Friday was a much anticipated day across the Atlantic from the Oberwiesenthal, Germany: Junior World’s relay day.
Junior Women’s 4 x 3.3 k Relay
For the U.S. junior 4 x 3.3 k relay, oh-so-close was last year’s World’s just off the podium fourth place performance. Twelve months later and a loaded team featuring (in this order) Sydney Palmer-Leger, Kendall Kramer, Sophia Laukli, and Novie McCabe, the group skied themselves into second overall, 4.9 seconds off the winning time of Switzerland in first. The Swiss won in 35:08.6. Sweden placed third, 14.2 seconds back.
The tag to the U.S. at 9.9 k saw the team 27.8 seconds down on Switzerland, followed by the Swedes about six seconds further behind. Around 11 k, the Swedes and the U.S. were paired together in the hunt. McCabe eventually began to pull ahead into a secure second place position. In 3.3 k, McCabe locked in and chipped away nearly 23 seconds on the Swiss — who no doubt were feeling the pressure as McCabe gapped up.
Canada’s Molly Miller, Jasmine Drolet, Liliane Gagnon, and Elizabeth Elliott placed ninth (+1:25.8).
Eighteen teams started the race, with Germany and Poland disqualified for not following the marked course.
Junior Men’s 4 x 5 k Relay
The U.S. juniors, Luke Jager, Ben Ogden, Johnny Hagenbuch, and Gus Schumacher had experience on their side for Friday’s relay. Last year the foursome clinched a first ever U.S. relay win at World Juniors. That victory came down to a Schumacher anchor leg in which he outpaced the Russians by 3.9 seconds to the line.
This year, in 54:54.9, the U.S. built a cushion of 35.5 seconds on second place Canada — which was the surprise, perhaps, of these Junior Worlds. (More on that in a few paragraphs.)
But, it’s never over until it’s over. However, Jager ended this sooner than anticipated. He pegged the scramble leg, putting 25 seconds into second place Germany when he tagged Ogden. It was game over as the U.S. added a few more seconds on each successive leg in their win.
“Today ended up perfect, but in the morning we didn’t know that would happen, and with the past 2 years of great relays, we had a lot of pressure on ourselves to do it again,” Schumacher emailed. “We’d looked at the teams quite a bit, and were glad with how they looked, especially with a strong American skier to match every other strong German and Norwegian leg. I myself was fairly confident with a lot of different scenarios on the last leg, but I knew that it depended on the first 3 legs going well, and those boys exceeded my expectations in a big way. They’ll say they had great skis and that’s why they were able to splinter a stacked field, but really these boys are some of the best skiers in the world and when it comes together perfectly (which it seems to often do on relay day), there’s not much match for them. I’m so proud of this team for making a 3rd relay podium look almost easy, because it definitely isn’t. The execution out of them was unparalleled today and I’m so glad to be a part of this team. Also all of us were so proud and stoked for our women’s silver medal this morning and also the Canadian men’s silver medal! Both were great races and it’s great to see them get such good placement here. Now we’re all looking forward to some North American world cups, especially Minneapolis. Go USA!!”
Let’s get back to Xavier McKeever, Olivier Léveillé, Thomas Stephen, and Remi Drolet; starting in bib 11 for Canada. It clicked today for this group. Good skis? Surely. Inspired by their U.S. neighbors? Perhaps. Stoked by their on-site talisman Devon Kershaw (in Germany to coach)? Does that need an answer?
No matter how you spin it, this was the race of the day. Certainly unexpected, and certainly deserved for a program rebounding from low funding and in the midst of a rebuild.
At the 10 k mark, Italy, at 30.8 seconds behind the U.S., was trailed by Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and France — all within roughly seven seconds. That five team pack moved together through the final tag off at 15 k. Glued together through 16.8 k, only Norway fell off the pace. 1.5 k later, and it was Italy’s turn to feel the burn, as they fell off too.
That left Canada and Switzerland 10 seconds ahead of the now trailing Italians. By the time the next k had clicked by, Drolet, who was coming off a stellar fourth in the junior men’s 30 k mass start skate, made it real: he gapped the Swiss by 20 seconds.
It’s worth mentioning again – Canada in second overall, 35.5 seconds off the winning pace. The Italians rebounded as the Swiss fell back. Italy took third (+55.4), the Swiss placed fourth (+1:34.4).
“This is absolutely incredible,” Drolet said to Nordiq Canada after the race. “We were so stoked to start this race, and we told ourselves last night we are going to go for the medal today. This is one of the best, if not the best, World Juniors for a Canadian team in terms of results. Knowing everyone on the relay team had a top-30 at the Championships we knew this was doable.”
Adding his own poetry to the historic relay for Canada, “People don’t really understand what went down today, but it is insane,” Kershaw told Nordiq Canada.