With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil the last of its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to the North American Performances of the Year in cross-country, biathlon and nordic combined.
Previous categories: Junior Skiers of the Year | Collegiate Skiers of the Year | Biathletes of the Year| Para-Nordic Skiers of the Year | NoCo Skier of the Year | Canadian Breakthrough Skiers of the Year | American Breakthrough Skiers of the Year| Coach of the Year | U.S. Continental Skiers of the Year| Canadian Continental Skiers of the Year| International Performances of the Year | International Skiers of the Year
Women’s Cross-Country: U.S. Women’s Olympic Gold in Team Sprint
It had been 42 years since the last U.S. medal in an Olympic cross-country event, that being Bill Koch’s silver medal from the 1976 Winter Games. Never before had a U.S. woman taken home any Olympic hardware. Never before had an American taken home gold. Not until this year’s freestyle team sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
With the Alpensia ski trails serving as their backdrop, U.S. Ski Team teammates Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins paired up to win the first U.S. women’s Olympic cross-country medal. The duo bested European nordic powerhouses, such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as 17 other teams, to win the much-sought-after gold.
While Randall matched Norway’s Marit Bjørgen and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in her legs of the 6 x 1.25-kilometer race, Diggins paced Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson. Thanks to tactical skiing by Randall, 35, and tenacious moves by Diggins, 26, the Americans put the Swedes and Norwegians behind and the U.S. in front.
“We came into this race just knowing that if we skied smart and doing our jobs, good things could happen,” Randall told FasterSkier after the race. “We never really talked about medals. We said let’s just go out and do it and have fun. I think that really worked well for us today.”
Men’s Cross-Country: U.S. Junior Men’s Relay ( Luke Jager, Ben Ogden, Hunter Wonders, and Gus Schumacher) 2nd at Junior World Championships
In early February, the U.S. junior men’s 4 x 5 k relay team went all-in at Junior World Championships in Goms, Switzerland. In their medal quest, the American team, with Luke Jager, Ben Ogden, Hunter Wonders, and Gus Schumacher, passed two teams on Schumacher’s anchor leg and came close to catching Norway, too, ultimately placing second, 2.2 seconds behind Norway in first.
The silver-medal finish is the best American relay result to date at a Junior Worlds championships. They finished 3.3 seconds ahead of Russia, which placed third, for a new mark for the U.S. team.
“I thought it was possible, but actually getting it feels amazing,” Schumacher wrote in an email to FasterSkier after the race. “This whole trip has been really cool even without this success, it’s such an amazing place and the team is tight. I think individually I anticipated results maybe a little better, but this seems about right, and as a team I think we all surprised ourselves. Together we can make some big waves.”
Jager also attributed the team’s success to the particular chemistry of the group.
“This is something this group of guys has been dreaming of and training for for a really long time now,” Jager wrote in an email.
“To be able to watch that dream come into fruition today was indescribable. Probably the best day of my life since Cole Morgan added me on Snapchat,” Jager continued. “We came here this year to show the world that US skiing is the real deal and that we’re here to stay and I think we did that. To be able to be a piece of that history was an honor.”
Honorable Mention: Sophie Caldwell 3rd in Sprint World Cup
Two years ago, Sophie Caldwell, encouraged by the U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, made a goal of finishing in top three of the season-long Sprint World Cup. By the end of this winter, she achieved that goal, closing out the 2017/2018 season in third place with a total of 396 points. Just ahead of Caldwell with 495 points was Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in second and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla in first with 573 points.
Caldwell’s race season was littered with strong sprint performances, with the 28 year old finishing in the top 10 in all but one of the sprint races she entered. She made it to the finals in four of the 10 World Cup sprints she raced and landed on the podium three times.
During World Cup Period 1, she finished eighth in the classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland, ninth in the classic sprint in Lillehammer, Norway, and eighth in the freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland. Her first podium of the season came at the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, where she finished second in the freestyle sprint.
Moving on to Period 2, Caldwell opened the second cycle of World Cup racing with another top-three, finishing third in the freestyle sprint in Dresden, Germany. In the classic sprint in Planica, Slovenia, she tied Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graff for first place in the freestyle sprint in Seefeld, Austria.
Following the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea (where she raced to an eighth place in the classic sprint), Caldwell raced to eighth in the World Cup freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, 27th in the classic sprint in Drammen, Norway, and sixth in the freestyle sprint at World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.
“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,” Caldwell told FasterSkier in Falun.
“We were really psyched that she took after it because, all of us coaches, really believed it could be done,” Whitcomb had said of Calwell.
Honorable Mention: Alex Harvey 3rd Overall in Tour de Ski
Even Alex Harvey will admit, the Tour de Ski’s final stage hill climb has long been his weakness.
“I have been well-ranked up until the last stage a few years in a row, but just never been able to quite do it on the last stage,” Harvey had told FasterSkier in early January following the Tour.
This year, by the Stage 7 hill climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Harvey had found his form.
The 29-year-old Canadian raced to third in the Tour, behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in second and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby in second.
Prior to this season, Harvey had finished in 20th in the overall in 2011 and 40th in 2012. For a few years, the Canadian did not finish the Tour due to circulatory problems in his legs, which particularly plagued him when skate skiing up hills. In the spring of 2015, he had surgery to remedy that.
In 2016, he finished 14th in the Tour de Ski (TdS), and last year, he bumped up to seventh. This season’s third place is his first in the TdS overall top three.
“I still tried to go by Sundby at the end, he had a little bit more than me,” Harvey told FasterSkier. “It is good terrain for him, a steady climb like that. He is such a strong climber — it was simply good I was able to just hang onto him until the end.”
Men’s Biathlon: U.S. Men’s Relay (Lowell Bailey, Sean Doherty, Tim Burke, Leif Nordgren), 6th place at Olympics
Individually, the 2018 Olympics were below expectations for the U.S. men’s biathlon team. The four men who competed only notched one top-30 result combined — Tim Burke placing 17th in the pursuit.
But the men’s relay, the very last biathlon competition of the Games, was another story. In a topsy-turvy race with a lot of wind and a lot of penalty loops, the Americans stayed right in it. Less than a minute out of the lead at the halfway point, they finished sixth (+3:50.2), tying the best relay result ever by an American team at any Olympics.
“On a day like today, you saw that France was in the loop, now Germany, so the top nations are in there,” Lowell Bailey said at the time. “I cannot tell you how challenging this range is. It is so much different than most of the other ranges we shoot on.”
Best ever? Yes. But Leif Nordgren and Sean Doherty, the two team members who are not retiring, were left wanting more.
“Honestly it is a little disappointing,” Nordgren said after. “I know we were gunning a lot more as a team. I had some mistakes there in prone, too. That hurt a lot since we were right there in contention with some top teams in the world.”
Women’s Biathlon: Rosanna Crawford 3rd in Ruhpolding World Cup 15 k
The women’s performance award goes to someone who had a podium coming for a long time. And in Ruhpolding, Germany, this year, Rosanna Crawford finally got it.
She shot 20-for-20 in the 15 k individual, the most grueling race format on the women’s schedule. And then she pushed her hardest over the course’s big hills to hang on to a top-three finish. One of the last starters in the field, she mixed up the podium after the pre-race favorites had already finished and perhaps had thought their positions were secure.
“I actually didn’t know I was fighting for a podium until the fourth loop,” Crawford told FasterSkier on the phone after the race. “I was like, Oh God! But I think that kind of helped, because then I knew to expect the crowd for the last standing.”
It was a big day for the Canadian team, too: their last podium was when the men’s relay won bronze at 2016 World Championships. A lot has changed since then, including a tough season in 2016-2017 for many of the team’s veterans.
But Crawford bounced back.
“Julia [Ransom], Emma [Lunder] and Sarah [Beaudry], they kind of pushed past the IBU guys [into the finish zone], which I don’t think they were allowed to do, but Canada’s not on the podium every day so they let them sneak by to give me a hug so that was really special,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “I’ve been with these girls the past couple years now and so to be able to celebrate with them is amazing. Their results have been so inspiring for me … [My coach Roddy Ward] also jumped the fence, which I don’t think was allowed, so that was nice to be able to see him as well. It’s just such a team effort to get to the podium. I’m the one out there skiing and shooting, but I couldn’t have done it without the amazing skis on my feet or my coaches behind the scope, so Matthias and Roddy were really important there, and I couldn’t have done it without the girls who I train with all summer. I’m just so grateful for this team that I’m on.”
Nordic Combined: Ben Loomis 3rd at Junior World Championships & Bryan Fletcher 7th in last race
Nineteen-year-old Ben Loomis already received our nod for Junior Skier of the Year, but his bronze-medal performance at Nordic Combined Junior World Championships deserves “Performance of the Year” accolades as well.
At his fourth and final Junior Worlds, Loomis jumped to seventh and raced to third in the first competition in Kandersteg, Switzerland.
“Taking a step on the podium was an excellent feeling today,” Loomis wrote in an email to FasterSkier after that normal hill/10 k. “I have been working very hard, especially towards this specific race for a long time now. Accomplishing this is a huge relief and very motivating for the future.”
He went on to race to seventh and finally a fourth place in the other two individual competitions at 2018 Nordic Combined Junior Worlds. Then he competed in three events at his first Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
But his main goal for the season, and his main goal for the last two years, had been to take a medal at Junior Worlds.
“I’ve always done pretty well against juniors my same age so that gave me confidence going into Junior Worlds,” he told FasterSkier in an email earlier this month. “Of course, I was very happy and at the same time relieved to have meet my goal. This result was huge because it not only helped myself out, but it opened up another World Cup spot which is a help for the whole team. This certainly made everyone happy.”
Then, there was U.S. Nordic Combined’s team veteran, Bryan Fletcher, who placed seventh in the last World Cup race of his career — tying his best result of the 2017/2018 season. He was our pick for this year’s Nordic Combined Skier of the Year, and we think they way he ended his career is worthy of recognition in this category as well.
On March 14 in Trondheim, Norway, the 31-year-old Fletcher jumped to 12th then skied to seventh in the large hill/individual 10 k, posting the seventh-fastest 10 k time in the process. Fletcher scored World Cup points by finishing the the top 30 of nine of 10 individual races he entered. He also placed 17th in two individual races at the Olympics.
“I think that it’s going to be bittersweet,” Fletcher said of his retirement in a video interview with FIS. “I’m happy that it’s over and that I’ve gotten to experience the whole journey. But it’ll also be a little sad because it’s a long journey coming to an end … and there’s going to be a lot of things to remember and miss of this sport.”