At the age of 22, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson has established herself as a sprint force on the women’s World Cup scene. She’s reached the podium 14 times in individual World Cups and on Friday, she added a third-career victory to her list.
What’s more, she did so by beating not one, two, or three, but four Norwegians in the women’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint at the third stage of Ski Tour Canada in Québec City.
“I am really excited about my victory,” Nilsson, who’s worn the U23 World Cup leader’s bib for most of the season, told FIS afterward. “I felt very good since we came to Canada. It amazing to be again on the podium and win here in Québec City.”
Nilsson won the final in 3:37.15, preventing Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla from winning her fifth-straight skate sprint by 0.11 seconds. Falla settled for second overall and finished behind the Swede for the second time this season.
With four Norwegians in the final and two skiers from Sweden, Falla, who had already locked up the Sprint World Cup title by reaching the semifinals, figured her fight for the win would come in the final parts of the Plains of Abraham course.
“I knew it was important to stay in front for the last climb,” Falla said at the post-race press conference. “My first plan was to be in front in the last climb. My second plan was to try to pass in the last turn.”
Falla’s plan did not include gunning from the start. The winner of the Stage 1 skate sprint on Tuesday in Gatineau, Quebec (where Nilsson placed second and American Jessie Diggins was third), Falla left the work of leading to Nilsson and Norwegian teammate Heidi Weng on Friday and skied in third for much of the final.
As the trio approached the last ascent, Falla followed her formula and endeavored to overtake Nilsson and Weng before the top of the climb. However, as Falla attempted to pass Nilsson from the left, the Swede shifted her position to the same side. Weng closed off any chance to pass on the right.
With the amount of course meters available for calibration quickly diminishing, Falla fell back on her second plan. But by the final turn, it wasn’t the red of the World Cup sprint leader’s bib that cornered first. It was the turquoise U23 leader’s bib and white suit of Nilsson.
With 100 meters to go, Falla chose the outside lane and went once more for the win. Nilsson wavered, but only for a moment before she powered past the finish line in first, Falla close behind in second and Weng in third (+0.56).
“I thought I’d be [tired] toward the homestretch,” Nilsson said in an interview with Langd.se. “But when I was still in the lead, it was just to run. I lost my balance a bit but am so glad I did it anyway.”
In second place, Falla celebrated her first Crystal Globe as the Sprint World Cup winner, but not before first acknowledging the Swede’s win.
“Stina was really strong today, so she really deserved this victory,” Falla said at the press conference.
“When she got a gap, it was very hard to close it,” Falla told FIS. “But to win the Crystal Globe is amazing. I want to keep up the good work and train even harder. Olympic Winter Games in 2018 is the biggest goal.”
After placing fourth in the Stage 1 skate sprint, second in the Stage 2 classic mass start and now third in Friday’s Stage 3, Weng moved into the lead in the overall Tour standings, displacing teammate Therese Johaug (who finished 18th on Friday) by 11.8 seconds.
“I was simply better.” Johaug said to NRK according to a translation. “In retrospect, I should perhaps have lain behind down. But I did not want to be behind in terms of accidents and swings and stuff. But it was the quarterfinals, so now I charge legs pursuit Saturday.”
In terms of displacing Johaug, Weng claims “I have not thought of yet.”
“It was a difficult to track, and I thought that here is not going to go en route to the final.” Weng said in an interview with NRK. “[I was] losing certainly longer than those people when I had to go so many outside of corner for others past.”
Also making it to the final on Friday, Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen finished fourth (+1.09) and fifth (+1.57), respectively, and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter took sixth (+9.43).
Bjornsen Wins Qualifier, Eighth Overall; Caldwell 10th
Known for her classic? Not anymore. After winning the qualifier in a time of 3:42.81, by eight-hundredths of a second over Jacobsen in second, U.S. Ski Team member Sadie Bjornsen reached the semifinals and finished eighth overall in Friday’s freestyle sprint — proving her skate sprinting is headed toward contention for the World Cup’s top step.
“My skate skiing is feeling really good right now,” Bjornsen, who is originally from Washington state but lives and trains with Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, told FasterSkier afterward.
Bjornsen not only had her best skate sprint qualifier result on Friday, but also went on to win her quarterfinal in 3:42.10, ahead of Finland’s Krista Parmakoski (+0.72), Germany’s Denise Herrmann (+1.22), Sweden’s Jennie Øberg (+2.44), Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva (+4.86), and Germany’s Carl Victoria (+9.80).
Bjornsen then advanced to the first semifinal on the hunt for the final, skiing in third. However, as she ascended the final climb, a tangle with Sweden’s Hanna Falk and Germany’s Sandra Ringwald left her looking to latch back onto the leaders.
“I was feeling awesome. Things didn’t quite work out on the hill. Hanna tried to make a lane where there wasn’t really a lane so we went down unfortunately,” she said.
This was the third crash involving Falk and a U.S. Ski Team (USST) member in the last three races. In the two previous stages, Falk and Ida Sargent collided.
On Friday, Bjornsen tried to recover by chasing down Nilsson and Østberg, but ultimately crossed the line in fourth, 2.94 seconds behind Nilsson’s semifinal winning time of 3:39.58.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” said Bjornsen of her effort to move back to the front.
Despite her fall during the final climb of her semi — and narrowly avoiding a crash with Germany’s Carl in the same spot during her quarterfinal — the eighth-place finish left Bjornsen a blazed trail to continually better herself.
“Hopefully I am in a good place today in the overall, so that I can chase with some really good skiers tomorrow,” she said, regarding her 11th place overall standing in the Tour in relation to Saturday’s 10 k freestyle pursuit in Québec City.
Her USST teammate Jessie Diggins, Sophie Caldwell, and Sargent also qualified for the heats in fourth (+1.84), 22nd (+7.12) and 27th (+9.05), respectively.
Caldwell raced to 10th overall, despite an illness which left her questioning if qualification was even possible.
“I woke up this morning fighting a cold,” she said afterward. “I figured with the way I was feeling, if I were really lucky I would qualify.”
Caldwell did more than just qualify. The Peru, Vt., native raced to second place in her quarterfinal and finished just 0.67 seconds behind Falla, who posted the fastest quarterfinal time in 3:35.44.
She also advanced to the second semifinal, and crossed in fifth, 3.21 seconds behind Falla’s winning time of 3:37.48.
“I didn’t really feel good, but it went well today,” said Caldwell, also thankful for the support from those around her.
“It’s pretty rare that you’re at a race where you get more cheerers than the Scandinavians,” she added.
After a disappointing fall, Diggins finished third in her quarterfinal for 13th on the day.
“That was frustrating because I was ready to win it today,” Diggins said. “I feel good, I know I’m in good shape, it’s a great course for me and I just somehow turned my ski and fell.”
While leading into the initial descents, Diggins slipped, forfeiting the front spot to Ringwald. Newly positioned in sixth, the American made like a metronome. She attempted to first pass on the right of the group, then on the left, and again on the right.
“I could not get around people. I kept trying and kept getting blocked,” she said. “That is sprint racing. That happens sometimes.”
Diggins finished third, 1.59 seconds behind Ringwald, who won the heat in 3:39.50. After starting the day ranked fifth overall in the Tour, she moved into seventh, 1:27.2 behind Weng in first and 10.5 seconds behind Nilsson in sixth.
The fourth and final U.S. woman in the heats was Sargent, and she finished the day in 20th.
“I felt really good in the heat,” Sargent wrote of her quarterfinal in an email. “I tried to stay relaxed and just work the draft. Stina did a stop and go on the big climb and I wasn’t ready for that change in momentum so a little gap opened. I worked really hard to get back in contact but just missed it.”
Sargent finished fourth in the first quarterfinal, 3.56 seconds behind Nilsson, who won it in 3:35.86.
Though the lucky loser spot was what Sargent described as “frustratingly close,” she was excited about racing through one of North America’s oldest cities before familiar faces and fans.
“Today was a blast,” she wrote. “I loved having so many friends and family out on the course so it was a really fun day.”
No Canadians finished in the top 30 to qualify for the heats, with Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) leading the team in 34th. 0.86 seconds out of 30th.
Just 0.13 seconds ahead of her, USST member Rosie Brennan placed 33rd. Caitlin Gregg (USA) was 38th, Dahria Beatty (CAN) 39th, Annie Hart (USA) 47th, Liz Stephen (USA) 50th, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbit (CAN) 51st, Sophie Carrier-Laforte (CAN) 53rd, Emily Nishikawa (CAN) 54th, Jennie Bender (USA) 57th, Kaitlynn Miller (USA) 58th, Katherine Stewart-Jones (CAN) 59th, Chelsea Holmes (USA) 60th, Jenn Jackson (CAN) 61st, Cendrine Browne (CAN) 62nd, Marie Corriveau (CAN) 63rd, Katharine Ogden (USA) 64th, Alannah Maclean (CAN) 65th, and Annika Hicks (CAN) 68th. MacIsaac-Jones’ RMR teammate, Andrea Dupont did not start.
Racing picks up again on Saturday in Québec City for the fourth stage of the Ski Tour Canada, the women’s 10 k pursuit.
— Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Harald Zimmer, and Alex Kochon contributed
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.