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By Ben Theyerl
Friday in Ruka, under the dim lights of an Arctic Circle sky, was the moment that potential energy – a new season and new names – converted into something kinetic for both U.S. skiing and the World Cup at-large. Under hats, glasses, moleskin, and buffs were some decidedly fresh faces, not just mixing it up in an event with Olympic and World Champions, but beating them too.
And one of them did beat them all. Alexander Terentev, a 22-year old Russian who won the U23 World Championship in the Classic Sprint last season, looked to have no problems taking the step up to the senior circuit. Terentev won the qualifying round with a second to spare (2:31.13) over second place Richard Jouve (+1.62) and third place Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (+1.72).
If young potential was representing a country in Ruka, however, it would have been draped in an American flag. JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Luke Jager all qualified for heats and did it decisively in 5th (+3.01), 8th (+3.68), and 17th (+6.43), respectively.
It was another moment in U.S. skiing – think the World Championship double podium in 2015, or the Olympic gold medal in 2018 – where things changed in an instant. Before the qualifying round today, there was a group of young American men with the potential to achieve great results at the sport’s highest level. After it, that potential had been realized.
“A lot of us, in this country, have seen this coming. But it’s a different thing to see it actually arrive. They announced with their qualifications today that we’re here, and they weren’t just coming in under the buzzer, they were locked in.” said U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb in a post-race interview with FasterSkier.
Full audio clip from post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb
With a Top-8 spot in a freestyle sprint guaranteeing a spot on the Olympic Team, Schoonmaker, Ogden, and Jager also took a step forward toward pursuing their dreams.
Schoonmaker’s fifth place qualifying put him in pole position against the home crowd, with Finnish skier Joni Maki taking the place next to him on the start line. Schoonmaker went in with a clear tactic: “I was trying to take it easier in the beginning and stay relaxed for that final climb,” he said, and when the final climb did come he was able to “get a lane to myself and just ski away from the pack a little bit.”
Maki outpaced him on the final stretch, but Schoonmaker held on to make it to the semifinals.
Jager and Ogden lined up together against current World Cup Sprint Champion Federico Pellegrino in the next quarter-final. An early fall took Pellegrino out of the competition, which led to the still somewhat unusual sight of two Americans and two Swedes battling it out up the final climb in a World Cup.
The Swedes would take the top two spots, outlasting a late burst of speed up the final climb from Ben Ogden that Luke Jager followed. Ogden finished third in the heat with Jager just behind him.
Schoonmaker advancing to the semis put him in a position to finish in the Top-12. Joni Maki and H.S. Taugboel hit the base of the final climb in first and second, with Schoonmaker joined by a pair of Swedes – Marcus Grate and Anton Persson – in pursuit. That pursuit met trouble rounding the final corner, with the two Swedes and Schoonmaker briefly stumbling over each other.
“I got caught up with two Swedish guys. I think it was just ski racing, I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. We were skiing close to each other and no one wanted to give any one else space” Schoonmaker said on the tangle.
Schoonmaker would finish the heat in third, but the incident left him seven seconds off the lucky loser mark.
Schoonmaker finished in seventh place on the day. This was a huge milestone that both he and Coach Matt Whitcomb attributed to great tactical thinking, aggressive skiing on the day, and perhaps most importantly, having two of his American teammates alongside him.
“Having [Ben and Luke] warming up for the heats with me was a huge help. We were just loose and having a good time.” said Schoonmaker.
Whitcomb, meanwhile, went for an apt metaphor for an American team finding success in a traditionally European sport, “People want to know how our guys are doing it, and I think if you watched Ted Lasso – Luke, Ben, and JC could probably have lead roles in that show.”
In the other semi, Terentev met up with last year’s Ruka sprint champion Erik Valnes and runner-up Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Terentev quickly established the pattern he raced the 1.4-kilometer loop in all day – leading out the field in the first climb, before tucking in as they hit the first downhill, and then looking to overpower the field on the last climb. In a Norwegian-heavy heat, Pål Golberg ended up pushed out in front, while Klæbo seemed for most of the race to be off the pace.
The push up the last climb saw Valnes lead the move to overtake Golberg with Terentev following. Klæbo, meanwhile, recovered to finish fourth place behind Richard Jouve (FRA), who took third. Klæbo looked to be out, but the stumble in the opposite heat meant that he would have a chance in the final as a lucky loser.
After an unpredictable and exciting day, the final ended up strangely reaffirming what we knew about the day and about the World Cup. Terentev was the strongest out of the gate , and the strongest up the final climb. We learned that on the day. Klæbo is still able to control a field tactically, and make skiing plain fun to watch. We learned that years ago, but it looks to be a fact for another season.
As the field crawled to a stop going into the first downhill on the course, it was Klæbo who shot around them, daring skiers a few years his junior to keep up. Today, Terentev could not only keep up but win, while Klæbo came out ahead of Erik Valnes for second and third, respectively.
And as for another thing we know about the World Cup: that the American men are a rising force, and as fans, it will be thrilling to witness their trajectory.
Reflecting on his 7th-place finish in an interview with FasterSkier, JC Schoonmaker shared the following:
“It feels great. I’m not necessarily looking at the result, but really happy with how I raced today and how I felt. I felt confident going into the heats, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. It’s great to know I can ski with those guys.”
And on his biggest takeaway:
“It was great to see three young American guys skiing aggressively in the heats. That was an awesome feeling.”
Full audio clip from post-race interview with JC Schoonmaker:
Outside of the heats for the U.S., Logan Hanneman finished in 33rd (+8.26), with Gus Schumacher in 56th (+11.71) and Kevin Bolger in 57th (+11.71).