RUMFORD, Maine – Dasha Gaiazova had been around the block at least a few times before. Heck, the Canadian Olympian skied the Rumford course in 2004 during her junior racing years and placed second in a 5 k there in 2003.
It had been a while, but the 28-year-old hadn’t lost touch with western Maine. In fact, Gaiazova found it suited her perfectly. Five-foot-10 and with plenty of World Cup sprinting experience, she soared ahead of her competition in Sunday’s 1.4 k classic sprint – first in the qualifier, then in each of the heats to win the A-final by several seconds.
The victory was her first at the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships, and it was the one she had most hoped for.
“I was just trying to ski as I would in the World Cup, especially in the final,” Gaiazova said after denying the week’s three-time national champion, Jessie Diggins of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Central Cross Country (CXC), her fourth-straight outright victory.
“I had really good success just at the end of the 2011 in Europe and just sort of wanted to channel that skier in me again today,” she added. “It was good to be able to do it and race fast and feel strong.”
The first to start Sunday, Gaiazova set the bar high, winning the qualifier in 3:28.13. Diggins posted the second-fastest time, 1.2 seconds back.
For Gaiazova, this was an intensity workout to fill some time before heading back to Europe in a few weeks. It was also a chance to test her form and see how she stacked up against some elite Americans.
While some of the nation’s top classic sprinters sat out Sunday’s race because of illness, including Jennie Bender (CXC) and Sadie Bjornsen (USST/Alaska Pacific University), Gaiazova had to get by Diggins and Ida Sargent (USST/Craftsbury Green Racing Program). Sargent nearly beat Diggins in the semifinals, losing her lead on the last downhill as Diggins charged along the 200-meter stadium stretch.
Despite not racing against Diggins until this week, Gaiazova had a good idea of what she was up against; she had trained with the 20-year-old in October.
“[Diggins is] a fantastic distance skier and I’m more of a sprinter so I definitely wanted to see how far behind I would be in the distance and what can happen in the sprint,” Gaiazova said.
After purposely missing Tuesday’s freestyle sprint, Gaiazova was the runner-up to Diggins on Thursday in the 10 k freestyle event and placed fourth on Friday in the 20 k classic mass start. Diggins won that as well as Tuesday’s sprint, putting her three-for-three at nationals heading into the weekend. On Sunday, Gaiazova justified her decision to race three of four events and proved she had what it took to win a competitive classic sprint.
“I’m turning into a pretty good double poler over the last couple of years,” Gaiazova said with a laugh, noting Black Mountain’s rolling terrain and downhill finish fit her strengths.
That was especially good for her since she will be racing a similar classic sprint course in Otepaa, Estonia, when she resumes World Cup racing at the end of the month.
“There is very long stadium stretch where you have to double pole,” she said. “So today was rehearsal for Otepaa.”
While her practice went as planned, the race for the remaining top spots was more of a scramble. Diggins placed second in the A-final by a narrow margin after passing Sargent on the last downhill and outsprinting her and a closing Kate Fitzgerald (APU) to the finish.
Fitzgerald tucked behind Diggins and Sargent, who were about 10 seconds behind Gaiazova entering the stadium, and moved to an outside lane for the final straightaway. She caught Sargent and beat her by nearly a ski length to nab third.
Two sets of podiums (one with Gaiazova, one without) gave Diggins her fourth consecutive gold at nationals and Sargent, who was fourth overall and the third American, a spot on the podium.
“My goal for the day was to make the A-final because last year I got ninth place,” Diggins said. “Classic sprinting has never really been my specialty and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, Diggins isn’t really a classic sprinter,’ so I was hoping to just hold on as long as I could and Dasha was skiing really well.”
She called the four-race sweep at nationals “unexpected,” and said she’d sleep well Sunday night.
For Fitzgerald, it was her first podium at U.S. Nationals. She had come close in fourth in Thursday’s 10 k, was fifth on Friday, and on Sunday, qualified for her first A-final.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m really excited to be here it doesn’t really matter what place I get now,’ ” Fitzgerald said after ranking among the best six sprinters to qualify for the top final. “Just trying to keep up with the girls, that was my game plan.”
After pushing the pace and giving Diggins someone to chase in the semifinal, Sargent said she had a rough go at the final. At the start, she missed a pole plant and was lucky not to fall, she said. She responded by charging the next uphill and passed Diggins. While she tried to gain more ground on her USST teammate, Sargent found herself on the wrong side of Diggins’ slingshot tactic on the final downhill.
“I was second going into the downhill and fourth at the finish line,” Sargent said. “Those girls passed me on the downhill and I couldn’t pass them back. They did a great job, and it’s sprint racing.”
Also in the A-final, Lauren Fritz (APU) was fifth and Sophie Caldwell (Dartmouth) placed sixth. Marit Rjabov (UAF) capped off a strong day with a win in the B-final, followed by runner-up Eliska Hajkova (CU) and Rosie Brennan (APU), who placed a respective eighth and ninth overall. Marion Woods (Alaska Winter Stars) was 10th, Hannah Dreissigacker (CGRP) finished 11th and Rebecca Konieczny (UAF) was 12th.
In less than a week, Sargent, Diggins and a select crew of other Americans will find themselves in Milan, Italy, for the World Cup freestyle sprints on Saturday.
While many were excited about the rest of the season, Gaiazova was a little bittersweet about leaving friends she made in Rumford. She had stayed with APU athletes at a hostel in Bethel, where they cooked together and carpooled to the mountain to train. The team also helped her out with waxing, she said.
“I was really, really excited that I got completely adopted as an APU member for this week,” Gaiazova said. “I made lots of friends and I’m going to miss everyone.”
For results from the women’s heats, click here.
For qualifying results, click here.