(This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Laura Leclair, Katherine Stewart-Jones and Maya MacIsaac-Jones, as well as American Julia Kern.)
U23 World Championships (Goms, Switzerland): Freestyle sprints
On the first day of U23 World Championships racing in Goms, Switzerland, Norway’s Tiril Udnes Weng tallied her first individual world title in the women’s 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint, winning the A-final in 2:50.24 minutes, just 0.08 seconds ahead of Swiss World Cup regular Nadine Fähndrich in second. Another World Cup skier, Natalia Nepryaeva of Russia finished third, 4.78 seconds out of first.
Weng, 21, is no stranger to World Cups, either. Just two days ago, she qualified 11th in the World Cup skate sprint in Seefeld, Austria, and went on to place 17th overall.
On Monday, she qualified second, 0.2 seconds off Fähndrich’s top qualifying time of 3:03.51. Weng then placed second to Nepryaeva in the fourth quarterfinal, a heat that included Canadians Maya MacIsaac-Jones and Katherine Stewart-Jones, both of the Canadian National U25 Team. While Sweden’s Moa Olsson finished third in that quarterfinal and advanced as a lucky loser based on time, the two Canadians did not. MacIsaac-Jones had previously qualified in 19th and Stewart-Jones in 22nd. Overall, MacIsaac-Jones placed 18th and Stewart-Jones was 23rd on the day.
In an email, MacIsaac-Jones explained her goal had been to make the semifinals.
“My strategy was to stick behind the top two girls, and hang on as best I could,” she wrote of her quarterfinal. “As Canadians we tend to be pretty good at downhilling, so I tried to use that to my advantage. I wasn’t quite able to stick with the top girls over the crest of the big hill, but I was happy to be fairly competitive in the heat overall!”
Still, the top 20 was her best result in her fourth trip to Junior/U23 Worlds.
“I’m disappointed of course to have missed out on making the semi-final, but I feel I did the best I could with what my body had on the day so I’m happy with that,” she continued. “It was of course exciting to get my first top-20 , but also disappointing because I felt like my body wasn’t moving as well as it was at trials a few weeks ago (I got sick right after arriving in Europe which probably didn’t help with that).”
For Stewart-Jones, this marks her fifth Junior/U23 World Championships.
“Over the years I have learned that it’s just another race, and that I don’t need to treat it any differently,” she wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Coming into te race I knew that I was in the best shape I’ve been all year, but I also had only done one skate sprint qualifier and no heats) this year so I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
Her goal had been to reach the semifinals and finish in the top 12.
“I am happy with how I skied the qualifier. The quarterfinal was tough,” Stewart-Jones wrote. “My teammate Maya and I ended up being in a really fast heat. I felt like I skied well technically but I don’t think I skied it how I needed to to have a chance of moving on. I tried holding on to the top 2 girls over the top of the first hill and ended up losing time on the second… I think it would have made more sense to lay back a bit over the top of the first to save some gas for the end.”
Stewart-Jones as well as MacIsaac-Jones came incredibly close to making Canada’s 2018 Olympic team based on their results at NorAm trials earlier this month.
“Overall, I am happy with how the body feels but disappointed with how I skied tactically,” Stewart-Jones wrote. “Not making the Olympic team was definitely more frustrating than it was disappointing. The whole ordeal was a bit exhausting, with first missing out on the 4th spot by less than a second and then being 12th on the list of  quota spots, it was really as close as it gets. I’m doing my best to fuel that frustration into positive energy so that I can perform at my best here. I am really looking forward to the next 2 races!!”
Fähndrich won both her quarterfinal and semifinal leading up to the final, and Weng won the second semifinal by 0.59 seconds over Nepryaeva. In the final, Weng had the edge.
“I dream about winning, that’s the goal of my season,” Weng said during a post-race interview in the arena. “So it felt good to win.”
Three Canadians made the heats, with Laura Leclair of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) qualifying in 26th then placing third in her quarterfinal, 2.75 seconds behind German winner Nadine Herrmann. That put Leclair 15th overall on the day in her first U23 World Championships race.
“As it is my first time at Worlds and my first year in a big category (U23) I was coming here for experience,” Leclair wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Experience to ski internationally, in Europe and against the best. Of course, I was hoping to perform but I never anticipated a top 15.
“Since I was seeded 30th, I was a little skeptical of making it through the qualifier,” she continued. “Qualifying 26th was a very exciting moment.”
In her quarterfinal, she said the pace didn’t pick up until about halfway up a long uphill out of the start, a climb that lasted for about a minute and a half.
“I was in a strong position (4th) but it was hard to make my way to the top,” Leclair wrote. “At the top of the big hill, a girl broke a pole and I was able to pass her and push over the hill into the downhill in order to come closer to the two girls in front. The last uphill felt like it was just give or take. Obviously, I chose the give option and gave it all I had into the finish. My heat wasn’t one of the fastest so I wasn’t a lucky loser but I am very happy of how I skied that course.
“This season has been full [of] surprise,” she concluded. “Just qualifying for Worlds in Canada was one! I am very happy that all my efforts and my dedication to the sport are paying off. For the rest of the week, I want to have some strong races, especially in the skiathlon and maybe surprise myself again.”
Two Americans qualified in the top 30 as well, with Lauren Jortberg (Dartmouth Ski Team) in 14th and Julia Kern (U.S. Ski Team/Dartmouth/Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) in 21st. Jortberg went on to finish fifth in her quarterfinal, 7.28 seconds behind German winner Pia Fink, and Kern finished sixth in Fähndrich’s quarterfinal, 22.28 seconds out of first. Overall, Jortberg placed 22nd and Kern was 27th.
In an email, Jortberg, who competed at U23 World Championships last year at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, explained her goal was to qualify for the heats.
“I honestly had no idea what to expect in Goms this year because Soldier Hollow felt just like US Nationals and the Super Junior National Qualifiers I’d been going to for the past ten years,” Jortberg, a Dartmouth College sophomore, wrote on Monday. “Obviously the competitors from all over the world was different, but was easy to visualize what is going to be like. The venues are similar in many ways because there are very few trees making it very open and a great spectators course.
“A big difference between Goms and Soldier Hollow is the little towns everywhere,” she continued. “The first ski we did here, we skied through the roads and through a town. There are ski trails everywhere here, we could even ski from the venue to the hotel (which is pretty far)! For the ski courses, I think Goms is one of the most challenging ski courses I’ve ever raced on. There are huge climbs are incredibly technical downhills! Its a one of the most exciting places I’ve ever raced, I love it so much.”
As for her racing on Monday, she wrote that she was “really psyched because I felt really strong and smooth in the qualifier! I was a bit bummed because I had to scrub a fair amount of speed skiing behind a girl I caught on the really technical downhill. The heats were really fun!! I had a great starting position and skied really smooth up the big climb. Then I took a very gutsy move on the downhill to sling shot into first place on the inside corner around the downhill turn. Unfortunately right after that I got caught up in a tangle on the last climb, and then I lost contact with the lead group. I was bummed to get caught up in a tangle, but it was really cool to be able to ski with these girls!”
Overall, Jortberg described the day as “pretty incredible.”
“My motto has always been that sprints are funny because ‘anything can happen’ for the good and bad!” she added. “I’m pretty excited for the rest of the week of racing even though this race was my main target. These courses play really strongly to my strengths so it should be fun to see what I can do!”
Kern explained in an email that she’s been sick for the past month so her main goal was to start Monday’s race. But for a long time leading up to this race, she had envisioned a top 10.
“Regardless of how I was feeling, one of my goals was to ski with good technique because that is something you can always control,” Kern wrote. “I was pretty content with my qualifier, given being sick. Skiing out there today, I had no idea if I would surprise myself and my illness wouldn’t impact my skiing or if I was just going to feel absolutely terrible. I was happy with how I placed given how I felt.”
In the heats, she wanted to stay in contact with leaders up the course’s big climb, then try to “drop the hammer on the downhill and last uphill.”
“However, my quarterfinal did not play out that way,” she wrote. “The pace was hot from the start, with bib #1 [Fähndrich] gunning from the start. I stuck with the heat until part way up the first climb, where I started to lose the leaders. I did not feel good and I had no energy so I was not able to hold the pace of the other competitors. I had considered not doing the heats because I felt pretty wiped after the qualifier, but the competitor inside me couldn’t just walk away from my favorite thing—sprint heats.
“Given my current health state, I feel okay about my day, but I am obviously bummed because this was the race I was looking forward to most this season,” Kern added. “I am looking forward to getting healthy in time to race the 10k classic, or at the very least the skiathlon!”
Also for the U.S., Lydia Blanchet missed qualifying by 0.32 seconds in 32nd, as did Canada’s Sophie Carrier-Laforte, who was 3.68 seconds out of the top 30 in 34th. American Nicole Schneider finished 44th.
In the men’s 1.5 k skate sprint on Monday, Norway swept the men’s podium, with Erik Valnes winning his first World Championships medal in 2:56.38, Jan Thomas Jenssen finishing 0.24 seconds back in second, and Even Northug placing third (+6.34).
For the 21-year-old Valnes, this marked his first U23 World Championships (or Junior Worlds for that matter). He’s competed in two World Cup sprints this season, placing 22nd in the skate sprint earlier this month in Dresden, Germany, and 27th in a classic sprint in December in Lillehammer, Norway.
Valnes started Monday by winning the qualifying round in 3:00.18, by 0.77 seconds over Sweden’s Anton Persson, then won his quarterfinal and semifinal, both by nearly half a second, before besting his fellow Norwegians in the final.
“Fun to take the gold medal at the end,” Valnes said during a televised in-arena interview after the final. “It was my biggest goal this year, so it means a lot, of course. A gold medal is always good to have.”
No North American men qualified for the heats. Canada’s Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier placed 40th, Antoine Briand was 41st, Philippe Boucher 42nd, and Olivier Hamel 60th.
For the U.S., Bill Harmeyer finished 46th, Andrew Egger was 47th, Thomas O’Harra 64th, and Zak Ketterson 65th.
- Andrew Egger
- Antoine Briand
- Anton Persson
- Bill Harmeyer
- Erik Valnes
- Even Northug
- Jan Thomas Jenssen
- Julia Kern
- Katherine Stewart-Jones
- Laura Leclair
- Lauren Jortberg
- Lydia Blanchet
- Maya MacIsaac-Jones
- Moa Olsson
- Nadine Fähndrich
- Nadine Herrmann
- Natalia Nepryaeva
- Nicole Schneider
- Olivier Hamel
- Philippe Boucher
- Pia Fink
- Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre
- Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier
- Sophie Carrier-Laforte
- Thomas O'Harra
- Tiril Udnes Weng
- Zak Ketterson