SEEFELD, Austria — By the time the women’s finalists toed the start line, fans lucky enough to find a spot directly against the fence lining the World Cup 1.3-kilometer freestyle sprint course on Saturday showed signs of sunburn on their cheeks. The Seefeld sun was high and bright, but not the only one radiating on the Tirol ski trails.
U.S. skier Sophie Caldwell found Seefeld treating her well. And she herself was on the strike.
She started the day by qualifying for the heats in fourth, 1.84 seconds behind top women’s qualifying time of 2:21.44 posted by Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla. Heat selection came next. Caldwell opted for Heat 1, knowing that she had a fair chance of running up against Falla in that quarterfinal.
The move was gutsy. Falla has 14 World Cup sprint victories. She was last year’s world champion in Lahti, Finland. Falla also has an Olympic gold medal from the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Both those events were in freestyle; Saturday’s discipline as well.
But Caldwell wanted to be in the fast heat, even if it had the potential of knocking her out.
“She kind of guessed when she selected quarterfinal 1 that Maiken would also go in quarterfinal one .. that was part of the strategy,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier in person after.
“Maiken and I chose the first quarterfinal,” Caldwell told FasterSkier. “I knew we were going to have fast times throughout the day and I had a good chance of being lucky loser.”
From the start of their quarterfinal, the first of five, the American not only hung with Falla, she pressured her. Caldwell skied in second just behind the Norwegian as they approached the finish, where Falla outlunged Caldwell by 0.8 seconds to win the heat.
Both automatically advanced to the semifinal, and faced off once again in the first semi. This time through, the 27-year-old U.S. Ski Team member was even more ready.
After skiing in second behind Falla, also 27, into the final 100-meter stretch, Caldwell made her move around the Norwegian with 50 meters to go. The two once again lunged for the line. Caldwell emerged victorious, crossing the semifinal first in a time of 2:18.88, this time 0.16 seconds ahead of Falla.
“She’s an amazing skier and an amazing skier to follow,” Caldwell said of Falla. “My goal was to follow her all day long.”
The two were headed for the final together. Their fast semifinal also produced two lucky losers, Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff and Sweden’s Linn Sömskar.
From the second semifinal, another American had qualified for the final, Sadie Bjornsen, along with Norway’s Kathrine Rolsted Harsem. Until Saturday, Bjornsen had never qualified for a freestyle sprint. That hadn’t stopped the American from skiing aggressively to the win in her quarterfinal and then place second in her semifinal.
“My coach Erik Flora is here … we had a talk and basically he said, ‘Sadie, it never works when you try to do tactics, so just go as hard as you can and attack where you can and don’t try to play anything out there; just go,’ ” Bjornsen reflected. “So, that’s kinda what I was going with today.”
Two Norwegians, two Americans, one Swiss skier and one Swede then lined up for the women’s final on Saturday. At the sound of the gun, Falla surged to the front. Caldwell shadowed her in second, which was part of the plan.
“For the ladies, the course was so short that you wanted to stay in the front,” Grover said. “If you ended up towards back…you had to do a lot of work to get back up to the front.”
Just behind Caldwell and Falla was van der Graaff skiing just a bit to the outside. Harsem, Bjornsen and Sömskar were next in line through the course’s first uphill and corner back toward the stadium.
Tuck-skating the final section of the first downhill and powering into the next uphill, Falla seemed to see the spot as an opportunity to distance herself from the field. But Harsem and van der Graaff were now poling hard to her left. Caldwell was glued to the back of Falla’s skis, with Bjornsen and Sömskar right behind.
At the top of the final climb, however, Falla had once again put herself in the lead. Cornering into the final descent, it was Falla, Caldwell, van der Graaff, Harsem, Bjornsen, and Sömskar.
In the final 100 meters, Falla stayed in the center, Caldwell moved to her right and van der Graaff skate skied to the left. As the three sped toward the finish, Falla was just slightly ahead.
The taste of a non-Norwegian victory, however, was too sweet to let go. Neither van der Graaff nor Caldwell slowed their pace to settle for anything but first place. The Swiss skier and the American crossed together in a photo finish, which was eventually ruled a tie for the win. Their time was 2:18.65. Falla crossed 0.21 seconds later for third place.
“It’s so great to win again,” said van der Graaff, 30, who earned her first World Cup win earlier this season at the opening stage of the Tour de Ski. “I have told myself to believe that it was possible and now I have two wins this season. I didn’t realize Sophie was so close at the finish. It’s kind of fun to share the podium with her. I have never heard of that happening before.
The camera at the finish focused on van der Graaff, who initially thought she won outright over Caldwell and Falla. She was televised as the day’s singular winner, and even Caldwell was unaware of her win until she was told ten minutes after the finish by Jeff Ellis, the FIS Cross Country Media Coordinator and Kikkan Randall’s husband.
“I thought he was messing with me at first,” Caldwell wrote in an email, explaining when she first heard the news.
After she learned the result was real, Caldwell described he response as “very surprised, but pleasantly so” at learning she and van der Graaf had identical lunge times to the line.
“I honestly don’t even remember lunging, but I’m glad I did,” she wrote. “It was really fun sharing the podium with Laurien. She’s a great competitor and it’s kind of cool that a tie for first place is possible!”
The win is the first one for the U.S. Ski Team this season. It is Caldwell’s third individual sprint podium this season, eighth-career World Cup podium and second individual win. Her first came in the 2016 classic sprint stage of the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, Germany.
While the sprint was the last until a classic sprint is contested at the 2018 Olympics next month, Seefeld is the site of next year’s World Championships.
Finishing out the women’s final were Harsem in fourth (+1.34), Sömskar in fifth (+1.83) and Bjornsen in sixth (+2.26).
“I felt really awesome in the quarters,” Bjornsen said. “In the semis, I definitely could feel some fatigue and by the finals. I tried to do what I could, but for sure could feel I was a bit tired, as is everybody, but I was missing that final push that I really needed on that last hill.
“I was out there learning,” Bjornsen continued. “It’s fun to see it the year before world champs and kind of what to expect.”
Slovenia had three in the top 10 with Vesna Fabjan in seventh, Katja Visnar in eighth and 22-year-old Anamarija Lampič in 10th. Italy’s Greta Laurent started the day by qualifying second, 1.43 seconds behind Falla, and ended up ninth overall.
U.S. skier Kikkan Randall also qualified for Saturday’s heats with the 18th-ranked time, then finished third in her quarterfinal (1.33 seconds behind Sömskar in first) to finish the day in 14th.
“Good for Kikkan, descent qualification,” Grover said. “In the heats she kind of felt like she just didn’t ski it tactically super well and kind of got boxed out a bit. Little bit disappointing for her not to go through.”
After qualifying in 30th (+7.68), Canada’s Dahria Beatty advanced to the fifth quarterfinal, where she finished fourth (1.65 seconds behind Laurent in first). That put her 20th overall, which stood as a season best.
“I was feeling good today, and I really like this course,” Beatty, of the Canadian World Cup Team, said after. “It’s a good power course. … The heat was a bit frustrating. I felt like I was skiing well, but I just couldn’t make the right move to get around the girls in front of me. I got pushed into that wall, so that really allowed the gap to open up, which was unfortunate because I felt like I was skiing really well today and I could have — if I could have, tactically, been able to move up better and get into that final sprint.
“But I am happy with today,” she continued. “It’s a good feeling, and I am excited for tomorrow.”
Sunday features 10/15 k freestyle mass starts in Seefeld. While Diggins did not participate in Saturday’s sprint, she is slated to start Sunday’s 10 k freestyle mass start. After feeling a little fatigued from last weekend’s races in Planica, Slovenia, Diggins decided to take off one of Seefeld’s race days.
“She wanted to pick one race this weekend to focus on,” Grover explained. “She was feeling a little bit of fatigue from last weekend and chose to go in the 10 k simply because we have a 10 k at the Games and no skate sprint. So she would have been outstanding in there today.”
While three American women qualified for the heats on Saturday, Ida Sargent was 0.52 seconds outside the top in 37th. The U.S. Ski Team member fell just before the qualifier and sustained an injury, which Grover believed was to her thumb. Following the race, she was taken to the hospital in Innsbruck, located approximately 30 minutes from the venue, for further examination.
“It was a hard day for Ida. She had a crash right before the qualification and sounds like there is some injury to her thumb. So were still trying to figure that out,” Grover said.
Rosie Brennan (U.S. Ski Team) finished the qualifier in 42nd, Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup Team) was 51st, Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 52nd and Cendrine Browne (Canadian U25 Team) 54th.
The Canadian women opted out of the past two weekends of World Cup racing and have been training in Livigno, Italy, for the week leading up to Seefeld.
“We did a training camp in altitude to prepare ourselves for the [Olympic] Games,” Browne explained. “We did the same formula last year for World Champs and it’s something that worked really well for me, so I am confident with my preparation and I am looking forward to tomorrow.”
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.