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We’ve arrived at the final weekend of World Cup racing. After the cancellation of the finals scheduled to take place in Tyumen, Russia and the difficulty of finding a last-minute replacement, these three days of racing in Falun, Sweden will be the culmination of the 2021/22 World Cup season. On a warm sunny day, in full spring conditions, the women executed an exciting classic sprint on the familiar 1.4 k Falun sprint course. With this being the last sprint of the season, it was also a day to cement the places in the running for the overall women’s sprint globe (none of the team events happening Sunday will influence the rankings).
Starting with a bang, Jonna Sundling of Sweden won the qualifier by an astonishing margin of +8.41 seconds, ahead of runner up Jasmi Joensuu of Finland. The American’s put three women into the quarter-finals, led by Rosie Brennan in 7th (+9.61). Julia Kern qualified in 17th position (+12.30), followed by her teammate and roommate, Jessie Diggins in 18th (+12.49).
These were the only three American women competing today as unfortunately some late-stage positive covid tests barred the rest from competing. Having made it through a winter of international travel, living, and competing during the Omicron surge, Hailey Swirbul and Katherine Ogden announced on Monday that they had both tested positive in Norway. Lauren Jortberg, who had her World Cup debut in Lahti, Finland two weeks earlier, came directly to Falun to prepare for this weekend, only to test positive on Wednesday.
No Canadian women made it into the top thirty, their first finisher was Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt in 32nd (+17.54). Katherine Stewart-Jones led a string of fellow country-women, finishing 37th (+19.49), followed by Dahria Beatty in 38th (+19.75) and Jasmine Drolet in 39th (+20.08). After competing at World Juniors in Lygna, Norway, Drolet joined the senior women and made her first World Cup appearance in the Holmenkollen 30 k last weekend where she finished 42nd.
As crowds of fans gathered, the women’s quarterfinals kicked off at 12:15 local time. In the first heat, a fast pace bought three women tickets to the semi finals, led by Anna Svendsen of Norway. After winning the classic sprint qualifier in Drammen, Norway last week only to fall in the quarter finals, Johanna Hagström (SWE), skiing on a home course, made it safely through in second. Kerttu Niskanen of Finland took third but with a fast enough time to snag a lucky loser position.
Heat two was controlled entirely by Sundling as she skied easy out front, spreading the rest of the field. Behind her came Johanna Matintalo of Finland and Julie Myhre of Norway who made it to the semis as the second lucky loser. Brennan (USA) finished fourth, +3.39 behind Sundling, ending her day in 16th overall.
“It was warm and wild out there today,” wrote Brennan after the race. “This course is quite technical and has some challenging downhills which has made it a tough course for me in the past so I was ready to make some progress today. I had a good qualifier and that gave me some confidence for the heats. I had a very stacked heat which can go either way for me. I struggled finding space to move on the uphills which is my strength and that ultimately cost me moving on to the semi-finals by less than a second. In the bigger picture, I do think I made some strong progress on some of my weak spots on this course and I am really excited about that. I am also still feeling good and excited to race which bodes well for the rest of the weekend.”
In heat number three, Anamarija Lampic of Slovenia took on the lead, as Diggins and Moa Lundgren of Sweden chased. Entering the final straight Nadine Fähndrich of Switzerland employed her blistering finish speed to surpass both Diggins and Lundgren, and nearly overtake an unsuspecting Lampic. This left Diggins in fourth place in a heat that was not quick enough to make lucky loser. Diggins ends the sprint season in fourth place in the overall sprint standings with 351 points; having entered the day in third with 339 points, she was bumped off the podium by Sundling.
Heat four saw an easy pace from the gun, with the pack largely staying together. With all six athletes still in touch as they crested the big climb, Kern navigated into third place on the ensuing tight downhill corner. An injection of speed from Maja Dahlqvist (SWE) over the next rise split the pack as Lotta Udnes Weng (NOR) shadowed, followed by Kern still in third. In the long downhill glide-out, Weng overtook the Swede, entering the final corner in first. Right with her were Kern, Dahlqvist and Laura Gimmler of Germany. A close finish saw Kern out double-pole Dahlqvist to take the win, with Weng coming second. However, a disqualification for Weng bumped Dahlqvist into second and thus have her a ticket to the semi-finals.
After a redeeming win in Drammen last week, Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway charged off the startline for heat five. Joensuu (FIN) and Heidi Weng (NOR) took up the chase and eventually overtook Falla on the long descent back into the stadium. Together the two Norwegians pulled away from the Finn as Joensuu faded slightly. Falla finished first and Weng, with a scream of satisfaction, crossed in second.
Echoing her moves from the quarter-final, Sundling (SWE) approached semi-final number one in the same manner, skiing smooth and easy out front. Lampic (SLO) followed with some occasional slips on a mushy course. Those front two continued to pull away, Sundling making it look easy as she found herself well clear of the rest of the competition. Lampic maintained second position and Matintalo (FIN) came in third, though was not quick enough to move onto the final.
In the second semi-final, Falla (NOR) took the lead, again trailed by Weng (NOR). Once again, Kern (USA) moved into third position on the tight middle downhill portion, setting herself up well. A fall from Weng on the next hill took her out of contention as Dahlqvist (SWE) moved into second position, Kern still in third. Switching tracks, Dahlqvist stumbled but managed to stay on her feet as Kern took the lead into the final corner. Kern held onto first position with some strong double poling and behind her Dahlqvist, Falla and Fähndrich all qualified for the final in second through fourth positions respectively.
Making her first sprint final since a stage race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in December, Kern was all smiles on the start line as the athletes lined up for their final round. Right away, Sundling and Lampic began to pull away from the rest of the field. Up the A-climb, Sundling broke into a herringbone, clearly moving fast as she increased her lead. Dahlqvist who had been in third was overtaken by Kern who topped the hill in third. Lampic was holding strong in second, though being chased by Kern. Navigating the remaining corners and descents, Sundling cruised easily to the finish with enough of a lead to give a celebratory wave before crossing the line.
Coincidentally, Sundling won by the same margin over Lampic (+8.41 seconds) as she had on second-place qualifier Joensuu (FIN) earlier this morning. “I don’t know what is behind this result today, but the last weeks I’ve been feeling really good and it’s nice to keep the shape still,” said Sundling after her dominant victory. She added, “I didn’t compete so much in the beginning [of the season] because of injury but my motivation is on top and so is my shape, and it’s just fun to ski right now.”
Behind them, Dahlqvist was finding a second wind in the finish straight and overtook Kern to finish in third. Kern finished fourth, matching her season personal-best from Lenzerheide where she also finished fourth, in a skate sprint.
“[Kern] was really smart through the quarters and semis,” reflected coach Matt Whitcomb, “where she would ski really smooth through the first climb, and position herself really well. And normally what was happening is she was both being smart tactically and feeling very good today and that just led to a break between positions 3 or 4 and allowed her to get away. And her doublenpole punch at the end was as good as I’ve ever seen her today.”
Regarding the final in which Kern seemed to have a lock on third but lost out in the closing stages Whitcomb said, “We talked about if there was a big mistake she made and we decided she could do the same thing 10 times and maybe land on the podium four or five times. She had some stumbles, had those things not happened, it would have been a little bit closer between her and Maja [Dahlqvist], but I don’t want to discredit Maja, she had all kinds of fire in the finish today.”
He added, “It was cool, Julia’s parents are out here today, she has raced well when her parents are watching. It’s important to point out that she was fourth and not fifth, she fended off a hard-charging Fähndrich and we’re really happy with her performance today.”
Listen to the full interview with U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb here.
Kern has put together a string of strong performances in the final period of World Cup racing, placing in the top-10 in each of the last three sprints. These results come on the tails of a first Olympic appearance that left her wanting more, after having rebounded early-season from a 2020/21 season she had described as challenging.
“It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending,” Kern said in a call. “We’ve been on the road for so long now that, after the Olympics, especially, I was feeling excited to go home. But now when things are going well and I’m feeling really good, I don’t want to go home and I don’t want the season to end. I’m happy to end on a high note and find my stride after a frustrating Games. It’s just kind of reminded me how important having some sense of normalcy is, and I’ve kind of embraced that more after the Games. I think that’s paid off, plus some hard work, and I’ve had a little extra fire from the frustration after the games. Happy to end the season this way, and [we have] another shot tomorrow, so I’m excited for that race.”
Commenting on how these strong results and better energy feed momentum, Kern discussed a mid-week training session she felt primed her for today’s sprint.
“Now that I’ve been having really good energy in training… I have to give a big shoutout to our staff. On Tuesday this week, I did an interval workout here on the courses. I had Matt, Kate [Barton], and [tech] Chris Hecker out there with me, racing me around the course doing speeds, throwing elbows, pulling tactical moves, practicing the slingshot. Those types of sessions are super valuable for me when I put the energy to put in a good interval session. I learned so much from that session, and it gave me the confidence here today to ski well in the heats and be ready for anything.”
Kern continued with a laugh that her family is her fourth place good luck charm, as they also watched her race to fourth in Lenzerheide, SUI during the Tour de Ski, ending with a comment on the American team as the season draws to a close.
“I think our team has done a really incredible job, working through all the different colleges this season has brought. When things get tough, we bring out humor and come together. I just feel more and more appreciation for the team. My wax tech Eli and I have worked really hard all season together to start linking together some classic performances. We’ve had four classic races in a row now, and pretty much all personal bests, so that’s been a really fun relationship to build and [I appreciate] all the hard work the wax team puts in.”
Full post-race interview with Julia Kern. Apologies for the bad echo — working through the kinks as we work our way along the audio learning curve.
Dahlqvist already had the sprint globe on lock, but her third place finish today only reinforced her strength in sprint racing this season as she racked up 638 points throughout the year. She began the season with four straight wins and earned a silver medal in the Olympic skate sprint last month. A fourth place finish in Drammen was the only time this season in which she did not finish on the podium in a sprint event.
“It feels really really, super duper good,” said Dahlqvist about taking home the globe. “I’m super happy with that.”
Last year’s sprint globe winner, Anamaria Lampic (SLO) finished second this year with 506 points. After today’s victory, Sundling (SWE) overtook Diggins (USA) to move into third in the sprint standings with 442 points. Delaying her start to the season after sustaining an injury in an early-season FIS race, Sundling’s first World Cup start was Dresden in mid-December where she finished second in the individual skate sprint. She did not take part in the Tour de Ski, but returned to the World Cup circuit in dominant fashion, after collecting three Olympic medals, one of each color, and taking fourth place in the 30 k.
In the final three weekends of World Cup racing, Sundling landing on the podium in four out of the five races she entered, including a third place finish in the legendary Holmenkollen 30 k classic last weekend.
Racing continues tomorrow with a 10 k skate interval start for the women. Sunday will feature two new team events, with a mixed relay happening in the morning followed by a mixed team sprint in the afternoon.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.