With the sun barely peeking over the horizon in northern Finland, the 2015/2016 World Cup kicked off Friday morning with the Ruka Triple mini-tour in Kuusamo.
For the U.S. women, four of seven racers in the 1.4-kilometer classic sprint made the top 30 to qualify for the heats, with Sadie Bjornsen in 18th, Sophie Caldwell in 27th, Jessie Diggins in 29th, and Ida Sargent in 30th.
That’s why the story of Sargent finishing seventh, one spot shy of the final, is a good one.
At the top of the final results, Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla took the win in 2:58.23, after lunging at the line to beat Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in second (+0.26). Norway occupied two of the three podium places, Ragnhild Haga 1.08 seconds behind Falla in third. Another Norwegian, Invild Flugstad Østberg was fourth (+2.85), Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter was fifth (+5.89), and the fourth Norwegian in the stacked final, Heidi Weng was sixth (+7.83).
Sargent, who advanced as a lucky loser out of her quarterfinal in third (behind Falla and Østberg, respectively), narrowly missed the final after placing third again in her semifinal. She finished 0.61 seconds behind Weng, the semifinal winner, and less than four-tenths of a second behind Ingemarsdotter, who advanced in second.
Bjornsen also raced in that semifinal after winning her quarterfinal in a photo finish with Sweden’s Evelina Settlin. In the semi, Bjornsen was sixth, 8.61 seconds behind Weng, which put her 12th overall on the day. Caldwell and Diggins both placed fifth in their quarterfinals and did not advance for 23rd and 25th overall, respectively.
In a phone interview after the race, U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb reflected that going into this weekend, the team wanted more than a tepid start to the season.
“I’m really happy with the day; we started the season last year with a good race here from Ida,” he said, referring to Sargent’s career-best fifth in the Kuusamo classic sprint. “But in general, as a team, the first couple of weekends were more of a soft launch. We didn’t like it, the fans didn’t like it, the athletes didn’t like it. So our team cheer last night was ‘fast start.’ ”
For Sargent, perhaps the qualifier wasn’t the fast start she was hoping for, but the 27-year-old classic sprint specialist squeaked into the heats by 0.1 seconds just days after recovering from a nasty cold. (Sargent skipped last weekend’s pre-World Cup tuneup in Gällivare, Sweden, due to illness.)
Asked about expectations coming into the World Cup opener, Sargent said in a post-race phone interview that she was realistic.
“I just wasn’t really sure what to expect. I got healthy in time, but [Thursday] was my first training day again, and the first day I did intensity,” she said. “I just did a lap of the course, Level 3, and felt horrible. So I just tried not to have any expectations and just get the season going and do everything I could on that day and bring everything that I had today.”
As the last skier to qualify for the quarterfinals, Sargent took a breath, and settled into visualizing a successful run. “When I was 30th, I was like, ‘Well, that’s great!’” she said. “For me that was as good as winning the qualifier. It was just like making it through, and I knew I had a fresh start.”
No stranger to Ruka-sprinting success, Sargent says her results there have more to do with the course profile than the time of year. The sprint course features two climbs, the second of which leads up to the stadium home stretch and can extinguish a skier’s best effort. That hill, the spot where most of the day’s races were decided, was something of an asset for Sargent.
“This is a course that I love,” she said. “I think it’s the course. I like striding a lot. And this one has big hill to stride up. It just works well for me having the steep hills to stride up. I’m kind of as a smaller sprinter. I do well on hillier courses.”
In Sargent’s quarterfinal heat, she tried to ski in control and time the last hill. There, she began charging as the incline steepened.
“It was really fun to be right in there with those girls who are frequently on the podium and feel like I was going head-to-head with them,” she said. “Even when I finished and was in the finish area, Maiken Caspersen Falla says to me like, ‘I think you’ll be fine. I think we went fast enough,’ or something like that. And as it turned out it was like an insanely fast heat.”
Turns out, it was fast. Sargent qualified as a lucky loser, moving into the semifinals.
For the U.S. women, the other highlight was Bjornsen.
Like Sargent, she also missed last week’s races due to illness.
“The funny thing here, those are the two athletes that were sick last week in Gällivare,” Whitcomb said. “And it just is one to remember … that a sickness one week does not mean bad results the next week. … When you get sick, one thing that happens is you recover a little bit.”
But sickness obviously isn’t a cure-all.
“When you are sick, the confidence can be shattered somewhat quickly,” Bjornsen said after Friday’s race on the phone. “So yeah, I would say the confidence sort of came back yesterday and today.”
Bjornsen skied steadily and with intent, coming from behind to hold off and out-double-pole Settlin to win her quarterfinal. For the third time in her World Cup career, she moved on to the semis.
And for most of her semifinal, while racing alongside Sargent, she stayed in the mix.
Bjornsen’s race derailed as she strided up the make-or-break final hill. She chose a glazed track far to the right.
“It got really slippery and I didn’t have the knowledge to jump out of the track and run up the side,” Bjornsen said. In the track, her skis iced slightly and she slipped and fell.
Yet even that mishap became a take-away moment for the emerging all-arounder.
“Unfortunately, I kind of iced on the top and fell over and had to pick myself back up with the most flooded legs in the world. I was disappointed in how the semifinals went because I felt like I wanted to win that one,” she said. “It was a great lesson because you just have so much to learn every time you sprint race. And now I realize it doesn’t hurt to jump out the track and make a decision like that.”
While Bjornsen righted herself atop the hill, Sargent charged ahead. At the top of the climb, the course arcs left into a final double-pole finishing stretch. There, Sargent pulled ahead of Norway’s Katherine Rolsted Harsem to move into third and pushed for second, but came up just short.
“It was a little frustrating to just miss out on the finals,” she said. “It was kind of like a lunge with those other girls for second and third but I think Ida Ingemarsdotter and I have had lunged in the past three or four years here and kind of go back and forth with who wins it.”
Ingemarsdotter has the height advantage of the two Idas: at 5-foot-9, she is five inches taller than Sargent.
Regardless, after finishing seventh on the day, Sargent left wanting more.
For Diggins, she wanted just a bit more track. Coming off wins in both Gällivare races last weekend, Diggins left her quarterfinal race chomping for just 20 more feet of straightaway before the finish. Despite not advancing into the semis, Diggins wrote in an email that her outlook remains positive.
“I was really, really happy with today’s race. It was the first time I’ve ever made the heats in a [World Cup] classic sprint, and I’ve been working so hard to improve my classic technique that it feels so good to see it all pay off!” she wrote.
In the Gällivare classic sprint, a International Ski Federation (FIS) race, Caldwell placed second to stand on the podium with Diggins. A week later, her World Cup season debut also ended in quarterfinals, but like her teammates, Caldwell’s lasting impression is a good one.
“I think last week’s race was a positive indicator of where my fitness and sprinting is right now, so I used it as a boost of confidence going into the sprint today,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I was happy with the day. It was the first time I’ve qualified in Kuusamo and left me hungry for more.”
Overall standings for the U.S. women in the Ruka mini tour are as follows: Sargent is seventh, Bjornsen 12th, Caldwell 23rd, Diggins 25th, Rosie Brennan 42nd, Caitlin Gregg 81st, and Liz Stephen 84th.
With two distance races remaining, none of the women are out of the picture.
“These tours are really fun because you can come from 90th place on the first day and up inside of the top 15 by the last day,” Whitcomb said. It’s always the goal to have three good-or-better races, but like any sport, you can kind of drop a race and put together two great ones and so end up with a good final result.”
Racing will continue for the women on Saturday with a 5 k freestyle individual start.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.