Two Germans. Two Norwegians. Two Swedes. These national pairs composed the women’s World Cup 1.3-kilometer freestyle sprint final on Saturday in Toblach, Italy.
It was Norway who took the lead from the start, with 25-year-old Ingvild Flugstad Østberg pulling her teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla, along with the Swedish duo Stina Nilsson and Linn Soemskar.
Østberg remained in front for the first downhill of the 600-meter lap course, followed closely by Falla and Nilsson.
Coming off last weekend’s skate-sprint victory in Davos, Switzerland, 22-year-old Nilsson stuck with the two Norwegians until the final climb of the two-lap course. Last Sunday in Davos, Nilsson shared the podium with the two Norwegians, with Falla in second and Østberg in third.
With one last uphill to go, Falla, 25, took the lead from her teammate while Nilsson moved from third to second.
As the trio descended the final downhill into the stadium, Falla maintained her position in front, while the battle for second ensued between Østberg and Nilsson.
Rounding the final turn into the 50-meter straightaway, Nilsson attempted to go wide on the the outside corner to get around Østberg and Falla. The Swede’s tactical maneuver, however, didn’t match Østberg’s raw speed.
The Norwegians went 1-2, with Falla winning the final in 2:47.28 minutes, just 0.17 seconds ahead of Østberg in second. Nilsson crossed the line in third, 0.61 seconds after Falla.
Østberg said she had to be happy with second.
“I had really bad last 100 meters in Davos. I was focused on having a good finish here,” she told FIS. “If it was 20 meters longer I think I could have fought with Maiken for victory. I have been fourth [in the Kuusamo classic sprint], third [in Davos] and second. I am going to be dangerous next time.”
Rounding out the top six in the final was Soemskar in fourth (+1.31), Germany’s Hanna Kolb in fifth (+1.59) and Denise Herrmann, also of Germany, in sixth (+2.31).
During a post-race interview with German broadcaster ZDF, Kolb commented on reaching the final. The 24-year-old German had done so twice before in the skate sprints at the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Tour de Ski, where she placed fourth and fifth, respectively.
“I am a little relieved that I was able to do it [reach the final] because it was a crazy amount of training throughout the summer,” Kolb said. “And in sprints, often small details are decisive. That it finally worked today makes up for all the effort.”
For Herrmann, it was her first appearance in a sprint final this season for her best result so far this winter.
“I am just happy that it worked out again to reach the final, because the start of the season was not good for me,” she told ZDF. “Step by step, I will try to tie it up to [past] results.”
Two U.S. Women in Top 10
Although there wasn’t an American pair in the final, two U.S. women ended up in the top 10.
Sophie Caldwell, 25, of the U.S. Ski Team took seventh overall, after qualifying in 10th, 3.23 seconds behind Østberg, the fastest qualifier in 2:49.45.
Caldwell went on to place second in her quarterfinal, 0.13 seconds behind Falla, before missing advancing beyond the semifinals by eight-hundredths of a second. She finished fourth in her semifinal behind Falla, Nilsson and Kolb, respectively, with Kolb finishing third and advancing as a lucky loser, 0.45 seconds behind Falla.
Their semifinal, with Falla setting the pace and finishing in 2:46.31, turned out to be the fastest women’s heat of the day. This was perhaps expected with players like Falla and Nilsson in the same semifinal.
“My semi final was really close and I knew there were a lot of fast skiers in it, so I had to make every second count in order to fight for a top two place or a lucky loser place,” Caldwell wrote in an email.
She tucked into fifth on the inside of the second large climb, alongside Kolb, Norway’s Heidi Weng, and Laurien van der Graaff of Switzerland. Nilsson attempted to split from the group on the second-to-last downhill, only to be reeled back in by Falla in second Caldwell, who had moved up to third. Meanwhile, Kolb closed in behind them.
The turn into the finishing stretch became a tossup, as Nilsson cut into the center lane, Caldwell went to the inside left and Kolb accelerated to the right of Caldwell.
“I moved into a great position coming into the last downhill, but things got a little jammed up coming into the last corner and I moved back to fourth,” Caldwell explained.
Caldwell and Kolb lunged at the line, but the German snatched third, and ultimately the lucky loser ticket to the final. Last week in Davos, Caldwell advanced as a two-time lucky loser to the sprint final, where she placed sixth.
“I was psyched with every aspect of today,” Caldwell wrote on Saturday. “Mentally I feel like I’m skiing with more confidence and my goal is to ski like I belong in front of each heat and not to just hope that I move on.”
Not far behind, Sadie Bjornsen recored her first top 10 of the season in ninth (after five consecutive top-20’s in as many individual World Cup races this season). She qualified sixth (+1.48), placed second in her quarterfinal, 0.28 seconds behind Østberg, and went on to finish fifth in the second semifinal — 0.46 seconds behind Østberg, who won that heat as well.
Like her teammate Caldwell, Bjornsen was also mere fractions away from making the final.
“Skate sprinting has always been a gamble for me in the past. 50% of the time I make the heats, 50% of the time I don’t qualify,” Bjornsen wrote in an email after the race.
On Saturday, the odds seemed to be in her favor.
“It started with my best qualifier ever, and advanced into some fun heats and skiing. I felt really good out there, and just missed the finals by a touchable hair,” she wrote. “But each week I am feeling more confident and excited about sprint racing.”
In her quarterfinal, Bjornsen, 26, chased down two Norwegians, Østberg and Kathrine Rolsted Harsem. The three battled it out into the finishing straight, where Bjornsen chose the outside line in an effort to move into the top two.
Østberg outskated the two for the quarterfinal win in 2:47.34, while Bjornsen outlunged Harsem by two-hundredths of a second to move on.
In her semifinal, Bjornsen faced off against Østberg, Soemskar, Herrmann, Russia’s Natalia Matveeva, and Finland’s Krista Parmakoski. Østberg flew out of the start to take the lead, while Bjornsen hung in fourth as they approached the first climb.
Descending back into the stadium during the final downhill, Bjornsen leapt into third, behind Østberg in first and Herrmann in second. With 50 meters to go, Soemskar snuck into the mix, along with Matveeva.
In a lunge for the line, Soemskar placed second, 0.22 seconds behind Østberg, and Herrmanb took third another 0.02 seconds back. That close finish gave Herrmann the final lucky loser spot in the final, while Matveeva placed fourth (+0.44) and Bjornsen was fifth (+0.46) behind them.
“It might’ve been Sadie Bjornsen’s best skate-sprint race of all time on the World Cup,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone after the race.
In addition to Caldwell and Bjornsen, U.S. teammates Jessie Diggins and Ida Sargent also qualified for the heats and went on place 22nd and 28th overall, respectively, after finishing fifth and sixth in the same quarterfinal — the first one of the day.
“Great to have six athletes qualify for the heats again, but not really a big surprise,” Grover said in a USSA press release, referring to the four women and two men (Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell) who qualified on Saturday. “The women skied great. Sophie must have been mere hundredths from going through to the finals again as a lucky loser. She executed her race plan perfectly all day.”
In an email, Sargent called her qualifier “decent … although I felt a little flat and had trouble getting going,” the 27 year old wrote after qualifying in 24th (+5.71). Diggins qualified in ninth (+2.98).
“Seeing Simi ski so well and end up on the podium was incredible,” Sargent added, referring to Hamilton’s second-place finish for the U.S. men. “Even if it was a tough day for me personally it was an awesome day for the team, so I’m leaving the day feeling excited and inspired.”
“We’re really gaining momentum and it’s a big lift for the whole team!” Diggins wrote in an email.
“A big thing for me on a really short and tactical course such as Toblach is to learn to hold my ground and not get pushed around out there,” the 24 year old added. “Rounding the finishing corner, someone actually reached out a hand and shoved me, and in years past, I probably would have fallen down. But I didn’t let it get to me or impact my race, which I’m really pumped about!”
The fifth U.S. woman, Rosie Brennan, 27, narrowly missed qualifying in 35th. She was 1.91 seconds out of the top 30.
“We had great skis today and I felt better than last weekend so now it’s just moving on to tomorrow, which I am very much looking forward to,” Brennan wrote.
On Sunday, the women will race a 10 k classic individual start — the final race before the holiday World Cup break.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.