It had been more than a month since Sophia Laukli last wore a race bib. Her last competitions took place on January 15th and 16th during the 2022 Sun Valley Nordic Invitational, where she was second to Rosie Brennan in the 5 k individual start skate, racing at altitude on a tough course. Eleven days prior, she was the fifth woman, and the first American, to the top of the Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy during the final stage of the Tour de Ski.
Earlier in the season, Laukli popped a Top-20 at altitude in Davos, Switzerland, finishing 19th in the 10 k individual start skate.
It’s become clear: Laukli is a contender in freestyle distance races, and the harder (and higher) the better.
Heading into the Games, Laukli knew she would be starting the 30 k mass start freestyle. Given the elevation, the challenge of the course, the technique, and the distance, perhaps this selection by the coaches was a no-brainer.
“I love this course,” Laukli said of the venue in Zhangjiakou in a post-race interview with FasterSkier in the mixed zone. “The hills really work to my advantage.”
But no one could have predicted just how challenging the day would be. Wind ripped across open sections of the course, forcing athletes to drop into low gears even on flatter sections just to stay upright and moving forward. Most athletes wore large strips of tape across their faces, with buffs covering all remaining exposed skin save for their mouths and noses.
The American women showed they could handle whatever Zhangjiakou threw at them that day. Highlighted by Jessie Diggins silver medal performance – earned while fighting through painful cramping and fatigue after spending two days with food poisoning – the team put all four starters inside the top-20. Rosie Brennan skied to 6th, with Laukli in 15th, and Novie McCabe 18th.
But Laukli was almost 13th.
With only a few hundred meters to go, Laukli made a wrong turn, accidentally following the lap course rather than the route to the finish lanes.
How did it happen?
“I honestly don’t know exactly,” Laukli said in the mixed zone. “There was a huge gust of wind that kind of covered where it was marked ‘finish’ and ‘lap’, and I think it was a combination of [being] tired and not really seeing where to go. I definitely noticed a little bit too late, and then got passed, but I guess those things happen. I’m definitely a little bit bummed out. But I’m happy with the overall race.”
Laukli is not the only athlete to have made a wrong turn at the Olympics. A wrong turn during the 30 k classic might have cost Austria’s Theresa Stadlober a medal at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. There’s adrenaline, fatigue, nerves, and so many other factors at play, without wind gusts lifting clouds of dry loose snow into the air in the stadium.
“I’m bummed for her,” said coach Chris Grover, “that she lost two places, because she worked hard for those… but she did the right thing, retracing her steps all the way back, and that’s one of the lessons that you do once on the big show and then you never do it again. Jessie did it in Sochi.”
Having one of the best races of her season during her first and only appearance at the 2018 Games, Laukli admitted she felt panicked as she backtracked to the split to avoid disqualification. Having come to a stop and lost all momentum, it was devastating to see a pair of Norwegian twins, Lotta and Tiril Udnes Weng, skiing fast with a tailwind toward the final bend into the stadium. There was nothing Laukli could do to avoid losing those two places.
But to her coaches and supporters, this wrong turn was not the defining moment of Laukli’s Olympic debut.
Laukli showed mental toughness, dedication, and patience as she spent the three weeks prior to the 30 k training in Zhangjiakou, watching, supporting, and celebrating her teammates as they raced in earlier events, while trying to stay focused on her own opportunity that was yet to come.
“It was definitely not the easiest last month,” she told FasterSkier. “I really love racing, and so to have such a long break and just wanting to race, it was a bit tough.”
She explained that, without races as a fitness checkpoint, she poured herself into her training to maintain her race shape, but ultimately was not sure what would happen on race day.
“I think I was lucky in that it was a 30 k – it’s maybe easier to race a 30 k when you’re not in your fastest form, because it’s just a slower race. So I think that helped a lot.”
At the 10 k mark, Laukli sat in 15th, racing on the back of a large chase group led by Rosie Brennan. Over the next 5 k, a group of three, including Laukli, lost contact with this group and slowly separated. For the second half of the race, as the wind “really, really picked up”, Laukli found herself racing on her own with no one to work with or use as a wind break. At times, the headwind was so strong that Laukli said she ended up fighting it in V1 as she lapped through the false flat of the stadium at 22.5 k.
Ever onward, Laukli kept pushing, eventually overtaking a Latvian athlete who began to fade to find herself in 13th – 13th in the world at the Olympics – with a roughly 45 second gap to the next skier in the final kilometer.
“I felt like I was able to pace it pretty well,” she said. “It was definitely a bummer that I had to see most of it alone because I think it would have been beneficial to be in a group. But I did my best and I’m pretty proud of how it went.”
While the takeaway here should remain that Laukli posted a top-15 result in her first Olympic performance at 21-years-old in some of the gnarliest conditions imaginable, the sting was still painful as she passed through the mixed zone.
“I’m probably in a better place than I was the minute after I finished. But to be honest, I’m pretty pissed. I really wanted to prove myself today, to prove that I earned that start. And just to make such a stupid, preventable mistake at the end… I was not stoked. But like I said, that happens, I guess. It sucks that it’s at the Olympics in my Olympic debut, but yeah, not a lot I can do about it now.”
Perhaps Nat Herz said it best as their conversation in the mixed zone ended.
“As a guy who watches a lot of these races, I don’t think anyone’s gonna hold it against you, or remember it in however many years.”
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