This World Cup coverage is made possible through the generous support of Marty and Kathy Hall and A Hall Mark of Excellence Award. To learn more about A Hall Mark of Excellence Award, or to learn how you can support FasterSkier’s coverage, please contact email@example.com.
As the World Cup entered its third day of racing in Toblach for a 4 x 7.5 km Team Relay, the tone was one of anticipation: what would happen in the race? Even more so, what was beyond this final day in the Italian Sud Tirol? This was the last race before a two week hiatus in the World Cup schedule, after which the best skiers in the world will gather in Planica, Slovenia for the World Championships.
Looking forward to those championships, fans and spectators may anticipate the familiar site of another Norwegian relay victory. Today in Toblach, Norway I (Heidi Weng, Anne Kjersti Kalvaa, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, Silje Theodorsen) won the 15th of its last 16 World Cup relays, setting the stage for a showdown with Team Sweden at the World Championships in Planica. Sweden I (Emma Ribom, Ebba Andersson, Moa Ilar, Jonna Sundling) was second on the day. USA I (Hailey Swirbul, Rosie Brennan, Jessie Diggins, Julia Kern) would finish the relay as the fourth team across the line, but would later be elevated to third place after the disqualification of the German team (more on the later). USA II finished seventh with the young team of Alayna Sonneysn, Alexandra Lawson, Sarah Goble, and Lauren Jortberg.
Team relays are the intersection where team tactics meet individual and collective will. The relays staged in Toblach would also hint at choices that national teams were likely to make in weeks to come as they prepare for World Championships. For the United States, Toblach was a chance to try out a new lineup in preparation for making a run at a World Championship medal. The most recent World Cup-level team relay happened at the Beijing Olympics, where the US Women took sixth place. In that race, Swirbul scrambled (first leg), Brennan took second leg, Novie McCabe took third leg, and Diggins anchored. In Toblach, Swirbul and Brennan still skied first and second classic legs for USA I, but Diggins moved to the third (and 1st skate) leg, as Julia Kern—following her strong sprint results this season—took the anchor leg.
The most notable team tactics on the field today concerned the Swedish Women’s team, which has been the dominant team at these World Cup races in Toblach, and throughout the season. Sweden fielded two teams in Toblach, but the lineup shuffle within those two was a clear deviation from their strongest possible lineup. Of the team that won a Bronze at the Beijing Olympic Team Relay—Maja Dahlqvist, Ebba Andersson, Frida Karlsson, and Jonna Sundling—Karlsson was absent from the lineup. Dahlqvist would lead Sweden II, while Sundling and Andersson joined Sweden I. Dahlqvist’s Sweden II team also included Linn Svahn, who decided to withdraw from the relay after start lists were made, meaning that Sweden II would start the race, but scratch after the third leg.
All of that decision-making still led to a familiar sight when the race started: Heidi Weng surging to the front in the first leg. Norway’s Women had won 14 of the last 15 relay events on the World Cup, and Heidi Weng has been in the line-up for the past 11 of those wins. Her first leg in Toblach was an early hint that the winning trend among Norwegian team relays would continue today. A pack formed as Weng was joined by Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Finland. All the main players present in World Cup relays of the past were back to challenge once again.
Weng handed off to Anne Kjersti Kalvaa, who leveraged the advantage into a definitive split in the field. The only woman to follow the Norwegian was Katharina Hennig for Germany, who arrived as an unassuming, yet unsurprising, presence at the front of Team Relay field. Despite Hennig being the only German Women to have individually podiumed in the last three seasons of World Cup racing, the Germans have had a strong contingent of women present near the top 15 places of the World Cup. Germany won silver in the Beijing Olympic Team Relay (Hennig, Victoria Carl, Katerine Sauebrey, and Sofie Krehl) ahead of many of the notable individual names from other nations that populate podiums week-to-week on the World Cup.
As the Norwegians looked to open a gap early in the race, the German’s strongest skier was right there to continue on the move from Gimmler in the first leg. Hennig skied confidently up with Kalvaa, and the pairing would form the lead pack alongside Ebba Andersson for Sweden I, who kept with her recent streak of strong skiing by pushing the lead group into a pack that held through the 3rd leg of the race. Pia Fink held the pace for the Germans through the 3rd leg as Oestberg pushed the pace for Norway, as Sweden I faded. Norway’s anchor, Theodorsen, conducted a masterclass closing leg, taking control a kilometer out from the finish-line and driving all the way through. Germany’s Sofie Krehl couldn’t keep up, and Theodorsen finished in the arms of her teammates. The Norwegians had won their 15th in 16 tries at the World Cup Team Relay.
Clad in the striped relay socks of Team USA, Swirbul handed off to Brennan in fourth place. Brennan knew the hard task ahead of her, saying in post-race comments that “Leg 2 is a hard one that tends to be pretty stacked with strong distance skiers,” said Brennan. “So I knew I had my work cut out for me. I wanted to ski my own race in an effort to minimalize time lost, [which] I felt like I did well, but still managed to lose more time than I would have liked…I felt we all had some good battles out there and also know where we need to look to improve.”
Brennan’s hand-off to Jessie Diggins found the Americans 41 seconds off the lead group, and Diggins went straight into reducing that gap. Diggins didn’t let up, going into the unrelenting turn-over that has become her signature on the World Cup. When she caught Ilar (Sweden I) near the end of her leg, the full scope of Brennan and Diggins combined move had become clear. In a Team Relay, where the field can string out, paces can drop, and energy can falter, the Americans had attacked every meter of the course with jolting energy today.
That energy was transferred to their anchor, Kern, whose rival in the race for third was none other than the weekend’s sprint champion, Sundling (Sweden I). As Sofie Krehl led the Germans across the line to claim second, Kern continued to do battle with Sundling. They swept into the stadium, Sundling went out from behind Kern and gained a slight advantage in the run-up. Kern pushed again, but ran out of room. The pair lunged across the line with Sundling .2 seconds ahead of Kern: Sweden I in third, USA I in fourth.
Across the line would prove a key phrase in the post-race melee. When final results were posted, it was revealed that the race jury disqualified the 2nd place German team for “participating under false pretenses.” The FIS International Competition Rule cited was “ICR 352.2.2.,” a vague piece of international competition law can be translated as “who was on the course was not who was on the start list.” In this case, Krehl had been substituted for Colleta Rydzek after official start lists had been made. The decision to disqualify Germany meant that the USA I was elevated to third place. It was a strange, but auspicious, sign for the Team USA as they look toward making the podium at World Championships in the same event in just a few weeks. In post-race comments, Rosie Brennan said “Germany’s disqualification [was] something I haven’t ever experienced before and was certainly unfortunate. That is not how I want to land on the podium. They all skied really strong legs. It’s unfortunate that the athletes have to take the hit there.”
Lauren Jortberg smiled into her teammates’ arms in seventh place. With her crossing the finish line, came a symbolic close on the sequence of the World Cup that has served as a broad introduction for the young skiers that made up USA II today. For Jortberg and Sonnesyn, that has meant an introduction to the demands of racing the World Cup calendar with all challenges that commitment brings. For Goble and Lawson, Toblach marks the end of the beginning of their World Cup careers. In comments to FasterSkier, Alex Lawson said, “The biggest thing I took into and out of Toblach is to be confident in myself! [The World Cup] is a different scene, field, and venue but it is still a ski race and something that I have spent years training for.”
Lawson’s reflections on her first World Cup will serve as wisdom for all the Team USA as they look ahead in the season’s calendar. Next up for the American women is the event that the season has been building towards: World Championships begin in Planica, Slovenia on Tuesday, February 21st with a 5 k Freestyle Individual Start. The Americans are sure to come into Planica the way they left Toblach today, with a persistent drive and energy, fighting for every second.
Women’s 4 x 7.5 km Team Relay RESULTS
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.