FALUN, Sweden — Even the sky had predictions for Sweden. Without a cloud in sight, cerulean blue and a golden sun served as Falun’s backdrop for the opening race of the 2017/2018 World Cup Finals on Friday: the 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint.
Exactly nine weeks ago in the city sprint held in Dresden, Germany, Sweden’s Hanna Falk was showing shades of greatness. In the first race of the new year, the 28-year-old Swede claimed the Dresden freestyle sprint title for her first World Cup victory since 2010.
With the final sprint of the season taking place on the Falun ski trails, where Falk — a member of Sweden’s national team — spends most of her time training, the statistics were levied. All signs pointed to Sweden, in particular, Falk.
With one group of fans holding a banner that read “Falk för President” and still more waving the national flag, Falk won Friday’s Falun sprint final in 3:08.25 minutes, finishing the last sprint of the season the same way she started the new year: in first.
“This is just great to win here in Sweden. It’s my second victory this season and I am so happy that my parents are here to see it,” Falk said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
Falk started Friday with the fastest qualifying time of 2:59.88 (she remained the only woman to dip below the three-minute mark throughout the entirety of the day on the 1.4 k course).
Later, when Falk learned that the season’s overall sprint leader, Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, would not advance to the final (American Sophie Caldwell and Norway’s Silje Øyre Slind snagged the two lucky loser spots in the final instead), Falk took a calculated approach for the final heat. She would be in control.
“With Maiken not in the final I knew that the pace might not be so high so I went for it on the second climb to make sure I had a good gap on the long downhill,” Falk told FIS.
From the start, Falk set the pace, leading through the first hill while Sweden’s Jonna Sundling and Anna Dyvik, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, Slind, and Caldwell followed.
In the first descent, Falk maintained her position at the front, while Dyvik swung to her outside left and Bjørgen, Sundling and Caldwell clung just behind. Slind tucked in just behind in sixth.
Heading into the second uphill, Falk remained at the front with Dyvik matching her pace. Just before the crest of the hill, the eventual race winner visibly slowed, the rest of the field following suit. A half second later, Falk burst back to life, snapping over the top of the climb and putting close to two meters between herself and the group as they cornered back to the stadium.
Chasing Falk on the descent was Bjørgen, then Dyvik and Sundling. Slind raced just behind them in fifth and Caldwell behind her in sixth. Coming into the final stretch, it was Falk in first, now at least three meters ahead. Sundling had moved around Dyvik and Bjørgen into second, leaving those two to battle for third.
Falk ultimately crossed first for her fourth-career individual World Cup victory, 0.53 seconds ahead of Sundling in second. Holding off a charge from Dyvik, Bjørgen crossed third, 1.4 seconds behind Falk.
In fourth was Dyvik (+1.72), followed by Slind in fifth (+4.30) and Caldwell in sixth (+6.99). The sprint finish marked Caldwell’s ninth World Cup top 10 this season. Additionally, the American finished eighth in the classic sprint at the Olympics last month in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Caldwell reached Friday’s final by qualifying in 16th, then winning the fourth quarterfinal and taking third in a photo finish with Slind (who followed in fourth) in the second semifinal. The top-four women from that semi all advanced to the final was fast-enough times.
Caldwell Achieves Goal of Top 3 in Sprint World Cup
While Falk’s win boosted the Swede from fifth to fourth in the final Sprint World Cup standings, Caldwell retained her podium position ahead of her in third. For the first time in her career, the 28-year-old Caldwell finished in the top-three of the overall Sprint World Cup.
Thinking back two years, Caldwell could remember a conversation she had with U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb about race goals. Whitcomb wanted Caldwell to write down goal in particular: to be in the Sprint World Cup overall top three.
“At the time I was like, ‘Eh, no, that seems pretty far off,’” Caldwell reflected in a post-race interview with FasterSkier.
“I remember she was a bit sheepish when we suggested it,” Whitcomb told FasterSkier on Friday.
Yet on Friday, Caldwell looked on from the podium as an American flag rose in honor of her third-place finish in the overall sprint standings. With a total of 396 points, Caldwell claimed third behind Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who had 495 points for second, and Norway’s Falla in first with 573 points.
“We were really psyched that she took after it because, all of us coaches, really believed it could be done,” Whitcomb said.
“I was of course thrilled to be up there today,” Caldwell said. “It’s been a good season with some really good results, but I think maybe what I am most proud of is just the consistency of my season — making it into the semifinals almost every sprint and skiing with confidence throughout the year.”
Though Caldwell expressed that results can be gratifying, they are not the be-all and end-all of her ski career nor what she attributes to her and the U.S. team’s momentum.
“My hope is that people back home see this team not only for our results, but also for the friendships we have and the atmosphere we have going on in this team,” Caldwell said. “I think this team has come so far … It started with Kikkan [Randall] sneaking into the top 30, then Kikkan finding herself on the podium, then Kikkan winning. She sort of showed us all that we could do it, too, and pulled us up with her, believed in us so that we could believe in ourselves. Now on any given weekend it could be any one of us on that podium, which is really cool.”
Falla, who finished Friday’s sprint in eighth after being eliminated in the semifinals, won the overall sprint title for the third-straight season, this time by 78 points over Nilsson in second after Nilsson missed Friday’s sprint due to illness.
“For sure I wanted to be able to fight for the podium today but I made a mistake in the semifinal and I wasn’t able to get back into position to advance,” Falla told FIS after finishing fourth in the first semifinal behind Falk, Sundling and American Jessie Diggins, respectively. “But I can’t be too upset as I have won my third Crystal Globe and I am very proud of that.”
Three Americans in Top 10
Rounding out the rest of Friday’s freestyle-sprint top 10 was Diggins in seventh, her U.S. teammate Sadie Bjornsen in ninth and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter in 10th.
After racing to second place in the first quarterfinal behind Falk, Bjornsen automatically advanced to the first semifinal. Diggins won the third quarterfinal to advance to the first semifinal as well.
In the semis, Diggins finished third, 0.42 seconds behind Falk in first and just 0.08 seconds behind Sundling, who automatically advanced in second.
Bjornsen followed in fifth, 0.87 seconds out of first, behind Falla in fourth (+0.68). Aside from the top two in that first semifinal, no one from that heat advanced to the final.
To start the day, Diggins had qualified for the rounds with the second-fastest time, 1.65 seconds behind Falk, while Bjornsen qualified in fourth (+2.96).
“I definitely felt really good about how my body feels. I guess I was wishing for a bit more today,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier after. “For the last sprint of the year it was a fun way to end, leaving something to hope for.”
The last World Cup sprint of her career, American Kikkan Randall qualified for the heats in 18th before advancing to the same quarterfinal as Diggins. While Diggins gapped the field by the final downhill back toward the stadium and won the heat, Randall remained in contention to automatically advance in second until the last lunge to the line. There, Randall finished third, 3.14 seconds behind Diggins and just 0.1 seconds shy of second place, which went to Ingemarsdotter.
“I did not feel good in the first half of that heat; my body just wasn’t quite warm yet,” Randall told FasterSkier after. “I just tried to keep myself in there.”
Randall was disappointed not to advance past the quarterfinals in her last sprint, but when asked to reflect on the season as a whole, the 35 year old remained thoughtful.
“I was really happy to be able to start a family and come back. I think that went as well as I could have hoped,” Randall said. “And even though it took some patience at times … and the season didn’t go exactly as I planned, with the foot injury mid-season, I came around big at the Olympics this year and happy that I was able to get back in form when I needed to.
“I’m glad I stuck with it this long,” she continued. “I’m just trying to enjoy the last bit of time with my teammates, my staff and all the World Cup friends.”
After the disqualification of Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva for her second yellow card (due to a false start in her quarterfinal), American Ida Sargent finished the day in 36th, followed by Rosie Brennan in 49th, Caitlin Patterson in 63rd, Liz Stephen in 66th, Kaitlynn Miller in 69th, and Rosie Frankowski in 75th.
Emily Nishikawa was the top Canadian woman in 40th, Dahria Beatty finished 48th, Cendrine Browne 60th, and Zina Kocher 71st.
— Harald Zimmer, Andrea Potyondy-Smith and Alex Kochon contributed