Racing at the joint Canadian Nationals/US SuperTour Finals resumed on Wednesday, showcasing some of the best racers in North America facing off for a classic sprint.
As the Whistler Olympic Park was home for cross country skiing during the 2010 Vancouver Games, the classic sprint course on Wednesday was one that played host to an important stepping stone in North American skiing history. In that competition, both American and Canadian skiers solidified the inroads they had made into the top echelons of the sport through the burgeoning discipline of sprinting. Names like Kikkan Randall (USA), Daria Gaiazova (CAN), Chandra Crawford (CAN), Devon Kershaw (CAN), and Simi Hamilton (USA) all qualified for heats, while gracing the television screens of many athletes who now, twelve years later, carried momentum from those inspiring performances onto today’s start line in Whistler.
If my waxing nostalgia about those 2010 Olympics is making you open a new tab to see if they’re available to revisit on YouTube, let me help you: they are! But before you go, let me send you an assignment: watch how Marit Bjørgen and Justyna Kowalczyk race the final on the 1.2 k course (the men raced a 1.4 k course). Ok, here’s the link (46:16 for the final, and yes, the genders are flipped in the title).
What you’ll have seen if you completed this FasterSkier sidequest (trademark pending) is that the rolling course at Whistler presented two distinct tactical options for the skiers who made it into the heats on Wednesday. One: the Kowalczyk – attack on the steep climb that left the stadium to try and create a gap on the field that would hold as you went into the first downhill and leave you with an advantage on the second (and final) climb, or two: the Bjørgen – hold onto the pace-setter until the second hill, when a punchy attack could leave a skier with a distinct advantage going into the mostly downhill approach to the stadium and subsequent final stretch. The latter approach worked in 2010 for Bjørgen, but 2022 was twelve years on and a different field with the SuperTour.
Before we got to the heats, however, we, and the skiers, had to go through qualifying.
The Classic Sprint started off with the women’s champion in the 10 k Classic yesterday, Julia Kern (SMS T2). And after every racer in the women’s field completed the course, Kern finished in first too (3:11.14). Her qualifier was commanding, with second place Dahria Beatty (Whitehorse) +6.58 seconds back. In third place was Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) (+7.54), in a field that otherwise was tight all the way through to the last heat qualifier, 30th place Mariah Bredal (BSF) (+21.37).
The men’s field that followed proved to be an even tighter affair. At the top of the field, less than a second split first place Andreas Kirkeng (Denver University) (3:09.82), second place Luke Jager (University of Utah) (+0.41) and third place Logan Hanneman (APU) (+0.88). It was only +11.97 seconds back to the last heat qualifier in 30th place, Montana State’s Reed Godfrey.
In the women’s open quarterfinals, the top qualifiers were able to win their heats handily. Julia Kern turned in the fastest quarterfinal in the field, finishing first in a time of 3:29.93, ahead of Novie McCabe (+1.93), who advanced to the semifinals by taking second place. Kern’s fast pace-setting in heat one proved to animate the field from the gun, and third place Zoë Williams (Nakkertok) was rewarded for keeping pace with one of the lucky loser spots (+3.56).
That pattern held in the 2nd heat, when a pack loaded with talent including Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury), Alexandra Lawson (Craftsbury), Sydney Palmer-Leger (University of Utah), Sophia Laukli (University of Utah) and Cendrine Brown (Fondeurs-Laurentides) set a furious pace from the start and held it all the way through. In a five-person sprint, Patterson took first (3:32.13), and Lawson second (+0.55), to take the automatic semi-final bids. In third place, Sydney Palmer-Leger (+1.47) took the other lucky loser spot.
When the first semi-final took to the start-line, it was filled with five skiers from those first two quarterfinals, with the sixth, 16-year-old Samantha Smith (Sun Valley), having won the third quarterfinal (3:36.43). It was no surprise then, when the “fast from the gun” tactics of those quarterfinals followed into the semis. Julia Kern (SMS T2) again attacked as soon as they hit the first incline out of the stadium, and held her lead throughout. The only skier that proved to be able to match her pace through the course was Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury), and it would be those two who took the automatic advancement places to the finals; Kern in first (3:34.27) and Patterson second (+3:35.27).
Behind them, two of the youngest bright stars of US women’s skiing had shown their intrepid ability to match their older counterparts, with Palmer-Leger (UU) taking third place (+3.47) and Novie McCabe (UU) taking fourth (+3.74) in a sprint ahead of Samantha Smith (Sun Valley) (+4.03). For their efforts, the third and fourth place pairing advanced to the finals.
In the second semi-final, previous Canadian Sprint National Champion Dahria Beatty (Whitehorse) was able to take first place (3:38.39) ahead of second place Laurence Dumais (Fondeurs-Laurentides) (+0.34) for the second heat in a row. They finished strong in a pack that otherwise remained tight throughout, and created separation in the last stretch to finish ahead of third place Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) (+1.18) and fourth place Katharine Ogden (SMS T2) (+3.45).
The final field then, was set. For the overall win, four US women – Julia Kern (SMS T2), Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury), Sydney Palmer-Leger (UU), and Novie McCabe (UU) – and two Canadian women – Dahria Beatty (Whitehorse) and Laurence Dumais (Fondeurs-Laurentides) – would compete. That latter pairing also made the matter of the Canadian Sprint National title on the line simple; a duel between Beatty and Dumais.
Kern, spurred on by her success racing hard from the gun all day, went for it again. In an interview with Nordiq Canada she said, “All day I just wanted to ‘send it’ – practice skiing hard and not taking any chances out there. My form and fitness is really good so I wanted to try and not leave it until the end.”
The whole field was tasked with matching her confidence…and her speed. As in the semi-finals before, just one was up to the task the whole 1.2 k through; Caitlin Patterson. Behind her, Dahria Beatty led a charge to try and keep pace, but as she said in an interview with Nordiq Canada “I was confident in my finish but trying not to lose time on the uphills today. Unfortunately, [in the final], I let a gap open up to Caitlin [Patterson] and wasn’t able to close back on that.”
And “send it” Kern did in the final. Kern took the pace out hot from the start. With a look over her shoulder, she saw that she had gapped the field by the top of the long striding climb, a position which she held, despite a bobble on the tight left hand curve on the subsequent descent, comfortably through the finish to win by several seconds.
Patterson having lead the chase group after a gap throughout the heat, found herself sprinting with a powerful doublepole into the stadium to hold her ground in second place.
Behind them, the race for the last podium spot coalesced around Beatty, Palmer-Leger and McCabe. As they entered the stadium together, Beatty stuck to a strategy that her coach pointed out earlier in the day, “it was working really well to try and go in the outside in the finish chute because people hadn’t skied there in the qualifier.”
With that bit of tactical maneuvering, she opened up a gap on the two UU teammates behind her, and came across the line in third place overall (+6.16). In doing so, she also came across with a Canadian National title – her second Canadian Sprint title (and first classic). Following her in the Canadian Nationals race was second place Laurence Dumais (Fondeurs-Laurentide), who finished the finals heat in 6th place (+21.57). Based on her time in the semi-final, Zoë Williams (Nakkertok) took third place.
Kern’s win marked her second in a row at SuperTour finals this week, which have been marked by all sorts of varying conditions that she has used to her advantage, saying to Nordiq Canada:
“I love variable conditions. Everyone says if it’s a rainy day, it’s a Julia Kern day – I’ve thrived under those conditions before…it makes you have to adjust your skiing and that makes you a better athlete.”
The men’s quarterfinals saw a similar pattern to the women’s, with experienced sprinters grouping together in heats, attacking early, and producing fast times that punctuated the number of racers they sent to the semi-finals. For the men that happened in quarterfinal two, with Graham Ritchie (Georgian Nordic), Antoine Cyr (Skinouk), Kjetil Bånerud (Northern Michigan), Bill Harmeyer (SMS T2), and Étienne Hébert (Montériski) all pushing each other to the line. When the five skiers came into the final stretch, it ended up being Ritchie (3:23.11) and Cyr (+0.32) who took the first and second spots, respectively. Both lucky losers came from the heat, with Bånerud in third (+0.95) and Harmeyer fourth (+1.73).
Ritchie, Cyr, and Harmeyer would all meet again in the first semi-final. There, they were joined by Andreas Kirkeng (DU), Logan Diekmann (BSF), and Magnus Bøe (CU). With tight racing throughout, Kirkeng was able to gain an advantage and hold off all challengers as he advanced to the final in first place (3:22.97) ahead of second place Antoine Cyr (+0.83). The aggressive tactics of Ritchie and Cyr again proved to push the entire field forward, with Ritchie the benefactor when his third place finish (+1.47) secured him a lucky loser spot alongside fourth place Logan Diekmann (+2.76).
The second semi-final, meanwhile, was a duel between the young stars from both sides of the 49th parallel. American Luke Jager (UU) and Canadian Xavier McKeever battled to a sprint finish in which Jager took first place (3:23.34) and McKeever took second (+0.50) to advance to the finals.
Jager and McKeever stepped up alongside Antoine Cyr (Skinouk), Andreas Kirkeng (DU), Graham Ritchie (Georgian Nordic), Magnus Bøe (CU) and Logan Diekmann (BSF). The two young skiers showed no signs of timidness against their older competitors. Jager launched an attack on the first hill that opened a gap as the field rounded the corner leading into the final climb. McKeever was back in the field, looking to “limit damage, if I’m honest” as he said in an interview with Nordiq Canada.
He followed Graham Ritchie, who was leading the charge to try and catch up to Jager. When they crested the hill, Ritchie, McKeever, and Kirkeng had all managed that feat – joining up with Jager as they went into the downhill leading to the stadium.
McKeever was still at a disadvantage though, back in the pack, when the curious mix of rain, ice, and sunshine that had worked the snow at Whistler park all day became a factor. As McKeever said to Nordiq Canada, “going into the downhill I had insane boards, and was able to glide back up to the leaders and double-pole from a good position.”
When he found himself in that good position he could hardly believe it, “I was just stoked to be in the final and top-three in Canada. Going into that finish was insane, and I knew I had to get to the finish line as quickly as possible to try and steal [the National title].”
What he categorized as stealing, we’ll categorize as earned. The 18 year-old out-sprinted North America’s best head-to-head, winning the overall race, and his first Canadian National title in a time of 3:19.72. Behind him in second place was fellow Canadian Antoine Cyr (+1.38), with Luke Jager rewarded for his long-range attack with a third place overall (+1.99). Graham Ritchie, finishing fifth overall, rounded out the Canadian Nationals podium (+4.13) after a day of leading out attacks in every heat he raced.
It a promising indicator for Canada’s young up-and-comers with McKeever taking on a field of North America’s best and eeking out a win. For McKeever though, the race was only a preparation for bigger things to come, saying post-race that, “I’ve had some really good sprints this year, so I just wanted to try and challenge myself [racing up] since this is the course that we’ll be racing at World Juniors next year.”
Racing continues Friday with a freestyle team sprint, which can be live-streamed here.
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.