(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Liz Guiney, Caitlin Patterson and Jessica Yeaton.)
Sometimes just being there is half the battle, as the saying goes.
No Maiken Caspersen Falla. No Stina Nilsson. On Friday at the site of next year’s Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, three athletes who had never made it to a World Cup podium before prevailed in the women’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint.
And right there was Ida Sargent of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in third place, smiling together with Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampič, who won her first sprint final in a time of 3:41.97 minutes (just 1.79 seconds ahead of Sargent), and Norway’s Silje Øyre Slind rounding out the picture in second place (+1.60).
“I’m really excited about the podium and it hasn’t really set in yet,” Sargent commented on the best result of her career in an email to FasterSkier, instantly thinking of those who helped her get there. “I feel so grateful to have such an awesome team behind me both on the USST and at home in Craftsbury.”
Sargent has started in over 100 individual World Cup races, three International Ski Federation (FIS) World Championships, and the 2014 Winter Olympics. But this was the first podium finish for the 29-year-old Vermont native, and it had been a long time in the making.
Sure, not all of the best skiers made the long trip to South Korea. In fact, while a number of the best sprinters still packed their ski bags, none of the top-25 ranked athletes in the women’s overall World Cup standings before this weekend did, including Norway’s Falla and Sweden’s Nilsson, who combined have also won 13 out of the last 15 sprint races.
Those athletes opted to prepare for the upcoming World Championships in Lahti, Finland, by taking a training break or starting at the Norwegian and Swedish national championships also going on this week. But that was their choice, while the women smiling atop of the podium in PyeongChang had decided differently.
As any professional in a regular job can relate to, “showing up is 80 percent of life” – a quote commonly attributed to filmmaker Woody Allen.
And the shrunken field should not distract from the exciting heats and convincing fashion in which Sargent, along with her teammate Sophie Caldwell, qualified and advanced through the rounds in the night race under floodlights, in a beautiful and brand-new arena for the first cross-country World Cup event ever hosted by South Korea.
Both have proven before that they can hang with the best, even when all World Cup regulars stand at the start line. Sargent has achieved five top-10 sprint finishes in her career, including a fifth place in Kuusamo, Finland, for the 2014 season opening. Caldwell won a classic sprint during the Tour de Ski last season in Oberstdorf, Germany. (The other athlete to break the streak of Falla and Nilsson was Norway’s Heidi Weng, who in December 2016 won the classic sprint in Lillehammer, Norway.)
Earlier in the day, Caldwell had the fastest qualifying time around the 1.4 k course, which features a steady climb out of the arena soon followed by a tricky right downhill turn into the next steep climb that later gave a number of athletes problems during the heats, and another downhill back into the stadium with a sharp corner that caused some athletes to ski wide left out of the V-boards marking the course.
“It’s probably the hardest sprint course for women that maybe we’ve ever encountered,” U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover said in a phone interview from Korea with FasterSkier. “It almost has no flat on it except for some double poling out of the start and some double poling into the finish. You really just are spending all your time climbing. And such a small difference between the women’s course and the men’s course.”
Sargent qualified in fifth, 4.76 seconds back from Caldwell. She had to put up a bit of a fight in her quarterfinal, coming onto the finishing stretch with three other athletes still close by and spreading out into the lanes. Sargent poled hard and prevailed to win the heat in a photo finish by 0.03 seconds against Russia’s Elena Soboleva, keeping Slind and Slovenia’s Katja Višnar at bay all within less than half a second.
Then, Sargent placed second in her semifinal behind Lampič, edging Russia’s Alisa Zhambalova in third with both timed at 0.5 seconds back, though the third place would also have been sufficient to advance.
“Both of the lucky losers came out of my quarterfinal and then the semifinal so the heats were really fast from the start, but I was able to learn a little with each one and tweak my strategy,” Sargent wrote of her progression through the heats.
“Ida just kept herself toward the front, and had some good double-pole finishes to keep advancing through the rounds,” Grover said. “And yeah, it was just the right course, the right day, good skis, great kick, great glide, it was just the right combo.”
Caldwell had even fewer problems than Sargent in her quarterfinal, quickly gapping the rest of the pack with Sweden’s Maria Nordström up the first climb out of the arena and finishing the heat in first place.
But then things did not fall her way in the semifinal.
“I’m really frustrated with how I skied the last corner of my semi,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I was determined to make the final and was pretty mad with myself for giving it up on that last corner.”
Her main obstacle: Justyna Kowalczyk. The 34-year-old Polish ski star certainly carries a big name on the international scene with two Olympic gold medals, but due to persistent back problems, she has had to reduce her World Cup appearances in the last seasons, mostly focusing on a few classic races and ski marathons starting for the Norwegian professional team Santander.
But on Friday she was at the start in PyeongChang, qualifying in second position just 1.84 seconds behind Caldwell before winning her quarterfinal. In the semifinal, the two raced head to head. Initially Caldwell skied with Kowalczyk, but then lost all momentum when Sweden’s Nordström in front of her stumbled a bit and the rest of the pack caught up to them.
“There was a moment of panic coming off the downhill into that second hill when the Swede and Kowalczyk almost fell and I was right behind them,” Caldwell explained. “I got bumped into a pretty far track on the outside and we had lost most of our speed at that point.”
But Caldwell kept fighting and managed to catch back up to Kowalczyk on the final downhill into the arena with the best curve technique and good skis, but ran onto her when they both took the same lane into the finish, not able to speed up as much as she had wanted to. She got passed outside by Slind who advanced in second place as well as by Nordström, who like Caldwell also missed out on the best two lucky loser times.
“I pushed well over the top and carried my speed through the corners, positioning myself exactly where I wanted to be in the inside track,” Caldwell wrote. “Going up and over the little bump in the stadium, I let Kowalczyk get just enough ahead of me so that she was able to cut in front of me before the finish lanes and then two other people whipped by. I wish I could do it again and realize that’s part of ski racing, but it’s a bummer to screw it up tactically on a day I was feeling good and skiing well.”
“For Sophie to win the qualifier was cool,” Grover said. “I believe that was the first time she has won the qualifier.”
Lampič was already smiling broadly in the start gate of her quarterfinal and semifinal, where she advanced in second and first, respectively. But back then she couldn’t yet know that her day would turn out even better.
In the final, initially the others let Sargent set the tempo out of the arena, but Lampič passed her by on the penultimate hill, with Slind and Kowalczyk also pushing hard to create a small gap.
“She skied powerful over the top of the second big climb and set herself up for the downhill,” Grover said. “There’s a really tough downhill corner coming into the stadium, and she skied that great. She really carried her momentum well through that … Other people crashed, other people went outside the V-boards because they couldn’t control the corner there.”
“I had figured out a good line on that last downhill and I also had very fast skis so I used it as a chance to move up each time,” Sargent wrote of the race situation. “I think I was behind Kowalczyk in the final at that part but I was hoping if I skied it well I could gain back some time.”
Turning the last corner into the finishing stretch, Lampič was several meters ahead with none of her competitors able to challenge her anymore.
“It is unbelievable I won today,” Lampič said, according to a FIS press release. “I hoped to make it to the final but to win, it’s a dream. I skied well in the downhill. I managed to get a gap on the other girls. After the curve in the stadium I knew I had a lead and I could enjoy the home stretch.”
With her win, Lampič currently also leads the U23 standings in the World Cup.
As they double poled hard the finish, Slind passed Sargent on the lane to her right on the last meters, but Sargent held off the final charge from Kowalczyk by half a second to claim the third place and her first World Cup podium.
“It was tough today, the course was hard but it was hard for everybody,” the 28-year-old Slind, who is not a regular member of Norway’s senior national team on the World Cup, told FIS. “I got tired in the big climb but managed to ski the downhill well. I had some power left and was pushing hard on the homestretch.”
Kowalczyk finished fourth (+2:35), Russia’s Alisa Zhambalova placed fifth (+4.24), and Lampic’s teammate Višnar was sixth (+17.10).
A jubilant Sargent raised her arms as she crossed the finish line, and on the small victory lap of the podium finishers she skied to the side fence to hug with Caldwell and her other teammates, who had waited in the arena to watch her final heat.
“It was pretty incredible to watch Ides get her first podium,” Caldwell wrote. “We were all lining the finish stretch cheering for her and of course I had to go congratulate her. Your first podium is something you remember forever and Ida is a hard worker who deserved that and I was happy I could be there to see it!”
In recent years, the U.S. Ski Team has put a number of female athletes onto the podium. Kikkan Randall. Jessie Diggins. Sophie Caldwell. Liz Stephen posted some of the best hill-climb times in several editions of the Tour de Ski. And a month ago, Sadie Bjornsen also reached a third place. Now, Sargent joined their ranks.
“It has been a goal of mine for a long time to be on the podium so it was a very special day!” Sargent wrote. “I’ve been inspired by so many fast teammates, so happy to follow in their footsteps!”
All five U.S. women in the heats
But it was not just a good race day for Sargent and Caldwell, with the U.S. team managing to put all of its starters into the heats.
“It was a really small women’s field,” Grover noted, “so it was not a huge surprise that all of those five [women] made it in. But there were some massive spreads in times. You saw right away in the quarterfinals that they were getting pretty spaced out.”
Sargent’s Craftsbury Green Racing Project teammate Liz Guiney qualified in 25th (+20.74 to Caldwell). She then went on to place fifth in her quarterfinal (+2:18), keeping Finland’s Mona Liisa Nousiainen behind her to finish the day in 24th place overall. It was the best individual result in her first season of World Cup races so far.
“It’s really exciting to score World Cup points for the first time!” Guiney wrote in an email. “I recognize that this field is not the same as a normal World Cup field, but I guess you have to show up to score the points. … My season has been a bit up and down this year, so I’m hoping that this race was a good sign that things are headed in the up direction!”
In terms of the sprint course, she described it as both fun and hard.
“The climbs on the sprint course are pretty steep and sustained, which I think is great for a classic sprint, to discourage double poling without kick wax,” Guiney wrote. “The first downhill is fine since it’s banked, but conditions were fast on the second downhill and it definitely felt different (faster) than skiing it the previous days. I actually skidded, and a few people fell, but the most successful skiers in the rounds were picking a good line and stepping it to carry momentum.”
Liz Stephen of the USST was the highest-ranked athlete in the overall World Cup standings, male or female, who made the trip to Korea (but with Slind’s second place, she surpassed Stephen).
Stephen, a distance specialist, will focus on Saturday’s skiathlon, but took the opportunity for a sprint race on Friday and qualified in 29th (+23.59). It was the first time she managed to qualify for the heats in three seasons. Smiling and waving to the fans at the start of her fast quarterfinal heat together with the eventual finalists Sargent, Slind and Visnar, she quickly fell to the back of the pack and eventually finished fifth (+19.10) for the 25th place overall.
The third Craftsbury member, Caitlin Patterson qualified in 20th (+17.90) and placed sixth in her quarterfinal (+21.81), which included the eventual winner Lampič as well as the finalist Zhambalova. With that, she achieved 27th place overall and the fourth top-30 result of her career, though her race day could have gone even better.
“I am a notorious slow starter, and I was determined to start quickly, but I still ended up in 6th place by the bottom of the first hill,” Patterson wrote in an email. “I was frustrated near the top of that hill, as I was boxed in behind the 4th and 5th place women, who were moving a little slowly, as the top 3 gapped us. After taking a bad line on the first downhill, I got stuck behind the same two girls on the 2nd hill, then jumped to an outer track and moved around them, accelerating to the top of the course and building a gap behind me.
“The 3 women leading the heat were a ways in front of me, but I was determined to do everything I could to close the gap, so I took the curvy downhill into the stadium really fast with no speed checking. I swung wide at the bottom, I think caught some grabby corduroy there, and before I knew it, crashed right at the bottom of the corner,” she continued. “I consider myself fairly good at downhills, but I think I was too focused on the women I was trying to catch, and not quite focused enough on the snow under my own feet. … It was a great experience to be in a heat on this level, but I was very frustrated with the fact that I took myself out, not to mention the poor positioning from earlier in the heat prior to the crash.”
Her goal to start the day had been to qualify and make the most of an opportunity to race in World Cup heats.
“I can’t say I expected that it would be easy to make the heats, even with the reduced field there are still lots of fast people here,” Patterson wrote. “I did believe that it would be possible though, and I met the goal of qualifying with a solid 22nd place.
“It’s fun to be in the top 30, but I don’t think it means a whole lot here at this Korean World Cup,” she wrote of her overall result. “The field is undoubtedly weak, and just top 30 doesn’t really make a splash compared to the many fantastic results of the strong US women’s team right now.”
Also racing in the heats was Jessica Yeaton of Alaska Pacific University, who internationally skis for Australia. She qualified in 30th (+26.29) and also finished 30th after placing sixth behind Stephen in the first quarterfinal (+20.1).
“Going into the race it was my goal to make the heats once I saw that the start list was smaller than usual,” Yeaton wrote in an email. “I thought it would be an awesome opportunity to practice skiing heats, and thought I might actually have a shot at it given the size of the field.
“My quarterfinal was fast, and I struggled to stay with the group over the top of the first hill,” she explained, “Although I am happy with my effort overall. Skiing head to head with some of the fastest qualifiers helped me realize my weaknesses with striding, and I am inspired to work on these as the Olympics approach.
“This result is very special for me, as skiing in the heats has always been a goal of mine that I have worked hard towards achieving,” she added.
Canada’s Annika Hicks (Alberta World Cup Academy) in 32nd (+32.96 to Caldwell’s time in the qualifier) and Sadie White (NTDC Thunder Bay) in 34th (+38.96) missed qualifying for the heats.
Due to the time difference, the athletes aside from Sargent and Caldwell could not be reached for comment before press time.
Racing continues on Saturday with the women’s and men’s 15/30 k skiathlons, followed by freestyle team sprints on Sunday.
“I’m not racing tomorrow and will rest up to race the team sprint on Sunday with Sophie,” Sargent wrote regarding her plans for the weekend.
— Jason Albert and Chelsea Little contributed
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.