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And now for something completely different. The skate team sprint.
Three roughly 1-kilometer loops each for 7.2 k total, relatively flat with just two brief upticks per lap, winding back and forth along the valley floor in Oberstdorf, Germany. Would the terrain be enough for one team to pull away from others or would it be an empty-the-tank last two laps, fighting for every centimeter?
From semifinal A, advanced the Swedish team of Maja Dahlqvist and Jonna Sundling, who won their heat by nearly two seconds ahead of the Russian Ski Federation (RSF), represented by Yulia Stupak and Natalia Nepryaeva, Norway, and Finland. Three teams finished within a second in Semifinal B, with Slovenia’s Eva Urevc and Anamarija Lampic edging out Rosie Brennan and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen for the U.S., and the Swiss Women, Laurien van der Graaff and Nadine Fähndrich. Germany and the Czech Republic also advanced from the second wave of semis.
Note that four teams advanced from each heat of the semifinals with the next two fastest times, a change from the usual top two teams plus six fastest times. This change was made based on the weather and conditions on the course.
So far in this World Championship, Brennan had only raced the classic sprint qualifier and Maubet Bjornsen not at all, perhaps leaving them fresh for this competition. American voices could be heard shouting words of encouragement as the women toiled around the course as a large group through the first four exchanges. At the third exchange at 3.6 k, the US was sitting in fifth, 2.3 seconds behind Sweden in the lead and in contact.
Slowly, Sweden began to turn up the dial, building intensity. However, as the final laps took off, any ground Dahlqvist gained on her competitors was closed as they descended off the first roller and headed into the primary climb of the course. It was here that RSF’s Stupak began to challenge, duking it out with Dahlqvist but unable to pull away.
After the final change, it was Sweden and RSF at the front, with a small gap to Norway, the U.S., and Switzerland with Slovenia a few meters back.
In the final lap, the tempo accelerated, poles whipped through the air, and any predictions of what might happen were laid wayside.
As Sundling tried to pull away, Fähndrich quickly closed the gap to the front, skiing at the Swede’s hip. Nepryaeva began to fall off the pace, and was being caught by Maubet Bjornsen and Lampic. Though Sundling and Fähndrich held ground at the front, the podium was within reach for each nation.
At the top of the intermediate climb and on the outside of the left-hand curve, Maubet Bjornsen ski was caught in a tangle, dropping her to her knee and stalling her momentum at an inopportune moment. The American rebounded quickly but was no longer able to fight for the top spots.
Making their way for the last time up the primary climb, Sweden and Switzerland, alone up-front, created a small gap to Nepryaeva. Meanwhile, Lampic of Slovenia was closing in and looking strong.
Sundling was first into the final lanes, with Fähndrich a ski length behind, matching but not able to overtake the Swede. The women soared to the finish with Sweden holding its ground for the win, Switzerland finishing just under a second behind for the silver medal.
“It was so fun to race today,” Dahlqvist told FIS after the race. “But it was hard too, the conditions were a little warm. It was easier in the qualification.”
Sundling was asked whether she knew how close behind Fähndrich was in the final meters.
“I heard there was someone behind me, but I just had my focus on the finish line and to cross it first.”
Fighting for bronze, Lampic out-sprinted Nepyraeva to bring home a medal for Slovenia (+3.46), leaving RSF in fourth (+3.95).
The women of Sweden have made their sprint prowess well known this season and were favored to win their third World Championship medal in this event, piggybacking on the 2019 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Dahlqvist led the team there too, with Stina Nilsson as the anchor. Both members of today’s Swedish team were coming off of strong results in the opening classic sprint, where Sundling collected a gold medal.
However, a medal for Switzerland and Slovenia, while not unexpected, is perhaps a more novel result. The duo of Van der Graaff and Fähndrich won the team sprint in Dresden, Germany earlier this season, but this is the historic first Swiss medal in the event and the first women’s medal for Switzerland since 1987, a bronze earned by Evi Kratzer in the 5k classic.
“We always said we want that medal,” Van der Graaff told the Swiss news outlet SRF. And now it’s there! No idea, the emotions are there. It’s incredible.”
Commenting on when they knew they could celebrate, Fähndrich replied, “I was only really sure when I crossed the line. She had tagged off to me in a great position, with only a little bit of a gap to [positions] one and two. Then I felt that those athletes around me tried a little to play tactical games, but I just thought no, I had to risk it because I felt good. I just knew ‘all out now’!”
Despite the size of their team and country, the Slovenian team of Urevc and Lampic took 3rd in Dresden and won the most recent World Cup team sprint in Ulricehamn, Sweden. Slovenia also took silver in the 2019 Championships in Seefeld. Taking home her second medal of this Championship, 25-year-old Lampic also leads the overall World Cup sprint standings.
Finishing alone, Maubet Bjornsen brought the American women home in fifth (+5.83), matching the team’s result in this event at the 2019 World Championships.
When asked if they were left wanting, Brennan gave an optimistic and grateful response:
“I’m actually really happy with it,” she said. “It’s been, quite literally, a career-long dream to do a team sprint with Sadie. She’s been a best friend and training partner for the entirety of my professional career, so I was just so happy and excited to even get this opportunity. I know that we are capable of more on any given day, but that’s ski racing — you go out there and you give it your all. Some days you win, some you don’t. But it was honestly a pretty special day for me.”
Perhaps envisioning the hang-up in the last lap, Maubet Bjornsen discussed the degradation of the course between the semifinal and final. She explained that the tracks were fast, firm, and tactical in the final, becoming more dangerous as the transformed snow began to break down and accumulate on the surface. In these deeper conditions, Maubet Bjornsen explained that a skier must be aware of their equipment at all times to stay upright and powerful.
However, reflecting on their performance, she too focused on the positive, commenting on the years and hours the two have spent training and racing together throughout their careers, beginning as juniors.
“I feel like we skied an awesome race,” Maubet Bjornsen said. “Unfortunately, I got stepped on the first uphill which took me out of the draft and I couldn’t quite find the gear to come back to [the group]. Which is a bummer because my skis were incredible and I feel like if I would have been with those girls over the top of the second climb it could have been a medal day, but like Rosie said, you can never count on that, but I think it’s pretty cool that my number one training buddy and me were in a fight for a medal. That’s pretty neat. If you would have asked us that at 14-years-old, beating on each other, we would have laughed at you. So I think if we brought our 14-year-old selves here, we’d be pretty darn proud.”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646