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By Ryan Sederquist
Defending team sprint world champions Maja Dahlqvist and Jonna Sundling continued the Swedish women’s sprint dominance with a polished performance and confident victory Saturday morning in Dresden on day two of World Cup action in the German city.
With the city-scape of Saxony’s capital as the backdrop, the pair, who went 1-2 in the individual freestyle sprint on Saturday, got to the front and stayed there.
“We just want to be in front because it’s a tight course,” Dahlqvist told a FIS reporter after the race. With athletes taking six turns each on the 644-meter course, which contains a maximum climb of 14 meters and a total height difference of just 4 meters, opportunities to pull away were low and the chances of crashing were high. In order to stay focused on their job, maintaining a lead was crucial for the dynamic duo.
“It’s difficult because [there are] people everywhere,” Sundling said when asked how she and Dahlqvist kept their calm in the bunched-up chaos. “The equipment – you want to keep it like it is – no broken poles and stuff. So, it’s difficult to focus on the right thing, but when you’re in the front, it’s easier.”
The Swedes did have some company at the front throughout the 11 exchanges. One of the early challenges came from the Jessie Diggins – Julia Kern pairing, who qualified with the top time out of semifinal B.
Kern explained post-race that staying near the leaders was part of their strategy heading into the team sprint.
“Jessie and I focused a lot on executing clean and fast tags, and tried to remain as far front in the pack as possible,” Kern said. “There is so much traffic and tangles that we wanted to avoid as much of that as possible. There was a strong headwind which made leading more costly, but it still is advantageous especially given how fast and firm the track was.”
Another surprise at the front was from Finland. The team of U23 athletes, Jasmi Joensuu and Jasmin Kahara, nabbed the final automatic qualifying spot in the first semifinal. Despite squeaking into the final, the young women made their presence known throughout the race, moving alongside Sundling and Dalqvist into second at the end of the tenth lap before ultimately finishing in fourth.
With Sundling leading off, Sweden set the pace through the first four laps, with different nations taking turns at their shoulder. Russia I took lap two, Norway II took lap three, and Slovenia, led by Anamarija Lampic, who was third in the individual yesterday, popped in on lap four. The Americans, who placed Diggins as their lead-off skier, patiently bided their time, content to sit in the tight grouping and stay on their skis. Unfortunately, a wrench was about to be thrown into that plan.
On lap five, Diggins moved into second place. Coming around the penultimate turn, she swung to the outside and was tangled up with Eva Urevc of Slovenia, who tumbled over the top of the 2018 Olympic gold medalist in the event. Diggins kept her cool, quickly rose to her feet, and skied hard to the next exchange. She tagged off to Kern 4.1 seconds back.
“I got back our places as quickly and efficiently as I could,” Diggins told FasterSkier after the race. She also noted that she is headed into Christmas break with a fresh set of bruises to go along with her podium cheese.
“I’m always proud of the ‘never give up attitude’ and I think it really paid off for us today. We didn’t panic, we just skied as smooth and smart and hard as we could.”
After the crash, Kern and Diggins kept their composure and gradually crawled back into contention. Kern explained post-race that Diggins had also crashed in the semifinal, which evidenced how they could rebound.
“I think the crashes actually lit the fire for Jessie and I,” Kern wrote in a text. “It got us ready to fight back. I had full confidence in Jessie that she would ski right back on to the group in the semifinal and that is exactly what she did. We remained very calm in the process which was key. So come the finals when it happened again, I just smiled a little since I wasn’t worried one bit and knew we would just do the same thing as the semi finals. I had confidence in how we were both skiing and feeling out there, and crashes are almost always a part of the game in Dresden.”
By the next exchange, Kern had already lopped off 1.8 seconds of the deficit. By lap eight, Diggins was just 1.5 seconds out of the lead, which still belonged to Sweden. Going into lap nine, all of the major contenders were back. Trailing Sweden were the upstart Finns (+0.3), the United States (+0.6), and Russia (+1.1). The only key player seemingly out of the running was Slovenia, who sat 4.7 seconds out of the lead.
On the final lap, Sundling, the 26-year old two-time World Championship gold medalist, rocketed from the exchange zone with a stern tempo. Diggins matched it, slipping behind the sprint specialist.
At the final exchange, Diggins handed off to Kern 0.5 seconds from Sweden. Slovenia, with Lampic to close, was in fourth, a mere 1.9 seconds back.
In the final lap, Dahlqvist, who was a member of the pairings that won the team sprint World Championship title in 2019 and 2021, bided her time, happy to cruise through the first straightaway. After the first hairpin turn, she accelerated to a comfortable lead, leaving the competition in the wake of her strong V2-alternate strides.
Coming into the homestretch, Dahlqvist coasted across the line in first (15:45.81). Meanwhile, Kern was being challenged by Lampic, who had moved in front of Finland on the final bend. A great sprinter on the flats, Kern held off the three-time World Championship medalist, stretching her boot forward at the line for second (+1.11), with Lampic rounding out the podium to put Slovenia in third (+1.21).
The last time a United States team earned a World Cup podium in the team sprint was in Jan. 2018 when Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton took third in Dresden. Today was also Kern’s second-ever World Cup podium. She was third in the Planica individual sprint on Dec. 21, 2019.
We’ve seen Kern excel on fast and flat courses before, and asked whether 24-year-old identified this style of racing as a strength.
“I think flat courses have been more of an advantage for me the past, but I feel my fitness is better this year so I actually enjoy the hills too,” Kern explained. “But given my background growing up skiing at the Weston ski track [outside of Boston, MA] on a golf course growing up, skiing on a flat, turny, manmade snow course, I always feel right at home in Dresden.”
On approaching this style of racing, in comparison to typical World Cup courses with more climbing, Kern explained how she modifies her focus.
“I don’t necessarily change my technique on the flatter course, but focus on staying stable and trying to use my legs as much as possible. I played around with a few different technique cues during training this week since the hardest part on the salted, icy fast snow is generating speed without wobbling or rushing the motions.”
Diggins, a veteran in the event, spoke highly of her partner’s efforts in Dresden.
“Wow – I’m so proud of Julia. She was confident and smooth,” said Diggins fondly. “It was a bit of a battlefield out there. You really had to fight for position and she did so with such grace and poise and power and speed. I’m really, really proud of her.”
Here’s the full audio clip from Diggins:
A second American contingent of Hailey Swirbul and Hannah Halvorsen skied to 8th (+2.74) in a tight Semifinal A, but did not advance into the final.
As Period 1 draws to a close, we take a look at the current World Cup standings. Diggins now sits in fifth place in the overall standings, trailing teammate Rosie Brennan by nine points in fourth. Maja Dahlqvist is the overall leader with 464 points. Dahlqvist, who has won every sprint this season, also leads the sprint standings, more than doubling the points of second place Lampic from Slovenia. Diggins in the third-place position in sprinting heading into the Tour de Ski.