DAVOS, Switzerland–A few years ago, there was rarely a World Cup sprint where the U.S. Ski Team’s Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell weren’t fighting for a top spot in the heats. The bread and butter of the U.S. sprint squad, the pair defined what was possible for American skiing in the modern era.
But this season neither has made it into the quarterfinals of a sprint yet. On Sunday, Newell just barely missed the heats: he finished 36th in the skate sprint qualifier, 5.06 seconds out of first-place Lucas Chanavat of France’s time, and 0.76 seconds out of the top 30.
“It’s really strange, I’ve never been in this position before,” Newell said. “Qualifying has never been a problem. I went years without ever missing a qualification on the World Cup. I’ve had years where I was super fast in the qualification and then struggled with fitness in the heats, and I’ve had years where it both comes together. But I’ve never been in a position like now, where I think I’m pretty fit, but I just don’t have that qualification speed right now, I don’t know why.”
Randall finished 58th in the skate sprint qualifier, 13.76 seconds behind the best time laid down by Jonna Sundling of Sweden.
The new mom is re-adjusting to World Cup competition, and finished 33rd in the 15 k skate on Saturday.
“Speed is the hardest thing to get back,” Randall said. “I just wasn’t putting a ton of power in my core this summer. I’m still searching for it. It’s a bummer. I was hoping to maybe just sneak in there so I could sneak through the rounds, but not quite.”
Given her performance in the 15 k, as well as at the opening World Cup weekend in Ruka, Finland, Randall isn’t completely despairing.
“It’s frustrating,” she admitted. “I felt like I had good training coming back all summer and I had a little bit higher hopes for the start of the season. I’m kind of gaining an appreciation now for the kind of shape I was in in the past, and what it takes to get back there. It’s still a long season and with every one of these I hope I get a little closer… I just hope I can keep moving forward and find that by World Championships.”
She also has a few measuring sticks: Marit Bjørgen of Norway, Katja Visnar of Slovenia, and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, all of whom also had children last year.
Bjørgen has appeared in two sprint semifinals this season; Visnar qualified 16th in the Davos sprint for her first quarterfinal appearance of the season. But both Bjørgen and Visnar had their children several months earlier than Randall, giving them extra training time for their comebacks.
“Marit skied well in both sprints so far this season,” Randall said. “She is a little bit ahead… It’s cool that we have the group so that once something like this happens, you’re not like, oh, it must have been just me. You have some people to support you. It’s cool to see how good of shape some of the moms are.”
For Newell, the answers aren’t so straightforward. He had placed 40th and 47th in qualifying in the previous two sprints.
“It could be from sickness or injuries earlier in the year, but I just don’t know,” he said.
The Davos sprint wasn’t perfectly executed for Newell, leaving him thinking that it could have gone another way.
“I messed up pretty bad on the lapping corner, and then ended up probably less than a second out,” he said. “That sucks. The body didn’t feel great, a little heavy on the uphill both times coming through. So you put that together with a little slip-up on the corner and it’s not going to cut it.”
But in some other years, his qualifying speed may have left him a buffer for such small mistakes.
With no sprint at next weekend’s World Cup in La Clusaz, France, Newell is headed back to the United States – first to Montana, and then potentially to Rossland, British Columbia, for Canadian NorAm racing. By the middle of the winter, he hopes to have his qualification problem solved.
“I mean, I feel good, I feel strong, I feel fit,” Newell said. “It’s just for some reason not coming together. I mean, I’m not the youngest guy out there anymore. But that still doesn’t mean I can’t fine-tune things and get to the point where I can—there was a time where I was one of the fastest qualifiers in the world. I have a feeling it’s in there somewhere. I just have to find it.”
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.