LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland— The U.S. Ski Team’s Sophie Caldwell had the best World Cup sprint qualifier of her career, skiing to second position in the 1.5 k skate here at the first stage of the Tour de Ski.
Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway dominated the qualifier. Caldwell, 2.98 seconds behind, was the woman who came closest to matching her.
“It was a good boost of confidence, for sure,” Caldwell said after the qualifier. “I really like this course and my legs felt better than they have all year in terms of flooding and fatigue, so that was encouraging. A good qualifier should set me up for a good day.”
Joining her in the women’s heats will be teammates Sadie Bjornsen, who qualified ninth (+4.84), Jessie Diggins in bib 14 (+5.69), and Ida Sargent in bib 26 (+8.52).
“The break was really nice,” Caldwell said of her preparation for the Tour. “The first half was solid training and then I really tried to rest the second half. I’ve been feeling really good. It was hard to do enough resting when you’re racing every weekend, so it was nice to chill for a bit and take my mind off skiing and enjoy Christmas with friends. It was good to recharge and I’m feeling awesome.”
Three American teammates ended the day early after missing the top-30 cutoff for the quarterfinals. They are Rosie Brennan (47th, +13.03), Caitlin Gregg (49th, 13.29), and Liz Stephen (68th, +19.24).
No Canadian women are competing in the Tour de Ski. Heidi Widmer, who now races for Switzerland, placed 41st (+12.07).
Simi Hamilton led the U.S. men in qualifying, placing 13th. Federico Pellegrino of Italy easily won qualifying, posting a time 2.08 seconds better than runner-up Andrew Young of Great Britain.
Last time a sprint was held here as part of the Tour de Ski, Hamilton won the qualifier and went on to win the whole thing, his first World Cup stage win.
Today he was a bit back from that mark in qualifying, but didn’t doubt that he could still have a good final result. In the last World Cup sprint before Christmas, a skate competition in Toblach, Italy, he finished second.
“After a long break it’s always a little up in the air how you’re going to feel on that first really hard effort back,” he said after today’s qualifier. “It was good. I love skiing here. It’s a great place and a really fun course. Our skis were good. I felt a little bit flat, but I kind of felt like I did in Toblach in the qualifier, so maybe that’s a good sign. Looking forward to doing some more skiing this afternoon.”
He talked about what it felt like to return to the venue where he’s had the best result of his career, and the best result by a U.S. man in decades.
“I think it’s pretty natural to feel pressure in that situation,” Hamilton admitted. “But it’s ski racing and sometimes it’s going to go really well and other times maybe it doesn’t go perfectly. I think everyone understands that and that’s why people really love ski racing, and especially the athletes.”
He will be joined in the quarterfinals by U.S. Ski Team and Stratton Mountain School T2 teammate Andy Newell, who clocked in at 17th (+5.44) in the qualifier.
Erik Bjornsen (69th, +12.61) and Noah Hoffman (85th, +16.44) missed the cut, as did the whole Canadian men’s team.
Lenny Valjas came the closest, a heartbreaking one-hundredth of a second out of the heats in 31st place. He was followed by Alex Harvey (33rd, +7.01), Devon Kershaw (60th, +9.72), and Ivan Babikov (92nd, +18.92).
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.