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After qualifying events on Wednesday, World Championships kicked off in earnest in Oberstdorf, Germany with the Classic Sprint event Thursday morning. Due to unseasonably warm temperatures, the start times were pushed earlier in the day to optimize course conditions and hopefully preserve snow for the remainder of the competition.
The women raced a 1.2 k course, with Johanna Hagström winning the qualifier in a time of 2:39.33. After her qualifier, Hagström said, “it felt really great, I was focused on being calm and do[ing] fast skiing by good technique so I think I got it.”
Jumping ahead to close the day out, top honors went to her Swedish teammate, Jonna Sundling, who won the final in a time of 2:36.76.
On a salted course, which despite the sun’s radiation held up, the sustained final climb proved to be an effective make-it or break-it moment in terms of dictating the results narrative. Throughout the quarter-final rounds, gaps formed as the leaders crested the hill well ahead of their competitors. Notably, after two false starts at the beginning of Heat 5, one for technical issues and the second the result of Tatiana Sorina (RSF) jumping the gun, a crash by Johanna Matintalo of Finland forced Sorina well off-course to avoid a tangle though she seemingly was not disqualified for her deviation. Observers of the sport will note that Russian athletes are representing the Russian Ski Federation and not “Russia” during these championships. This is the result of a recent Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling.
Two U.S. women qualified for the heats, Jessie Diggins in 23rd and Sophie Hamilton Caldwell in 26th. Hamilton Caldwell raced in quarterfinal number two where she finished 6th, concluding the day in 29th position. Diggins chose heat four and finished 5th for an overall place of 24th.
After her race, Diggins shared with the U.S. Ski Team, “I am really really excited to be here, first of all, I feel like really lucky that we are getting to race at all. I think this is pretty incredible when I think back to how we were looking at this season back in November, the fact that we have made it here to World Champs and they are happening is really really cool. For me personally, I came into this World Champs feeling like I have prepared the very best that I could. I even tried to acclimate to the heat as much as possible because it is super super hot and sunny here.”
Regarding today’s race Diggins said, “So today, in the qualifier, just went out and I think I definitely was still waking up my body I think from pre-camp so it definitely felt like I need to find that next gear. But was happy to have made it into the heats. And then in my heat, I felt like I did a good job not overheating staying out of the sun when I could. Getting a great warm-up and skis dialed in with Cork. And I think we had very competitive skis. On the last uphill, I definitely was mentally trying to churn the legs and get the gears going and I just felt like my body just ran out of energy. I know I prepared the best I could and now am just focused on hydrating, fueling, getting out of the snow and getting ready for a lot of races up ahead. I am really proud of my effort, I felt like I pushed as hard as I could and I don’t have any regrets.”
In a stacked first semi-final heat, Sundling of Sweden and Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway advanced automatically with both lucky losers also coming from this heat, Norway’s Ane Appelkvist Stenseth and Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic. A false start at the beginning of semi-final number two resulted in a yellow-card for Hagström though she still qualified in second place. Lotta Udnes Weng of Norway had a stumble and fall at the top of the first climb, nearly taking out her sister and fellow competitor, Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR). Tiril Udnes Weng recovered to win the semi-final ahead of Hagström.
For the final, three Norwegians, two Swedes and one Slovenian lined up to complete the first medal event of the 2021 World Championships. For the first climb, the group stayed largely together but as they entered the second and final hill Sundling turned on the burners. Gapping the field, she crested over the top alone, with Falla some paces behind. Entering the final straights, Sundling was unchallenged as she swept across the line, arms raised, to claim her first-ever championship medal.
Behind her, a battle for second and third position was playing out as Lampic was quickly closing in on Falla. Both skiers threw their feet forward for a photo-finish lunge that ultimately went to Falla, leaving Lampic with bronze. Hagström finished fourth, Stenseth fifth and Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR) placed sixth.
Sundling has three individual World Cup victories to her name, all coming from freestyle sprint events. At the Seefeld World Championships in 2019 she finished fourth in the skate sprint. After her victory today Sundling said in an interview with FIS, “I am so so happy, I have dreamt of this and to get this victory, it’s amazing. I’m really really happy.” When asked about the rest of the field she said, “[my competitors] were so strong, it is a fast and tough track and I think everyone did a really good job today and I’m really satisfied to be the first over the finish line of course.”
Falla, the 2019 and 2017 Sprint World Champion, takes home her fifth individual championship medal after placing second. This is Falla’s second international race of the year as she sat out much of the season. For Lampic, this third-place finish marks her first individual World Championship podium. In Seefeld in 2019, Lampic placed second in the team sprint with teammate Katja Visnar.
Racing continues Saturday with a 15 k skiathlon for the women. Looking forward, when asked about her feelings going into the skiathlon Diggins said, “sometimes after a camp especially at altitude, you need to do a hard effort to just sort of blow the rust out of the gears. And so I think that was really great, and yeah it is kind of nice because in skiathlon it is a very different energy system than a sprint. I am really excited to again just send it with everything I have. That is all I can promise, is that I am going to cross the line being totally gassed.”
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.