At the start of the season, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson had three individual World Cup wins to her name. Now, after taking Friday’s freestyle sprint title — and only two races left on this year’s World Cup calendar — Nilsson has quadrupled that number.
The 23-year-old Swede raced to her ninth victory of the season on Friday in Québec City, crossing first in the women’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint in a time of 3:01.87.
The closest competitor to Nilsson was Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, who crossed 0.42 seconds behind in second.
The two went head to head from the start of the final, with Falla leading Nilsson into the first incline and through the first downhill. Norwegian Heidi Weng clung closely behind and by the second major climb, Nilsson was at the helm, but not for long. Falla forced her way to the front once again, forcing the Swede to pick up her pace. The two began to break away from the rest of the field with 500 meters to go.
As they made their way down the third major descent, Nilsson moved around Falla and back to the lead, giving herself an edge on the Norwegian for the final climb. The two entered the final finishing stretch together, but with 50 meters left, Nilsson had knocked the Norwegian off the top spot.
“I have had an amazing season,” Nilsson said during a televised interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “And I really like to compete in Quebec, so I am very happy with the race.”
Despite missing the final during last weekend’s sprint in Drammen, Norway, and narrowly sneaking into Friday’s sprint final — she was the second lucky loser in her semifinal after a photo finish with Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich — Falla’s podium secures her as the overall sprint leader and awards her with her second-straight Sprint Crystal Globe.
“When you have a really bad day as I did in Drammen, you’re very happy to be back on the podium,” Falla told FasterSkier during an in-person interview.
“It’s great to be here and take the crystal globe home,” she added in an interview with FIS.
Rounding out the final podium spot in third (+2.58) was another Swede, Hannah Falk, who had started the day with a qualifying win in 3:02.91. Despite breaking a pole early in her quarterfinal, she clawed her way back to second to automatically advance to the semifinal and ultimately reach the final.
“I tried to just stay calm and knew that I got high speed in the end,” Falk told FasterSkier about how she handled exchanging poles after hers broke in the second quarterfinal.
Falk finished the season ranked third in the Sprint World Cup, behind her teammate Nilsson in second and Falla in first.
“I’m top number three in the Sprint World Cup so it was my goal today to take that podium,” Falk said.
Also in the final, Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter was the third Swede in the top four in fourth (+3.02). In her first World Cup sprint final, Fähndrich finished fifth (+3.41) and Weng placed sixth after breaking a pole (+32.36).
“I think I made all the right tactical decisions today,” Fähndrich told Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation.
Just by making the final, Weng essentially locked up the Overall World Cup title with a 325-point lead over Finland’s Krista Parmakoski in second. Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg another 73 points back in third and 123 points ahead of Nilsson in fourth overall.
“My goal right now is to be top three in the world overall,” Østberg told FasterSkier after a three-woman crash (with Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan and Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff) ended their runs in the second semifinal. Østberg finished the day in eighth.
“I really have to fight for that because Stina is chasing me,” Østberg added of her overall podium goal. “The world champs in Lahti was not what I was hoping for so it will be a huge goal and really great if I could be third in the Overall World Cup.”
Diggins 9th; Kern 24th in First World Cup
U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Jessie Diggins was the top North American woman on the day, placing ninth overall after finishing fifth in her semifinal. Coming off of a silver medal in the freestyle sprint at this year’s Nordic World Championships, Diggins had high hopes for her performance in Friday’s final sprint.
However, with Nilsson, Falla, Falk, and Fähndrich all pushing the pace in her semifinal, Diggins missed advancing to the final.
“My finishing speed has been good all season and especially from the last skate sprint we did in Lahti, so I had a lot of high hopes for today,” Diggins wrote in an email. “But in my semifinal there was a lot of fighting for position and it’s always frustrating when your whole heat finishes 1.4 seconds faster than the winner of the other semi! But, that is sprinting sometimes.”
Along with Diggins, who qualified 11th, four other Americans made the heats: Sadie Bjornsen (who qualified sixth), Sophie Caldwell (18th), Rosie Brennan (27th), and Julia Kern (19th). Bjornsen was the next top finisher for the U.S., placing 16th, just 0.12 seconds away from advancing to the semifinals.
“Sadie, in her quarterfinal, she did everything she wanted to do, she put herself in the absolute right position to be right here in second place coming into the finish straight and just barely missed, just got passed at the line,” USST head coach Chris Grover said.
Bjornsen had been positioned in second through the final turn, until she was eventually outlunged by Falk.
“I just haven’t been able to find that perfect speed at the finishing stretch pretty much every sprint this year,” Bjornsen said. “I was trying to switch things up today and see if I could and I gave it my all and unfortunately didn’t take the draft right into the finish.”
After qualifying with the sixth-fastest time, 3.47 seconds behind Falk, Bjornsen indicated that even if this season’s World Cup sprints are done, her perfection over the art of sprinting is not.
“When I’m qualifying that well, I know I can sprint well, that’s like the most exciting part,” Bjornsen said.
Also left wanting a little more on Friday was Caldwell, who finished 21st. Caldwell had been positioned in third coming into the final turn before the finishing stretch, when she fell after a near-run in with Sweden’s Anna Dyvik. The Swede was relegated to last in that quarterfinal.
“Today was a really frustrating day for me and not the way I wanted to end the World Cup sprint season,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “My season has been solid and consistent, but I’ve had three crucial falls now and those bummed me out. Davos was entirely my own doing, but Toblach and today were pretty out of my control, which is frustrating because I don’t know what I could have done differently.”
Caldwell plans to race both of the final two distance days of the World Cup season, though the sprint had been her primary focus.
“I haven’t been able to do very much distance racing this year, so I have zero expectations and will hopefully be able to have some fun out there!” Caldwell wrote. “I am happy with the season and I feel like I’ve skied a little better than the results show due to some falls, but I’m eager to stay on my feet and accomplish more next season.”
In her first World Cup race, Kern qualified for the heats in 29th and raced in the day’s first quarterfinal — the same as Diggins, sprint leader Falla, Ingemarsdotter, and Fähndrich.
“At the start line it almost felt like a dream because there I was at the start line next to some of the best skiers in the world, skiers who I have looked up to and watched race after race on my computer screen to learn and gain inspiration from,” Kern wrote.
Kern explained that though she was a little nervous about starting the sprint on Friday, she cited her recent performances at U.S. Junior Nationals in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she won all three individual races, as giving her confidence. Though getting into the heats would require what she referred to as “a killer day”, the 19-year-old USST development team member pulled it off, ultimately crossing in fifth in her quarterfinal for 24th overall.
“I felt like I had skied the qualifier pretty well technically, but I didn’t feel my extra spark I get when I am having a really good day so I was very surprised when Chris Grover told me I was hanging in 29th!” Kern wrote. “When it was confirmed that I was in the heats I was extremely excited and a little shocked. It has been something I have imagined over and over when I watch the World Cup sprints on my computer and for it to happen in my first World Cup was truly incredible.”
With two more World Cup races to go, Kern is coming into them with a newfound confidence.
“This is a huge confidence booster for me because it is easy to make a goal and have my teammates and coaches who believe in me tell me results like this are possible, but it is another thing to actually live up to it and believe it yourself too,” Kern wrote.
Advancing to the heats for the first time in her World Cup career was Brennan, who qualified 27th and finished the day in 28th.
“The quarters were not what I had hoped for, but I didn’t really have too many expectations, I’ve never done it before,” Brennan said. “So I’m glad to have gotten that out of the way before the season was over and I have a good list of things to work on this summer.”
Even with five U.S. women making the heats on Friday, the team was hungry for more.
“On the ladies’ side, a decent qualification, but not actually really one of our best,” Grover said. “Great for Julia to get in there as a junior athlete, that was really exciting for Rosie to get in there, because that may have been the first time this season she’s actually been in. She’s been just on the outside so many times. So excited for those two guys. Kind of an OK qualification for the other three ladies … all those ladies skied really smart, but it just didn’t come together.”
Eight other American women competed in Friday’s sprint, though did not advance beyond qualification with Ida Sargent placing 36th, Erika Flowers 48th, Kaitlynn Miller 50th, Caitlin Patterson 53rd, Becca Rorabaugh 54th, Chelsea Holmes 55th, Jennie Bender 57th, and Liz Guiney 62nd. Liz Stephen did not start.
Sargent explained that though she had been looking forward to this weekend’s races, a bout of pneumonia left her unable to compete at the level she had hoped to.
“I got sick in Lahti and just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting better,” Sargent said. “They thought it was just a cold, but I kind felt like something was different and so, eventually I got diagnosed with pneumonia and I’m still on antibiotics for that. They said I was fine to race and that it wouldn’t do any damage. I didn’t have much hope for how it was going to go today, I was trying to stay optimistic, but there’s a reason with antibiotics and pneumonia.”
For Canada, Dahria Beatty finished 41st, Emily Nishikawa 45th, Cendrine Browne 47th, Andrea Dupont 51st, Sophie Carrier-Laforte 56th, Katherine Stewart-Jones 59th, Annika Richardson 60th, Sadie White 61st, Frederique Vezina 63rd, Laura Leclair 65th, Katherine Weaver 66th, Mia Serratore 67th, Alannah MacLean 69th, Annika Hicks 70th, and Lisle Compton 71st.
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.