Day 3 of the Sovereign Lake race week brought a skate sprint on a shorter course and warmer weather: -10C with no wind and occasional light snow.
Wednesday and Thursday were Nordiq Cup events, with only U20 and Open categories. Saturday and Sunday are Canada Cup races, with the addition of U18 and U16 categories, resulting in 402 racers across the eight groups. All four race days are part of the US SuperTour.
All groups completed the 1.2km qualifiers first, starting at 8:30am, and the heats ran from 11am until 4pm, finishing 1 minute ahead of schedule. Though today’s skate course incorporates one meter more of climbing than Wednesday’s classic course (37m total skate climb, compared to 36m on the classic course), many athletes described the feel of skate course as flatter. For comparison, the fastest women’s qualifier on the skate course—APU’s Hailey Swirbul (USA)—finished in 2:46.77, significantly faster than her 4:10.99 win in Wednesday’s classic sprint on a slightly longer 1.3km course.
Men’s Freestyle Sprint
The men raced first today, with University of Denver’s (DU) Andreas Kirkeng (NOR) taking the victory in 2:20.30. Dartmouth’s John Steel Hagenbuch (USA) was second, at 0.07 back, with Black Jack’s Julien Locke (CAN) in third at 0.54 seconds behind. Tom Mancini (U Utah, FRA) who won Wednesday’s classic sprint was fourth, followed by Bridger’s Graham Houtsma (USA) and teammate Finn O’Connell (USA).
Kirkeng liked the course: “It’s a flat course, but you don’t have any rests so every small uphill, over the top, transitions, turns, everything matters in this course. The finish is really hard . . . 25 seconds with slightly uphill and a long flat section to the finish line. So the finish is really hard and that’s coming after like two minutes with all out flat skiing so it’s a challenging course, not like in terms of steep hills and a lot of climbing, but just because you have to ski fast and be on top of everything all the way.”
As with many of the podium finishers, Kirkeng tried to save energy for the end.
“For the final, I plan to stay like in third, fourth position and go all out from like the last turn, up and under the bridge, and it worked out real well,” he told FasterSkier. “[Hagenbuch] was coming real fast like the last 100 meters but I managed to stay in front of him.”
“I actually did better than I thought considering I’m usually a distance skier,” Hagenbuch said. “And it was super fun out there. I think, tactically, I was kind of doing the same thing, where I was sitting back a little bit for the first part of the course, and then really pushing on the final hill through the finish.”
Hagenbuch liked the course: “it’s super fun. It’s fast. And obviously a very competitive field here today.”
Locke was the top Canadian, expressing satisfaction with the day as he builds back from injury. He pushed hard into the ‘hole’ descent and led the climb back to the bridge.
“My tactics in all the heats was just cruise the first half and then try to have some good punch at the end,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have great legs in the finishing straight. But it was not a bad day; a step in the right direction for me.”
Many racers would be happy with a SuperTour/Canada Cup podium under any circumstances, but skiers reach the top by always chasing the next target, each success leading to a higher goal.
Women’s Freestyle Sprint
After the men’s open and U20 heats completed, it was the women’s turn. “It was a really fun and exciting day,” top qualifier, Swirbul, told FasterSkier. “It’s a shorter sprint course than last time so it was fun to do some real sprinting and tactics.”
Swirbul wanted to try something new today: “I’m normally a racer that will kind of hammer from the gun. So today I challenged myself to try to play more strategy and try and sit behind people into that last downhill. In the last downhill, I’ve tried to free skate as hard as I could and carry as much speed into the final corner and up into the last climb into the drag race in.”
Swirbul won the final in 2:43.02, 0.87 seconds ahead of Bridger’s Sarah Goble (USA). U of Colorado’s Weronika Kaleta (POL) completed the podium, 1.17 seconds back.
Goble was happy with her hard finishing tactics in the earlier heats: “I tried to do that again in the final when I was in third, and I pushed over the top of the hill to put myself into second and kind of control the race through there,” Goble said. “And then Hailey had a really good final push to the finish but [I] couldn’t quite hang.”
Kaleta was very happy with her racing and sticking to her plan: “I wanted hard to be controlled, make sure that I save some energy for the last part. So I tried to do it and I guess I did it quite great.”
U of Utah’s Sydney Palmer Leger (USA) continued her solid week in 4th at 3.49 behind, followed by top Canadian Liliane Gagnon from CNEPH and Team Birkie’s Erin Bianco (USA).
U20 skiers who qualified in the top 30 were automatically moved to the Open heats. Sun Valley’s Samantha Smith (USA) and Chelsea Nordiq’s Tory Audet (CAN), both born in 2005, ‘raced up’ in the U20 group, and qualified into the Open heats where they were eliminated in separate semi-finals.
Asked about the challenge of racing in the open heats instead of U18, Audet was direct: “I love it. I love the competition,” she told FasterSkier. “World juniors would be probably the biggest goal this year. And then a national title would be awesome. Due to COVID and then a concussion last year, I wasn’t able to attend.”
As Canada ignores the U18 championships, Audet is targeting U20 World Championships in Whistler in late January.
Many of the skiers appreciated the race volunteers at these Sovereign Lake events, but Hagenbuch may have phrased it best: “Sovereign put on a great event. The volunteers have been great. I think they’re gonna be out here for something like nine hours today. So pretty Herculean effort. So big thanks to all the volunteers for their hard work and another day of racing tomorrow.”