is, until you factor everything else that typically happens in Kuusamo.
On Sunday, a mixture of rain and snow falling amid a windy, 32-degree morning, paired with a combination of natural and manmade snow on the course, made for a lot of variables. With that in mind, Bjornsen noted that it was imperative to stay positive.
She would know. Two years ago, she had her breakthrough result in the Kuusamo 5 k classic, placing seventh. The day before, Bjornsen qualified third in the classic sprint.
She ended up 17th overall in the 2013 Ruka tour. On Sunday, she posted a new personal best in the Ruka Triple in 14th overall. And while it wasn’t the top 10, it took a lot of work to get there.
“It was another fun, and extra challenging day of racing in Kuusamo,” Bjornsen wrote in an email after Sunday’s pursuit, in which she finished 14th, 2:05.6 behind Norwegian winner Therese Johaug.
She had started 35 seconds behind Johag. By 2.5, Bjornsen was about a minute back in 14th, and at the halfway point, she remained in 14th, about a minute and 24 seconds back. That’s partly because Johaug was putting a lot of time into the field; at 5 k, she had a 24.5-second gap to Norwegian teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (who started with her).
But Bjornsen was also struggling.
“My first [2.5 k] lap was really hard, because I realized I had no kick in the track, and I felt like I was being passed by people constantly,” she recalled. “Finally, by the second lap, I pulled myself together, and decided to just ski outside of the track for the majority of the race, and then things worked out much better! I was even having a lot of fun on the final lap!
“Patience and optimism is the key on a day like today though, because there is such a variety of things that are going on,” Bjornsen added. “… I could have easily continued to struggle and drop after that first lap, but I gave myself a little smacking and realized I had to make my opportunity today.”
Instead of paying attention to the athletes near her, Bjornsen focused on doing her best with what she had available, she explained. That made her happier in the end.
It was also the key to her success, according to U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb. After the race, he observed that the athletes who didn’t openly complain about how bad the wax was were the ones that fared best.
“Our athletes never complain about the wax midrace, but every now and then you hear another athlete yell in disgust about the wax,” he said. “… Everyone is slipping and sliding around this course and it was those that said, ‘This is what I’ve got, what do I have to do?’ [that succeeded.]”
“Sadie’s race was impressive, but also her reflection on the race was mature,” Whitcomb added. “She discovered after a lap that the way she was skiing wasn’t working. To get out of the tracks on the uphill gave her the biggest benefit. … She resettled, put in three really good laps and was able to hang onto a top 15.”
“There was no simple answer out there today, it was a challenge no matter what!” Bjornsen explained. “My wax tech did such an awesome job of keeping me relaxed and confident with what was going to happen, so I am so thankful for that!
“I am really stoked to finish with my best tour result ever,” she concluded. “I am really satisfied with the weekend, and I know there is more to come, and more ‘less challenging conditions’ to come as well!”
After Bjornsen, teammate Jessie Diggins started 19th, 47 seconds behind Johaug, and finished 38th (+3:17.4). She skied within the top 30 for the first 2.5 k before falling two minutes off the pace between 4 and 5 k.
“I struggled in these conditions, but it was an important step forward for me on the mental side of racing,” Diggins wrote in an email. “A few years ago, I might have heard that I was out of the top 30 and stopped skiing as hard as I could, but I never gave up and kept looking for those seconds out there, and I’m proud of that.”
A weekend after winning both FIS races in Gällivare, Sweden, including a classic sprint, Sunday’s classic distance result left Diggins disappointed, Whitcomb said.
“She’s made big progress on her classic skiing, but today’s conditions required the ability to really feather the kick,” he explained. The best classic skiers who could maintain their technique despite spotty kick tended to do better, he added
But Diggins wasn’t concerned.
“I feel that my fitness is in a good place for the start of the year, and when I let my body recover from the past few weeks of good training and the 5 races I did in the last 9 days I should see a fun boost!” she wrote.
The second-fastest U.S. woman in the pursuit, Rosie Brennan started 34th (1:09 back) and finished 34th (+3:08.5) with the 33rd-fastest time of the day.
“I had my eyes on the top 30 both for the tour and the time of day. I fell just short of both, but I guess I’m putting in my time so to say,” Brennan wrote in an email. “No one had perfect skis so it was all about finding ways to make it work. I started a little slow with some apprehension for both the downhills and my skis, but eventually started finding ways to make it all work.”
While her race had its ups and downs, “some laps I felt I had figured it out and other laps I felt like I couldn’t make anything work,” she explained, Brennan was ultimately pleased with her start to the season.
“I learned a lot over the weekend and got my mind back into ski racing which I think will set me up well for the coming weeks,” she wrote.
“She skied so steady in the mid 30s,” Whitcomb said of Brennan. “I know she’s a little disappointed, but points don’t come easy, particularly in Kuusamo and Lillehammer in these first two World Cups … I think it bodes well to Rosie’s trajectory.”
Also for the U.S., Ida Sargent — who placed seventh in Friday’s classic sprint — rose from starting 54th to finish 44th overall. Liz Stephen placed 59th, and Caitlin Gregg was 68th.
“I was really pleased with the whole process [this weekend],” Whitcomb said of his team. “… We really operated like medalists should … However, it wasn’t all fluffy like that. We had some disappointing results.”
On the men’s side, Sadie Bjornsen’s younger brother Erik led the team in 46th overall
“Overall, I feel good about where this team is,” Whitcomb said. “The good results weren’t completely absent this weekend … but we’re heading to Norway to prove we’re in better shape than we showed this weekend.”
Canada’s lone female competing in Kuusamo, Emily Nishikawa placed 60th (+5:11.8) after starting 63rd. Annika Taylor, a University of New Hampshire graduate and former Far West Nordic junior who’s now racing for Great Britain, went from 67th to 62nd overall (+5:33.7) in the tour.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.