DAVOS, Switzerland — Sprint-racing success requires strength, strategy and at least a little bit of luck. All these factors were in Sophie Caldwell’s favor as the U.S. Ski Team sprinter advanced as a “lucky loser” twice en route to a sixth-place finish in the women’s 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint at the World Cup in Davos, Switzerland.
Four U.S. women qualified for the heats, racing two laps of the 787-meter course during each round. Caldwell posted the fifth-fastest qualifying time in 2:43.16, 3.32 seconds behind Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who won the qualifier. Jessie Diggins qualified in 13th, Ida Sargent moved on in 18th and Sadie Bjornsen advanced in 19th.
The fifth U.S. women racing on Sunday, Rosie Brennan finished 2 seconds outside the top 30 (necessary to qualify) in 40th, 11.65 seconds behind Østberg.
After Caldwell, 25, posted her second-best qualifying result in a World Cup (she qualified in fourth two seasons ago in Szklarska Poreba, Poland), she opted for the first quarterfinal heat, squaring off against Norwegian powerhouses like Østberg and Heidi Weng, as well as Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and even Canadian native Heidi Widmer, a new member of the Swiss National Team.
Østberg, Weng and Ingemarsdotter all made the final at the opening World Cup sprint in Kuusamo two weeks ago. This season on the World Cup, athletes select which quarterfinal they want to compete in order of their qualifying time or heat placement. This adds an additional element of strategy to the racing.
“The first heat is nice because you get more recovery before the semis, but it is often what a lot of the top skiers pick,” Caldwell said during an in-person interview. “I don’t really know what the best answer is yet, but we are learning a lot each weekend; it’s kind of fun.”
In that quarterfinal, Østberg took control out of the start. Caldwell stuck close in second, then slipped into third behind Weng on the first of two hills (with one steep climb per lap). After qualifying in 29th, Widmer hung on in sixth throughout the race while Østberg continued to hammer the pace up front. On the final descent down into a righthand curve and into the stadium, the two Norwegians increased their distance ahead of Caldwell, securing first and second, while Caldwell fought for third, 0.41 seconds ahead of Ingemarsdotter in fourth. She finished 2.34 seconds behind Østberg in first. Widmer placed sixth (+11.1).
Their quarterfinal ended up being the fastest of all five by 3 seconds, lifting both Caldwell and Ingemarsdotter to the semifinals as lucky losers.
“I was hanging on for dear life up that last hill,” Caldwell said.
In the semifinal, competing against two Swedes — Stina Nilsson and Hanna Falk — two Norwegians — Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Kathrine Rolsted Harsem — and Diggins, her U.S. teammate, Caldwell ended up fourth, but just 0.88 seconds behind Nilsson as the winner. Diggins was fifth, 1.7 seconds back after advancing to the semis with a dominant quarterfinal performance.
Diggins won her quarterfinal by 0.27 seconds over Nilsson after leading the entire 1.6 k. Nilsson came on strong in the finishing stretch, but Diggins held her off. Asked of her strategy, Diggins said she picked the fourth quarterfinal because it was one she thought she could win.
“I tried to get out in front because I know that passing is really tough,” Diggins said after the race. “I was able to have a good start and just hold it.”
In their semifinal, Nilsson and Jacobson gapped the group, pushing over the final climb. Nilsson went on to edge Jacobson by 0.24 seconds for the win. Falk placed third (+0.65) and Caldwell was fourth, while Diggins was shuffled to the back of the pack after the first lap. She recovered, catching the group on the final climb and passed Harsem to finish fifth.
“I was a little more tired than I would have liked so after I got pushed to the back it was really hard to get back on, but I kept fighting,” Diggins said.
She ended up ninth on the day, while Caldwell continued on with a time 0.03 seconds faster than Weng, who placed third in the other semifinal (behind Østberg and Falla, respectively).
Caldwell had beaten the odds yet again and advanced to the final along with Falk.
There, in the final round of the day, Falk challenged Østberg out of the gate and into the first climb, and Caldwell skied with the group in fifth at the start of the second lap.
Østberg and Falla took control by Lap 2, and at the top of the last hill, Falla passed her teammate to lead for the first time. Østberg nearly caught her on the downhill and into the final bend, but few saw U23 World Cup leader Nilsson slingshotting up from third.
Nilsson took the outside line around the bend then pulled up alongside Østberg and finally Falla to beat them both to the line. The 22-year-old Swede won in 2:39.27, 0.15 seconds ahead of Falla in second place and 0.84 ahead of Østberg in third.
In 30 World Cup starts, it was Nilsson’s first career victory. She had reached the podium eight times before. For Østberg, it was her second podium in as many days after placing second in Saturday’s 15 k freestyle.
Jacobsen, who was fourth descending into the stadium and around the turn, ended up fourth (+1.06), Falk placed fifth (+2.74), and Caldwell, who had lost contact after the first lap, finished sixth (+14.47).
Despite fading in the final, Caldwell expressed happiness with her day.
“It was definitely a burst of confidence. I’ve felt good skating, but I didn’t know how I stacked up,” she said. “I think my speed and technique are good, but I need to have the fitness to have the same energy as I did in the qualifier in the final.”
Sixth in the skate sprint at the 2014 Olympics, Caldwell finished a career-best third in a World Cup skate sprint after the Olympics in Lahti, Finland. She placed seventh in two World Cup freestyle sprints last year, and 10th in the 2015 World Championships classic sprint, but she hadn’t made a final since Lahti in March 2014.
“I was really psyched to see four girls in the top 20 in the qualifier, highlighted by Sophie’s fifth,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said in a post-race interview. “Our girls were within striking distance of the top today and that felt really good. We feel like we put together great heats and great performances all the way up to Sophie’s final and she was just too cashed at that point.”
Bjornsen finished fourth in her quarterfinal, 3 1/2 seconds behind Jacobsen, who won that heat. Harsem placed second (+2.41), Slovenia’s Nika Razinger was third (+3.01). Heading into the final climb, Bjornsen hung around fourth behind Italy’s Gaia Vuerich. She passed Vuerich to move into third, but Razinger ultimately passed Bjornsen in the finishing stretch to bump her to fourth.
In a post-race interview, Bjornsen said she found it difficult to pass.
“The course is very tactical so you need to find some open spots,” she said. “On the final climb I got a bit tangled with poles, so I couldn’t sprint it out like I wanted to.”
Bjornsen ended up 17th overall for her fifth-consecutive top 20 in as many individual World Cup races this season.
“I’ve only qualified [for the heats] once in Davos so this is good,” Bjornsen said.
Sargent placed sixth in her quarterfinal, 3.6 seconds behind Germany’s Sandra Ringwald in first. Falk was on the good side of a photo finish for second (+0.06), ahead of Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff in third (+0.08). Their quarterfinal ended up being the slowest, leaving only the top two, Ringwald and Falk, to advance to the next round.
Germany’s Denise Herrmann placed fourth (+0.76), and Russia’s Natalia Matveeva finished fifth (+2.09), while Sargent followed about a second later. She placed 27th overall.
Afterward, Sargent, a classic-sprint specialist, explained her day went better than expected.
“I’m not sure if it is the elevation, but today my legs were not moving quickly and I was actually surprised to qualify so well,’” she said. “I was pretty psyched with qualifying in 18th because normally I’m high 20s, so now I just need to get my legs back underneath me.”
Across the board, the U.S. women credited their wax team with fantastic skis.
“The techs put together brilliant skis even though we had incredibly limited testing window on the tracks,” Whitcomb said. “The fact that we are operating with more of a complete staff these days allowed us to put some skis on the snow and test some good structures and products. We had fantastic skis, the athletes were feeling good and did good things with them.”
“I am really proud of this team. All the athletes and all the staff,” Whitcomb added. “We have a good thing going and I’m proud to be representing the U.S. over here in Europe.”
Widmer finished 30th on the day in her first World Cup of the season. It was her career best and first time in the World Cup heats, and marked her first time representing Switzerland on the World Cup.
— JoJo Baldus and Jeremy Blazar contributed reporting
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.