Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi’s mountain village and one of its 2014 Olympic venues, is nowhere near Dasha Gaiazova’s birthplace just outside Moscow. In fact, it’s almost 1,700 kilometers south of the Russian capital and a day’s drive away.
But Sunday, the 29-year-old Canadian transplant who spent her formative years in Banff, Alberta, found herself right at home in the 6 x 1.25-kilometer classic team sprint, the last of three pre-Olympic races in Krasnaya Polyana.
Some Russian fans knew her story, and they cheered her on as she rounded the course six times – three in the semifinal and three in the final.
Gaiazova and teammate Perianne Jones successfully advanced out of the semis in third with a fast-enough time despite slowing conditions under sunny skis. In the final, Jones got off to a slippery start and tagged off to Gaiazova in 10th, five seconds out of the lead. She handed her skis to her husband and wax tech, Joel Jacques, and begged for more kick.
Meanwhile, Gaiazova began clawing her team closer to the front, where Finland and Russia’s B-team steadily increased the pace. First through the first two laps, Finland’s Mona-Liisa Malvalehto and Anne Kyllönen proceeded to switch leads with Russia’s Julia Ivanova and Natalia Matveeva on the second leg.
Canada worked to pick of the places, moving all the way to sixth. On the final go-around, Jones burst out of the exchange and brought the team to fifth, 3.8 seconds behind Russia and 2.7 behind Finland in first and second, respectively. Norway stood between them in third, but Gaiazova took care of that, passing Celine Brun-Lie on the last lap.
Working her way up the long climb toward the stadium, Gaiazova heard one voice. There could’ve been dozens cheering her on, but it was Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth who got through to her.
Pushing hard up and over, Gaiazova gained on Russia’s Matveeva entering the finish. Matveeva had lost contact with Kyllönen, who dropped the pack on the last lap, and likely had no idea what was coming from behind. Gaiazova surprised her at the line, where Matveeva lunged to secure second by 0.06 seconds. Gaiazova captured third, 5.58 seconds behind the Finnish winners, for the Canadians’ best team-sprint result of the season.
“If it had been a little bit longer, it would’ve been more of an advantage to me, but I did the best I could and I was happy with that,” Gaiazova said. “It’s kind of good, always leaves me with a little bit more to wish for, like, ‘OK, I was fourth and photo finishing for third and now I’m third photo finishing for second.’ ”
Gaiazova recently notched an individual career best of fourth in a classic sprint at the World Cup in Liberec, Czech Republic. After placing third in a World Cup freestyle team sprint last year with Chandra Crawford in Dusseldorf, Germany, the podium was Gaiazova’s first of the season – as it was for Jones (who also won bronze with Crawford in a freestyle team sprint last season in Milan, Italy).
“It feels really good and really good to do it here in Sochi,” Jones said Sunday. “I think it also speaks to the strength of our women’s program. Now all three of us have been on the podium in the team sprint in all different configurations so that’s pretty exciting.”
On her final leg, Jones knew she had some gas left after conserving somewhat the second time around. She made a point to charge up the hill, where she also found Wadsworth cheering her on over the top.
“He was just screaming his head off,” Jones said. “That was really awesome because I passed a couple more girls there and just hung on for the downhill and made sure to go around the corner without crashing and handed off to Dasha relatively cleanly.”
Easier said than done. With changing conditions throughout the day, several skiers and their wax techs worked frantically within the roughly two-and-a-half minute frame between exchanges to get the wax right. It was never going to be perfect on the 4-degree Celsius (nearly 40 Fahrenheit) afternoon, with either no kick or way too much sticking, but they continued to try.
Gaiazova said her hairies worked great throughout the day and Jones found a better pair of skis after the first leg. With a fast descent and sharp corner heading into the finish, staying on one’s feet was also important – and Russia’s eventual silver medalists nearly didn’t qualify for the final after crashing and placing fourth in the semi. They came in 12.37 seconds behind the Americans, Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen, in first, but fortunately for them, that was the faster semifinal of the two.
Gaiazova and Jones felt some tension after learning their semifinal, the second one, was almost seven seconds slower than the first with softer snow in warming conditions.
“I got a little nervous, but thankfully we made it through,” Gaiazova said after her team finished third (+4:32) behind Finland in first and Russia’s A-team in second.
Perhaps the biggest game changer of the day, however, occurred at the exchanges, which were tracked. According to Gaiazova, there were six tracks for 10 teams, which made it especially tricky.
“Say I’m standing in the exchange zone in the track … waiting for Peri to come and tag me,” she explained. “Peri’s coming in, but she can’t ski in the same track as me, her skis would run into my skis, so she has to ski in the track next to mine and then step out at the very last moment to tag me so each team is taking, like, two tracks. It’s messy. There’s people everywhere and all you’re trying to do it just to it as quick as possible and carry the speed from one person to another. I think everybody struggled with exchanges today.”
“I hope with today’s result and basically this whole month we can just carry the momentum for the girls, for the team,” Gaiazova said.
For Finland, which notched its first women’s team-sprint victory since Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Virpi Kuitunen won the classic event at the 2009 World Championships, the win was pretty sweet – but tiring.
“I was tired, but I tried everything [in] intervals,” Kyllönen told Eurosport, according to the Helsingin Sanomat.
Malvalehto explained their strategy was to get in front on the first lap, ski the second one more moderately and push hardest on the third.
“The last leg of the race was the most difficult leg, but overall we didn’t have any big problems here today,” Malvalehto said in a press conference. “The track was very good. I hope it will be the same for the Olympics. It’s very nice here when it’s sunny.”
Matveeva said the finishing stretch was especially tough.
“I just didn’t have enough in me, but we still did well,” the Russian said in a press conference. “The speed today was much higher than on previous days. It was wonderful to feel the support of all the Russian fans here today.”
Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Brun-Lie finished fourth (+7.2), and the Americans were fifth (+9.16) after coming through the last exchange in fourth.