With the 2019 Tour de Ski complete, World Cup athletes returned to competition on Saturday for a 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint. The race took place in the city of Dresden, Germany–an icy, two lap sprint course along the Elbe river offered racers the non-traditional backdrop of cathedrals and other gothic architecture. Temperatures hung around 40 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday and the snow that was trucked in to cover the streets made for a hard packed, icy racecourse. Wind gusts between 15 and 25 mph added another challenge to those competing.
“It was really windy, so I just wanted to save some energy the first lap and be in a good position the whole last lap,” Sweden’s Stina Nilsson said during an interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS).
Nilsson went on to take the overall win, finishing the final first in a time of 3:48.49 after also winning both her quarterfinal and semifinal. The 25 year old Swede now has 16 individual World Cup sprint titles, this being Nilsson’s fourth successive sprint win in a row.
Two more Swedes finished on the podium, with Maja Dahlqvist claiming second (+0.24) and Jonna Sundling third (+0.54) after she bested Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich by 0.02 seconds in a photo-finish.
“When I realized there were three [Swedish] girls on the podium I was really happy because we have such a strong team and I am really proud to be a part of it,” Nilsson told FIS after the race.
The podium finish is Dahlqvist’s fourth in the individual top three at the World Cup level. Last year in the Dresden sprint, the 24 year old placed second (then to her teammate Hanna Falk). Dahlqvist has yet to win an individual World Cup sprint.
Also at 24 years of age, the other Swede making a name for herself in sprints, Sundling, now has three individual World Cup podiums. Her first individual win came earlier this season during the Lillehammer mini-Tour in late November.
Following Fähndrich’s fourth place finish (+0.56) was American Sophie Caldwell in fifth (+2.61). Caldwell started the day with the second fastest qualifying time of 3:42.34, Sweden’s Hanna Falk posting the fastest qualifier in a time of 3:41.85. The U.S. skier went on to cross second in her quarterfinal, which was won by Fähndrich, and then second again in her semi final, this time to Nilsson.
In the final, Caldwell remained in contact with the group for the first two thirds of the race. Until the race’s midway mark, she was positioned in third, just behind Sundling and Fähndrich who led the first half of the final. Cornering into the last half kilometer, Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek fell and Nilsson took over the lead. Caldwell clung to the three Swedes and Fähndrich, but the four broke away their last time up the courses lone, short uphill.
“My strategy was to conserve energy for the first lap and try position myself well with fresh legs for the second lap. This worked quite well in my quarter and semi, but in the final I was bopping around not quite in the draft at the beginning of the second lap and definitely lost my legs a bit for the last half of the lap,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “That said, it’s always a good day when you make it into the final, and these long courses used to be a challenge for me, so I was really happy to ski into the final with confidence.”
“She’s pretty happy with the day,” the U.S. Ski Team’s World Cup head coach, Matt Whitcomb, told FasterSkier after the race. “At the end, I think the 1.6-kilometer course coupled with it being very flat and then one thing tactically went very poorly near the end where she ended up having to break some wind and she just got tired. No real mistakes out there, she executed the plan like she wanted to, there were just a lot of good women out there, it was a strong final. She also had a very strong semi-final which made for an exciting day.”
In her first World Cup start of the season, American Julia Kern ended the day in 19th after qualifying in 23rd. She advanced to the same quarterfinal as Nilsson and Sundling and for the first lap of the race, Kern was in second, right on Sundling’s tail. During the second lap, Nilsson ramped up the speed and took over the front pace. Kern was able to hang onto the pack and ultimately crossed fourth after a photo finish with Canada’s Dahria Beatty.
“I was really psyched to lay down a good qualifier and make it into the heats!” Kern, 21, wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “My family is here watching (parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle) so I wanted to qualify for heats so they could watch me more than once.”
“I think coming off a strong start to season, I carried in more confidence and excitement coming into this World Cup which put me in a great place to go for it and have fun!”she added.
Saturday’s heats were the first of the season for Beatty. The 24 year old Canadian qualified in 20th and ended the day in 16th overall.
“I am really happy to have made my first World Cup heats of the season…16th is one of my best ever World Cup results.” Beatty wrote in an email. “I would have loved to make the semis and was pretty close today but I will keep chasing that goal. My skis were amazing and the atmosphere was great, I made a few small mistakes tactically in my heat but hopefully I can have another shot next weekend in Otepää.”
Also in her first World Cup start, American Hannah Halvorsen placed 35th with a time of 3:55.73. The 20 year old was 1.54 seconds away from scoring World Cup points and qualifying for the day’s heats.
The next U.S. finisher was Ida Sargent in 38th.
“Today was rough for me,” Sargent wrote in an email to FasterSkier after Saturday’s sprint. “I have been having an issue this year with my femoral nerve and I think the icy conditions really flared it up. I’m hoping to be able to manage it better tomorrow. My energy is good though so I’m looking forward to more racing.”
Another World Cup rookie, Hailey Swirbul of the U.S. Ski Team D-Team, finished 41st on Saturday.
“It was exciting to have a city sprint be my first World Cup experience,” Swirbul wrote in an email. “I thought I skied powerfully and as smoothly as I could for the conditions. Each race is an opportunity to learn something and I absorbed as much as I could from these incredible teammates and athletes around me. I can’t wait for another shot at the World Cup at some point!”
“[R]eally awesome to have some of our D Team girls here and have Julia get a top 20!” Caldwell wrote. “I’m really proud of them all and it should be a fun day of team sprinting tomorrow. I’ll be teaming up with Julia and I’m really looking forward to it! Ida and Hannah will also have a really strong team and Hailey will be cheering strong with her relay socks.”