Germany, Germany, Germany. That was the way the women’s 1.3-kilometer classic sprint started on Monday at the first day of Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, with Antonia Fräbel putting down the fastest qualifying time in 3:40.83, a full 6.15 and 8.03 seconds faster than her German teammates Coletta Rydzek and Julia Richter, who qualified in second and third, respectively.
The 10th woman to qualify (out of 30), Russia’s Polina Nekrasova, was nearly 13 seconds slower than Fräbel around Soldier Hollow’s new sprint course at the 2002 Olympic venue.
But the qualifier is the qualifier; the heats are what ultimately matter.
There, in the quarterfinals, the 18-year-old Nekrasova won the first quarterfinal in 3:38.13, a time that bested Fräbel’s qualifier by more than two seconds, while American Julia Kern crossed the line 0.19 seconds later in second. Fräbel was in that quarterfinal, too, and finished third (+0.91).
Kern, in her third Junior World Championships, explained that her strategy for that heat had been to stick to Fräbel like glue.
“I knew I didn’t want to lead on the downhills since the draft set up really well today and I knew I would be strong coming into the finish,” the 19-year-old Kern, a member of U.S. Ski Team development team (D-team) and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team, wrote in an email.
Fortunately for her, the plan worked. Kern followed Fräbel up the first two climbs before Fräbel and Nekrasova gapped her slightly on the final uphill.
“I pushed really hard off the top and my skis were rockets (thanks to our awesome techs!) so I skied right up to them by the turn,” Kern wrote. “I held my ground and took the inside on the 180 turn, pushing the German to the outside and then all three of us double poled hard into the finish head to head.”
The fourth-place finisher in that heat, Italy’s Veronika Broll, finished nearly 14 seconds later. The top three advanced to the semifinals, which Nekrasova and Fräbel both went on to win. A crash caused Kern to finish fifth in the first semifinal, 28.05 seconds behind Nekrasova in first.
“I didn’t have a great start in the semi final but that didn’t worry me,” Kern reflected. “I knew my skis were fast and that the second part of the course played to my strength.”
She followed the pack up the first hill, pushing hard over the top and put herself in a position to start passing people on the final climb.
“There was definitely some pushing and shoving by other girls as we crested the top,” Kern wrote.
The California native (who grew up outside Boston) began the final descent toward the stadium in fourth, “right where I wanted to be to hang in the draft,” she wrote.
Coming out of it, the three women ahead of Kern lined up in the second lane while Norway’s Marte Maehlum Johanson moved to the third lane.
“My skis were feeling awesome and I was gliding into the other girls quickly so I made a move to the fourth track to set up wide for the 180 turn,” Kern wrote. “Unfortunately, as [Johanson] switched to the 3rd lane, she placed both skis in one track and started to fall. I hopped into the fourth lane but as she fell, I think her pole flung out into my track and my ski went over it, stopping the ski and sending my momentum forward and onto one ski. I almost saved it with a funky one-leg balance drill but my momentum was flying so fast forward that I went for the straight penguin dive for 10 feet across the snow.
“I quickly hopped back on my feet in hopes that I could make a miracle come back but I soon realized I was at a complete stop at the highest speed part of the downhill and the pack was already rounding the corner,” Kern continued. “I still wanted to get top 10 (my goal for the day), so I quickly started to ski until I rounded the corner and realized the Norwegian was still lying on the ground. I decided then to ski it in easy and soak up the amazing atmosphere of my family and friends cheering me on, on home soil with the sun shining and beautiful hard track classic skiing.”
While Kern didn’t advance to the final, she ended up ninth on the day for her first individual top 10 at Junior Worlds.
“It is pretty bittersweet,” Kern wrote of her result. “It is easy to get caught up on the ‘what if’s’, especially since I was exactly positioned how I wanted to in the last downhill and I was in the mix to fight for the A-final spot I have always dreamed of. However, today I skied exactly how I wanted to and I didn’t leave anything out there and that is all that matters; an unlucky crash out of my control is just part of sprint racing and I don’t think that should put a damper on what is still my best ever sprint result at World Juniors!”
Meanwhile, Nekrasova and Fräbel met in the final, along with Rydzek, Finland’s Anita Korva, Norway’s Mathilde Myhrvold, and Sweden’s Emma Ribom. There, Nekrasova outlasted the two Germans for the win in 3:34.6, crossing the line 3.56 seconds clear of Fräbel in second and 4.58 seconds ahead of Rydzek, the younger sister of German nordic-combined standout Johannes Rydzek, in third.
“I trained and prepared for this only this; all year I prepared for this start,” said Nekrasova, a two-time Junior Worlds competitor, in a post-race interview with the U.S. Ski Team media. “So that is why I’m here.”
The Russian had been on the podium before, taking bronze in the junior women’s relay at 2016 Junior Worlds in Rasnov, Romania. But this was her first individual podium (after placing 18th in last year’s freestyle sprint) and first gold medal.
Fräbel in second was ecstatic about silver.
“I haven’t got any words, I’m unbelievably happy and so happy that my friend Coletta is with me on the podium,” she told the U.S. Ski Team media. “I can’t say any more, my feeling is so strong.”
Asked specifically about the course, Fräbel said it was “so hard.”
“The height is 1800 meters, so hard for us Germans,” she said of Soldier Hollow’s elevation, nearly 5,900 meters above sea level.
For someone like Hannah Halvorsen, who hails from Truckee, Calif, and trains with the Sugar Bowl Academy 7,000 feet above sea level on Donner Summit, the air in SoHo was thicker than at home. Halvorsen, also a U.S. Ski Team D-team member, raced to 13th in Monday’s qualifier, 13.32 seconds behind Fräbel, and went on to win her quarterfinal.
“Being that we got to ski this course at senior nationals a couple weeks ago I felt confident I could ski it well and was hoping for a top five in the prelim,” wrote the 18-year-old Halvorsen, who finished 11th in the senior freestyle sprint at U.S. nationals earlier this month.
While she competed at 2016 Youth Olympic Games, this marked her first Junior Worlds.
“My strategy [for the quarterfinal] was to ski smart and come into the final downhill in second. Our skis were running really fast so this pulled me into first for the final straightaway,” she explained.
In the fifth quarterfinal, Halvorsen led two Russians across the finish, with Olga Kucheruk in second (+0.75) and Mariya Istomina in third (+1.25). The third-fastest qualifier, Germany’s Richter finished 2.21 seconds back in fourth and did not advance to the semifinals.
With the win, Halvorsen guaranteed herself a spot in that next round and she raced in the second semifinal with Fräbel, Rydzek, Ribom, and Myhrvold, and Kucheruk, the first four of which would continue on to the final (Kucheruk in fifth did not). Halvorsen finished sixth in that heat, 8.14 seconds behind Fräbel, for 11th overall.
“I felt confident that I skied tactically well in the quarter and that if I did the same and still felt strong I could move on from the semi. Unfortunately the pace was just too fast for me,” Halvorsen wrote. “I am really happy with my first world junior race. I have been looking forward to this race for a long time and I dreamed of a podium. However I skied my best and I wasn’t fast enough today.”
Three U.S. women reached the heats, with Lauren Jortberg (Dartmouth College) qualifying in 27th (+20.12) then finishing fourth in the second quarterfinal, 4.4 seconds behind Norway’s Kristine Stavås Skistad in first. That put Jortberg 20th on the day at her first Junior Worlds. The fourth U.S. woman racing on Monday, Taeler McCrerey (University of Denver) finished 40th, also in her Junior Worlds debut.
Canada entered four women as well, with Claire Grall-Johnson (Nakkertok) leading them in 39th, followed by Natalie Hynes (Whitehorse) in 42nd, Annika Richardson (NTDC Thunder Bay) in 44th, and Lisle Compton (NTDC Thunder Bay) in 45th.
- 2017 Junior World Championships
- Anita Korva
- Annika Richardson
- Antonia Fräbel
- Claire Grall-Johnson
- Coletta Rydzek
- Emma Ribom
- Hannah Halvorsen
- Julia Kern
- Julia Richter
- Junior World Championships classic sprint
- Lauren Jortberg
- Lisle Compton
- Mariya Istomina
- Mathilde Myhrvold
- Natalie Hynes
- Olga Kucheruk
- Polina Nekrasova
- Soldier Hollow
- Taeler McCrerey
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.