(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from American Hannah Halvorsen.)
2018 World Junior Championships is off and running and two brand-new champions have been crowned. Moa Lundgren of Sweden took the women’s skate sprint title while the men’s final went to Tom Mancini of France.
On a perfect blue-sky day nestled deep in the Swiss Alps, the world’s best skiers under the age of 20 raced around a hilly sprint course with a few wicked corners. There were broken poles and pole-tosses; crashes; and a men’s final decided by just a tenth of a second.
“The competition was really high, and it was super cool to see so many high level skiers,” U.S. skier Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars) wrote in an email. “Nothing surprised me too much. I think it raced about as I expected, with even those crazy corners not being too unfair… my previous U18 trips and nationals races have exposed me to a big variety of tactics, so nothing was really new for me here.”
The narrow margin of the men’s final saw Mancini nip Norway’s Jørgen Lippert at the line.
“A very good race, I am very happy,” Mancini said in a TV interview after the race. “It’s a very good fight with the Norwegian and the Swiss. I am very happy. Sorry, I don’t speak English very good. I thank my family, my friends, and my coach. Voila.”
Third place went to Valerio Grond of Switzerland, who qualified in 21st position but skied aggressively to win his semifinal before landing on the final podium.
The results of the women’s final were somewhat delayed as Finland filed a protest, saying that third-place Frida Karlsson had obstructed Anita Korva, who ended up fourth. But the podium did not change. Lundgren had claimed a big win over Kristine Stavås Skistad of Norway.
Both the U.S. and Canada had a representative in the semifinals. For the U.S., Hannah Halvorsen (U.S. Ski Team/APU) qualified in fifth and then finished second in her quarterfinal, earning an automatic spot into the semis.
Once there, Halvorsen skied in third or fourth for much of the heat. Rounding the final corners she was still in fourth position and though she kept pushing, she couldn’t make up any ground on the women ahead of her. She ended the day in eighth, an improvement of a few places from her 11th-place result in the classic sprint at last year’s World Junior Championships in Utah.
“The skate sprint was my target race this year,” Halvorsen, 19, explained in an email. “My goal was to podium and I believed if everything went according to plan I was capable. I felt healthy and fit, my skis were fast, my mind was in the right place, but I didn’t make it happen. It is easy to mull over tactics and strategies and ‘what if’ situations, but I think the truth is that there are a lot of girls here that are just as fast, fit, prepared, and motivated as me, and I think some of them were sincerely better than me today. Even though I didn’t reach my goal, I feel proud to compete against the best girls my age and be right in the mix.”
She explained that she was excited about her strong qualifier. “It gives me a chance to see where I fall on an international stage,” Halvorsen wrote. “The top girls my age are starting to bridge the gap between world juniors and world cup, and I hope this qualifier gives me some idea of how much I need to improve to be fast enough to make world cup heats. Even though the top girls are faster than me, I can feel myself improving and getting closer.
“I had a lot of fun having the opportunity to race and feel good in the sprint,” she added. “One of the takeaways from this race was realizing how important it is to keep improving and to never settle. I am excited to build on this result and hopefully be stronger and faster next year. But right now, I mostly look forward to more racing this week and season.”
In the men’s field, Canada’s Graham Ritchie raced an impressive tactical quarterfinal. Qualifying in 25th, he was pushed to the back of his heat early thanks to taking the last choice of starting lanes.
“I’d say it was intentional that I stayed at the back,” Ritchie explained in an email. “I knew if I was going to have any chance, it would be to just hold onto the pack for as long as possible and then see where it would go in the end from there.”
Ritchie maneuvered his way towards the front and by the time the men hit the finishing stretch, he was speeding up and moved from fourth to second. A Russian athlete who had been among the leaders early in the heat crashed, leaving an extra opening.
“I was in fourth at the time when he fell and he was in front of me, so this had a pretty big impact on my result depending on how fast he would’ve been in the finishing stretch,” Ritchie wrote.
But regardless, Ritchie advanced to the semifinals, where he finished sixth in his heat for 12th overall.
“I was pretty shot for the second half of the [semifinal] and couldn’t hang on to the pack, but it was an amazing experience and lots of fun!” Ritchie wrote. “I was stoked to have made the semi’s and was happy with outcome! My main goal for today most importantly was to qualify. My stretch goal for the day was to make semis and get a top 12. Finishing in 12th place was a really incredible and eye-opening experience. I’m still trying processing it, the feeling of accomplishing this goal feels amazing and I am so thankful for this opportunity!”
“Great day for Graham today,” Ritchie’s coach at NTDC Thunder Bay, Timo Puiras, wrote in an email. “We were not expecting a top-12 result but it isn’t necessarily a surprise either… This result is definitely a big deal for Graham and the NTDC Thunder Bay program. The TBay program has had several athletes the past few years who I feel have the capacity for this kind of result so it feels great when it all comes together to happen. This result should serve as fuel for our other athletes to find the confidence to also have similar success.”
Schumacher of the United States was also in Ritchie’s quarterfinal, and ended up fourth in the heat and just over two-tenths of a second away from a lucky loser spot in the semifinals. But he did not advance and ended up 19th on the day.
“I was pretty confident in my speed,” Schumacher wrote in an email. “I knew that an eight second gap [in the qualifier] was small enough to be competitive in heats. My strategy was to just hang on up the first big hill and try to save my energy, then really punch it on the second hill. That strategy in my heat worked out pretty well. I thought I was a little too far back after the first hill, but I was able to come back and I had energy to really sprint up the end of the second hill.”
Canada’s Antoine Cyr, also qualified for the heats, and had a spectacular wipeout in his quarterfinal and ended up 30th after qualifying in 25th.
“I know that normally in the heats I am better [than in qualifying] and with the tight gap between all the juniors in the qualifier, it would give me a slight chance to go through,” Cyr wrote in an email. “On the top [of the first hill] I was in fourth place, right on their heels, but on the last uphill i got boxed in a little bit and could not accelerate fast enough. I found myself in fifth place. I went for it on the last corner knowing that I was taking a risk, and I crashed. I am bit bummed by the end of the day, but still really happy with a top 30. A first top-30 for me against the best in the world! I am not injured, just a couple of bruises – that snow was pretty hard packed, I can tell you!”
In the junior men’s sprint, Canada’s Reed Godfrey finished a tough 31st, just 0.21 seconds out of making the quarterfinals. Etienne Hebert rounded out the Canadian finishers in 36th place (+11.81) in the qualifier.
“Our entire Junior Mens team definitely have the ability to qualify in the top-30 and after that it came down to good tactics and good finishing speed to move through the quarters,” Puiras wrote. “The Canadian team was super pumped with the results today and are in great spirits. It was a great way to start the championships. We are looking for more great results this coming week.”
Canyon Tobin was 41st in qualification for the U.S. (+13.46), followed by Karl Schulz in 54th (+16.90) and Luke Jager in 60th (+18.15).
In the junior women’s race, both Margaret Gellert and Sofia Shomento of the U.S. made the quarterfinals but failed to advance, finishing 18th and 23rd. Teammate Hannah Rudd finished 35th in qualification, +18.15.
For Canada, Annika Richardson finished 52nd (+24.09), Catherine Reed-Metayer 56th (+28.25), and Alexandra Racine 69th (+37.27).
— Harald Zimmer and Alex Kochon contributed