PLANICA, Slovenia — With the Julian Alps and Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, as a backdrop, it’s suitable to say the Planica Valley nordic course can be summed up in one word: burly.
A high mid-afternoon sun had illuminated the mountain range throughout the rounds for the World Cup women’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint on Saturday, but by the time the six finalists lined up for the final heat, a few shadows were being recast onto the course.
At the sound of the gun, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson took the lead into the first downhill. Norway’s Kathrine Rolsted Harsem followed close behind. Maiken Caspersen Falla, also of Norway, dangled to the far right, while American Jessie Diggins hugged tightly to the inside left, just ahead of Sweden’s Anna Dyvik.
The third Norwegian in the final, Heidi Weng picked up the rear of the group through the corner that had seen at least one skier in the men’s quarterfinals fly into the blue net that fenced off the course. Diggins had also fallen on that corner during her warmup.
“It rattled my confidence,” Diggins said, referring to her warmup mishap. The American then took the corner more cautiously during her qualifier, which she felt was uncharacteristic of herself and and left her wanting more going into the day’s heats. (Diggins had qualified in 19th, 6.19 seconds behind Harsem’s winning qualifying time of 3:28.03.)
“I am not a hesitant downhill skier at all,” Diggins explained. “So I was like, ‘All right, in the rounds I am not going to ski like a wimp,’ and I was really proud of myself for … taking something that had rattled me and put it away and then just ski the rest of the day.”
In the women’s final, Diggins maintained her position through the bottom of the sharp downhill corner and the brief double-pole section before the first uphill hiccup. As the pitch increased, Nilsson transitioned to striding and the rest of the field followed suit.
Pressure began mounting from the Norwegians as Harsem strode to Nilsson’s left and Caspersen Falla caught up to her right. A meter behind them were Diggins, Dyvik and Weng.
The group disappeared from the teleprompter for a moment as they moved under the wooden bridge spanning the course. When they reappeared, Harsem had overtaken the lead. Nilsson clung to the back of her skis.
Diggins, who had been skiing alone in the second inside track, switched lanes, maneuvering herself into second alongside Harsem and Nilsson. But as they descended into the second downhill, the Norwegian and Swede pulled slightly away.
Another corner and the six finalists were heading uphill again, Diggins was the only skier who chose the far outside track. The climb was the course’s most grueling uphill, and Harsem had used it to break away from her competition all afternoon.
In the final, it appeared Harsem would do the same as she strode powerfully to the front, looking to gap Nilsson and Falla. But the 28 year old had not factored in her teammate Falla’s own dig in the ups. Halfway up the hill, Falla, 27, changed tracks and was gunning for the lead.
By the time the group reached the hairpin turn that would lead them back down to the stadium, Falla was first, Harsem second, and Nilsson third. Chasing them around two meters away was Diggins, followed shortly by Dyvik and Weng.
As they descended, the Swede’s skis seemed to lose ground. A Norwegian battle for first looked to be in the cards. In the second group, Diggins continued to hold off Dyvik’s attempts to push past her for fourth.
With one final hill to go, Falla strode with a speedy turnover to the outside. But while the Norwegian’s legs swished through the tracks, the Swede was powering forward in a powerful double pole.
Three years younger than her Norwegian challenger, Nilsson, 24, had already won one of two classic sprints previously this season. On Saturday, she was looking to rack up another win (and her third individual victory of the season after winning a skate sprint in Davos, Switzerland).
She and Falla strode over the top of the final climb together, but heading into the final double pole to the finish, the Swede had made up her mind. The red World Cup sprint leader’s bib she was wearing would stay with her.
She double poled away from Falla and Harsem in the final 100 meters, crossing first in a time of 3:26.28. The win marked her fourth-career victory in a World Cup classic sprint and her 12th World Cup sprint win.
“I saw an opening there and took the chance,” Nilsson told Längd.se, according to a translation. “I think it worked very well technically.”
Crossing second, 1.27 seconds behind Nilsson was Harsem. The second-place finish was the Norwegian’s first World Cup podium ever.
“It’s amazing to be finally on the World Cup podium,” Harsem said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I have been fourth a couple of times and seventh 100 times. It is very emotional for me. There have been many ups and downs in my career. I feel just amazing.”
Falla placed third, 1.81 seconds behind Nilsson. The defending Sprint World Cup champion, with 14 individual World Cup titles to her name, Falla was more critical of her own result.
“I did not really have it today. It’s good to be third but I will be headed home now and try to find shape for the Olympic Games,” Falla told FIS.
Diggins ended the day just off the podium in fourth (+3.81), while Dyvik was fifth (+4.45) and Weng sixth (+14.89).
“I feel like I just did the hardest interval ever,” Diggins told FasterSkier after. “But I think that’s great because going into the Olympics, it’s fun knowing that I have qualified and I made it to the finals in three out of four classic sprints this year; it is a good confidence booster.”
Though tired by the end of the day after rounding the course four times at a hard effort, Diggins indicated she found ways to keep herself relaxed and have fun.
“They played my absolute favorite songs all day I was doing a little salsa dance getting ready,” Diggins said with a laugh. “You do have to have fun, this is your life you have to enjoy it.”
Two Americans in Top 10
Rounding out the the top 10 was Russia’s Yulia Belorukova in seventh, Sweden’s Hanna Falk in eighth, American Sophie Caldwell in ninth, and Norway’s Mari Eide in 10th.
After qualifying in 13th, 5.38 seconds out of first, Caldwell advanced to the first quarterfinal, going head-to-head with Nilsson, Belorukova and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen.
Caldwell skied strong through the first portion of the major climb, pacing toward the front with Nilsson, Belorukova and Norway’s Anna Svendsen. Just before the final hairpin turn, however, Nilsson and Belorukova charged. Caldwell pushed to maintain contact, but was edged out just before the final straightaway.
Her quarterfinal time was fast enough for her to earn the day’s second lucky loser spot, after Diggins advanced as the first lucky loser in third in her heat, behind Falk and Harsem.
Caldwell then advanced to the first semifinal, up against Falla, Nilsson, Belorukova, Falk, and Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski. Caldwell was in the mix until halfway through the mjor course climb, when Nilsson, Falla and Belorukova began to push the pace.
“I think a lot of the classic courses now kind of have big steep hills that you do more of a run shuffle up,” Caldwell said. “[Today’s] was more power striding, which for me personally is definitely one of my weaknesses and something I’m working on.”
Caldwell finished her semifinal in fifth, 4.34 seconds behind Falla in first.
“I felt good, but it was definitely one of the hardest sprints I’ve ever done,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know if it felt that way because we’ve been racing some shorter ones lately and this one was quite a bit longer … but I’m happy with today.”
Also for the U.S., Sadie Bjornsen placed 21st and Ida Sargent 23rd overall, after finishing fifth in their quarterfinals.
Reflecting on her qualifier, in which she qualified seventh (+4.10), Bjornsen said she finished “feeling like I had lost some time in the corners.”
“In my [quarterfinal] I felt like there was a lot of bouncing and trying to find a track and just trying to find a place to ski, so I was kind of depending on that final corner and climb into the finish,” Bjornsen said on the phone.
Her quarterfinal saw Falla and Pärmäkoski take the lead early on, but Bjornsen was positioned well within striking range as the group rounded the hairpin turn for the final descent.
The final descent and corner went smoothly for Bjornsen, but a tangle with Germany’s Sandra Ringwald caused her to crash out of contention. By the time Bjornsen reached the finishing stretch, Pärmäkoski and Falla had already locked up the top-two spots to automatically advance to the semifinals, and Bjornsen followed 8.81 seconds back in fifth.
“I had an awesome corner and then came into that final climb and unfortunately, Sandra just ended up falling on top of me, which was a bummer because I felt like I was really opening up there and finally had an opening,” Bjornsen said. “At the end of the day you just have to, for me, focus on what felt really good and channel that extra energy into some Olympic racing coming up here soon.”
Bjornsen did not race last weekend in Dresden, nor will she start Sunday’s 10 k classic in Planica.
“I just want to make sure I am fully recovered,” Bjornsen said of her decision to opt out of Sunday’s distance race.
“I actually think this going to work out really naturally well for me just to have one more week to absorb that enormous load and feel really fresh and quick and ready for next weekend,” she added.
The fourth American woman to qualify on Saturday was Sargent in 17th (+6.13).
“Warming up for the heats, I tried to do a little harder warm up to try to see if I could get my body going, but I was definitely feeling some fatigue,” Sargent said after. “It was a hard course to feel that way, so I’m looking forward to hopefully getting a little more energy for tomorrow.”
Three other American women’s also competed on Saturday, with Julia Kern finishing 43rd, Rosie Brennan 49th and Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 53rd.
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.