The two skiers have commanded the wins this season for the overall sprint cup. Stina Nilsson of Sweden and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla remain the speed skiing torch bearers. Only Nilsson and Falla have won multiple sprints in 2018/2019. Falla won the World Championship sprint in Seefeld and the last three of four individual sprints coming into Falun’s sprint on Saturday.
Earlier in the season Nilsson went on her own run — winning four individual sprints in succession. Yet in the past two World Cup sprints, Nilsson tripped up her winning pattern and did not podium as she recovered from a hip injury suffered in mid-January during a semi-final in Otepää, Estonia.
Have no fear Swedish fans. The athlete that closed out the women’s 4 x 5 k relay for the World Championship win recently, arrived to treat the home country fans to a win.
The only imperfection on what became a perfect day was her third place in qualification. Nilsson’s teammate, Maja Dahlqvist, took the top-spot honors as she qualified with the fastest time of 2:55.0. Nilsson’s time was 2.81 seconds behind. Otherwise, Nilsson won her heat, the first semi, 0.52 ahead of Caspersen, and the final, 0.67 ahead of the Norwegian.
To simplify things, Nilsson won the final in 3:07.72. But for the first half of the final, it appeared Falla would control her own top-step fate. Down the sweeping and banked downhill curve at 1:40 through a morass of sugar snow Falla came through clean and in front. (That sweeping curve did take out several skiers which we’ll get to in a bit.)
A little less than a minute later, after she had remained in Falla’s shadow, skiing just off her tails, Nilsson came around on the final climb with a hefty V2 and formed enough of a gap to be a meter or two ahead into the final straight.
With her fifth sprint win of the season, Nilsson maintains a narrow lead for the sprint cup. She leads with 576 points over Falla, who trails in second overall with 543 points. A single sprint race remains — a skate sprint on March 22 in Quebec, Canada.
“We definitely can feel the spring,” Nilsson told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after race. “The conditions were hard for us to manage especially the downhill curves. I think all of us were quite afraid when we went down there because their were so many crashes today. I also knew this sprint was real important for the sprint World Cup.”
The tenuous conditions, with deep sugar snow here and there out on course, took a toll on the qualifying U.S. skiers.
“It was one heck of a tricky sprint race out there today,” Sadie Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) emailed. “With tough snow conditions, course time was limited, which made for some interesting snow. Deep and punchy! My qualifier was a fun surprise, and made me feel really good about my fitness right now. After a little frustration in Drammen on Tuesday, I was looking forward to getting onto this course.”
That qualifier surprise was a fourth place qualifying time. And she advanced to the semis after placing second to Dahlqvist in her heat.
“My quarterfinals worked out perfect, and I felt great about my tactics and skills on the course,” Bjornsen added. Yet the skier’s good fortunes waned in the semis.
“As I took off for the semi finals, the snow had started to refreeze, so it was unbelievably tricky skiing. I had myself in a perfect position leading over the top of the first climb, and came out of the corner ready to fire away. Unfortunately, the Slovenian stepped on my ski, and I went down briefly. The stop/go gave me enough of a flood in my legs that I wasn’t able to make the gap back up. I was pretty bummed afterwards, because I knew our heat was moving fast, so that fourth place position was going to be lucky loser.”
Her fall aside, Bjornsen’s stop/go rebound earned her a 10th place overall as she preps for tomorrow’s 10 k skate.
“I have a good healthy amount of anger that I know will help push me through those 10k of skating tomorrow,” Bjornsen explained. “The good news is I feel great, and I am ready to put the frustration to the course!”
Sophie Caldwell’s (USST) path to her 11th overall was marred less by a stop/go and more of a slide on harsh granulated snow.
Before the tumble, she qualified in 14th, 8.41 seconds off the leading time.
“The course was definitely funky today with some deep skiing, especially on the downhill corners,” Caldwell emailed. “Even though the course isn’t particularly long, it’s one of the hillier courses we race, so it’s important to try to conserve some energy for the long finish stretch. My qualifier honestly felt pretty awful because I think I took it out a little hot and got flooded, but I was pleased when my quarter final felt much better and tactically I think I skied it pretty perfectly and was able to conserve some energy through the hills and have a strong last part of the course.”
Despite her sensations, Caldwell won the first heat and lined up in the first semi with Nilsson and Falla. Caldwell, skiing in the rear of the train of skiers, took a rough slide when she lost her footing while schussing through a corner.
“As far as my fall in the semi goes, I’m not exactly sure what happened,” Caldwell wrote about her spill. “I was not proud of how I skied the first downhill because it kind of took me out of contention, but there was a lot of snow plowing going on and I kind of just had to follow. Then on the second downhill I must have hit some of the soft stuff and got shot out wide and landed pretty hard on my chest and knee, but I think I escaped with only a few bruises! Exciting day out there for sure.”
The American cross-country staple, Jessie Diggins (USST) also became a deep sugar snow stat. Instead of being taken out in the semis like Caldwell and Bjornsen, Diggins fall came about halfway through the course on the banked downhill corner. In front. In control. Diggins set the tempo in her heat.
Then down she went.
“I’m totally ok after the fall! I had amazing skis and my energy and fitness are in a great place, so although it’s always a bummer to crash out of a race, I am really happy with how I skied and how fast I was moving out there,” Diggins explained in an email. “I fell on the steep 180 corner, and honestly I don’t know what I would have done differently to avoid the fall – it came out of nowhere, suddenly I hooked a tip or hit some icier snow and it threw my weight back. There was half a foot of loose, wet and heavy snow out there and we saw a ton of crashes and near misses on some fast and tight corners today!”
Diggins rounded out the U.S. results in the top-30 with a 28th place overall. As has been documented, it’s been a whirlwind year for Diggins. After Sunday’s race in Falun, it will be time for Diggins to head back across the Atlantic and into the throng of Quebec’s ski fans.
“I’m very fortunate to have so many family members coming to Quebec to cheer and I’m so happy and excited to see them, and sometimes knowing you’ve only got one weekend of World Cups left leaves you with better energy than, say, a month out from the end,” explained Diggins.
I love the crowds in Quebec and I’m exited to throw down my absolute best efforts!”
Sunday’s racing features a 10 skate for the women and a 15 skate for the men.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.