Ogden and Schoonmaker Miss Skate Sprint Final by Narrowest of Margins as Klaebo Wins Again

Ben TheyerlDecember 3, 2022

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Ben Ogden (USA) raced boldly on Saturday, finishing less than a boot’s-length away from the World Cup Sprint Final. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Lillehammer, Norway—that most timeless of ski venues—provided viewers with a familiar scene on Saturday: Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo exiting the final turn in the lead, gliding away from the field en route to an easy win in an individual skate sprint. It was the 32nd win of his career in the event—exactly double the number of any other skier in history. The man behind him on that list—Federico Pellegrino (ITA)—was also 2nd behind him on the day. Even the name of the skier in 3rd place—Northug—fit the scene, though in this iteration the Northug was Even, not Petter. 

So it was that the first skate sprint of the 2022-2023 season ended with a podium that could have been plucked from any skate sprint in the past half-decade. Partially because of that fact—and because Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo first staked his ground in the event before moving on to also dominating every other discipline of skiing—the skate sprint has become the archetypal stand-in for this current era of cross-country skiing.

Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR) celebrates down the finishing stretch during Saturday’s World Cup Sprint Final. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Anyone looking for winds of change in the sport would probably want to watch for little changes in the landscape of a World Cup skate sprint. On Saturday in Lillehammer, those little changes came clad in Stars and Stripes, as Americans Ben Ogden and JC Schoonmaker finished the day in 7th and 8th, respectively. Luke Jager also qualified for the heats, finishing in 27th. Three Americans in the heats, two contending in the semifinals; a year ago, that would’ve been cause for hopeful surprise, as the young potential of this current generation of young men began to peak through onto the sport’s highest level. At the beginning of this season, however, today’s qualifying crop marked more of a hopeful progression, as that group of American men looked to expand on a newfound comfort in World Cup sprinting that they’ve gained over the course of last season.

That progression was on full display once the heats started rolling. Ogden would ski out of the fourth quarterfinal heat, taking the inside lane alongside seasoned veterans Erik Valnes (NOR) and James Clugnet (GBR). Ogden marked moves by Valnes and Clugnet as they charged the uphill. Around the sharp-left that marked the beginning of lap two into the downhill again, Ogden moved to the outside, swept around the corner into the hill, and this time led the charge rather than marking it. By the time the field hit the long flat of the Lillehammer stadium, Ogden was clear in front, allowing him to avoid a tangle-up involving Valnes and Clugnet. Clugnet broke a pole and lost the chance to advance to the semifinal.

Ogden’s strategic success may be indicative of big things to come:  the skier who last spring in an interview with FasterSkier claimed that he “[is] not known for my detailed race plans” had out-witted and out-skied competitors who are fixtures in World Cup sprint fields. In an interview with FasterSkier  US Ski Team Head Coach, Matt Whitcomb, said that Ogden’s patience was a noticeable difference between this week’s sprint and last week in Ruka. “When Ben was leading in the heats today, he wasn’t spazzing like he was in Ruka, he was controlled. [That meant] that when he did go—he hit the gas pedal—the vehicle went a lot faster.”

Those same patient-minded tactics were the hallmark of the American’s approach throughout the day. In the next quarterfinal heat after Ogden’s, Luke Jager followed JC Schoonmaker as the latter executed the same plan. Jager fell off the pace just at the end, but Schoonmaker held off all-comers, including Richard Jouve (FRA), to win the heat and advance to the semi-finals.

Luke Jager (USA) during qualification on Saturday. He would advance to the quarterfinals, and finish the day in 27th. (Photo: NordicFocus)

On this nuanced approach to the day’s heats, US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb pointed to Schoonmaker, Ogden, and Jager’s experience gained over the past year. “When you struggle through a season and qualify once or twice, you don’t get very much sprint experience,” Whitcomb said. “Once you get to a point where you are getting through the quarterfinals, your experience starts to double each day. And that’s what we are seeing: a year of skiing into heats and skiing them aggressively.”

Whitcomb also stressed that the key lesson learned for the talented American sprinters was patience. “For athletes that have that natural…[what I’d call] Tesla power, the key is to not use too many matches early in the heat,” Whitcomb said.

The American pair of Ogden and Schoonmaker held steady on that patience while starting together in the second semi-final of the day. In that heat, they were outnumbered by a Norwegian contingent that included World Cup Overall leader Paal Golberg, Ansgar Evensen, and Erik Valnes. The Norwegians also appeared to approach the heat with a preference for patience. A furious pace from the gun quickly gave way to a kind of stalemate in which Ogden found himself at the front of the pack, leading the first climb alongside Evensen. Paal Golberg tucked comfortably behind Ogden (indicating that Norway and USA were attempting to utilize similar tactics) as they went into the second turn around the downhill. Ogden moved to the outside; Golberg, Jouve, Evensen and Schoonmaker followed; and the five came into the stadium together. That was the crystallizing moment for the Americans on the day. Ogden and Schoonmaker, in a semi-final, fending off the World Cup Overall leader and Richard Jouve, the only other skier in the world than Klaebo to have won a skate sprint this calendar year.

Ben Ogden (USA) stretches for the line in his semifinal. Ogden finished 3rd in the heat, with JC Schoonmaker (USA) 4th. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The Americans came up just short. Golberg won the heat, besting Evensen by a boot throw. The patience of Ogden and Schoonmaker in the beginning of this relatively slow heat likely cost them a shot at the lucky loser times, as they finished 3rd and 4th, respectively. Thus, the American’s maturity was met with some decidedly bitter irony. Still, it was mature racing, and will surely be marked by a mature analysis.

In the opposite semi-final, four Norwegians matched up against Federico Pellegrino and a twenty year-old Swede named Edvin Anger making only his 3rd World Cup start. The Swede’s second start was last weekend in the Ruka Classic Sprint, where he showed a propensity for racing at full gas from the beginning of each and every heat. That crashed spectacularly in Ruka, as he was spit out the back of the pack in the semi-final, but it didn’t change his approach this week. 

Anger went hard from the gun, the Norwegians filed in, Klaebo moved out from the back and moved to the front, and everyone else sprint for 2nd. This time though, Anger kept the pace. He advanced to his first sprint final, and in the process animated the pace to the degree that 3rd place Pellegrino and 4th place Even Northug advanced to the final with the lucky loser times.

Federico Pellegrino (ITA), who finished 2nd on the day after earning a lucky loser spot into the Final. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The final began as a near-replay of this semi-final: Anger went out hard, the Norwegians filed in, Klaebo moved out from the back and moved to the front, and everyone else sprint for 2nd. There was a change to the script, though: the old veteran, Federico Pellegrino, had seen Anger’s move in the semi-final, and decided to follow him this time. Result: the old veteran passed up the new kid on the block, and solidified second place on the day. Klaebo 1st place, Pellegrino 2nd place, Northug 3rd place.

The established champions still had their way, for now.

On his day progressing to the cusp of the final, Ben Ogden said in an email to FasterSkier that:

“today is a massive step for me in my [sprint progression from last year]. My goals this year are to feel more control and composure in the quarterfinal and advance regularly. Today was huge for that confidence and I’m really happy with how things turned out. Always hungry for more, but [today] was satisfying.”

JC Schoonmaker also emphasized that experience was the most important quality to his sprint success, saying in an email with FasterSkier that:

“It is tough to be so close to making it to the final, but with better tactics I know it is possible. A lot of heat skiing for me has been gaining experience and making sure that I’m learning from every race I compete in.”

Schoonmaker added that the highlight of the day was lining up next to his teammate Luke Jager in the quarterfinal, “Racing that with Luke was more fun than anything really.”

Tune in next Friday in Beitostolen to see where the boys sprint from here…


Full Results

Qualifying | Heats

Federico Pellegrino (ITA), Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR) and Even Northug (NOR), (l-r) take the freestyle sprint podium in Lillehammer, Norway.
(Photo: NordicFocus)

Ben Theyerl

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.

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