Onward and upward. Day two in Oberstdorf, Germany featured a 1.5-kilometer classic sprint with three sharp toothlike climbs. Seemingly riding the edge of their capability inside the tracks, athletes pumped their way up each pitch before wrapping around a bend and descending an equal grade back toward the stadium.
After what Matt Whitcomb called an “off day”, the Americans demonstrated their ability to rebound. To not let the sensations or disappointment from one day percolate into subsequent races. Onto the next.
This was clearly demonstrated in the qualifying round: three, four, nine, eleven. Diggins was the fastest of the crew finishing 2.24 seconds behind top qualifier Natalia Nepyaeva of Russia, who stopped the clock at 3:38:08. Diggins was 0.8 seconds behind Anamarija Lampic of Slovenia, who won both sprint events, skate and classic, during the Tour de Ski, and took second the weekend after the Tour in the freestyle sprint in Dresden. Lampic also popped the second fastest qualifying time of the day.
Sadie Maubet Bjornsen nearly matched Diggins time in fourth (+2.35), followed by Sophie Caldwell in ninth (+5.38), and Rosie Brennan in eleventh (+5.90). The only other country to put three athletes in the top ten was Norway, a testament to the strength of the American women on a day where our expectations meet reality.
Also starting for the U.S., Caitlin Patterson took 61st (+24.18), and Alayna Sonnesyn finished 66th (+26.7).
In the quarterfinals, Maubet Bjornsen wore the lowest bib number in the first heat, which is curious as this is often the choice of the top two qualifiers (see Diggins comments on heat selection below). Maubet Bjornsen took second in a tight finish with Lotta Udnes Weng and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen of Norway, moving with Weng into the first wave of semis.
Caldwell won the third heat of the semis in a photo finish with Ane Appelkvist Stenseth of Norway. Brennan was eliminated after finishing fourth in the fourth heat to finish 16th for the day, a top result in the event.
“Sprint is always such a bitter sweet event for me,” Brennan emailed. “While today was the best classic sprint of my career, I still felt that I made some mistakes and didn’t ski as well as I felt. The course here is long and has some good striding which I was really excited about. I know there are probably some sprinters that aren’t excited about the length but I felt the course did a good job of including all kinds of skiing and really rewarding good skiers. I am really happy with my feelings and for sure have a little list of things to work on moving forward.”
Diggins charged full gas through the fifth heat of the quarters for the win, beating out Sweden’s Linn Svahn who advanced alongside her.
In the first semi, Caldwell and Maubet Bjornsen took it out with the leaders, matching Nepryaeva’s long powerful bound up the climbs and the speedy out-of-the-track tempo of Anna Svendsen of Norway. Coming into the final downhill, Svendsen, Nepryaeva and Caldwell pulled ahead, creating a small gap to the remaining women. Caldwell held her tuck longer than the other women, collecting herself for a spicy double pole sprint to the finish. Sliding across the line at the heels of Nepryaeva, Caldwell stayed ahead of the Norwegian to take second in the heat. Maubet Bjornsen finished fifth between Nadine Faehndrich of Switzerland and her opponent from the quarters, Weng.
“It was one heck of a thrill out there today on the courses for next year’s World Championships,” wrote Maubet Bjornsen in an email to several outlets. “This is certainly one of the hardest sprint courses I have sprinted on, but I really enjoyed it! My legs felt a lot stronger than last weekend, but still not quite recovered enough to put together the race I was dreaming of today. Finishing 9th is still and achievement, but I know I am capable of more when I have my full strength.
Striding hot out of the gate, Diggins also held a position at the front, matching Lampic, who dictated the pace, up the climbs and tucking into her draft on the descents. On the last and longest climb, Diggins was overtaken by Svahn and Heidi Weng of Norway and she was unable to regain her position on the subsequent downhill. Though her tempo was faster than her opponents in the final double pole sprint, she finished fourth. As her time would have won the previous heat, Diggins and Svahn advanced with Lampic and Weng as the lucky losers.
Again taking the reins from the start-beep, Lampic surged to the front of the group and stayed there, though she could not drop the strong group of women in her wake. Up the final climb, Nepyaeva matched Lampic stride for stride, her long powerful pushes keeping her alongside the Slovenian’s green and black suit.
Like a slingshot, Nepryaeva sped around Lampic as they rounded the final curve into the straightaway. The duo duked it out double poling in perfect synchrony, but Lampic recovered no ground on the Russian. Nepraeva stopped the clock at 3:27:08, the fastest split of the day.
Racing for the last podium position, Diggins and Caldwell flew into the final straight in neighboring tracks, with Svahn not far behind. Firing on all cylinders, Diggins pulled ahead of Caldwell to take third by just over a second (+2.44). After being left behind by the Americans, Svahn finished fifth (+5.16), followed long after by Stenseth (+30.20). The Norwegian had fallen off the pace midway through the round, ceding her chances to contend with the pack.
Due to poor WiFi connection, athletes chose to send comments via email. Reflecting on her performance, Diggins expressed that she “loved” the long sprint course.
“You had time to try out different tactics and that last hill saw some moves, for sure. We had awesome skis today so I was able to use a little bit of a slingshot to get into good position in the finishing lanes, and I just worked to stay smooth and calm in the first half, while looking for openings to get into better position.”
Diggins explained that heat selection is variable, and did not feel today’s variance from a usual bracket was explained by the length of the course. Her choice to race in the fifth quarter and second semi were based simply on her perception of the opportunity to advance.
“I chose the latter heat because it was wide open, and seemed to be a good path forward out of the quarters. But you never know how it’s going to go, and I was happy to secure lucky loser time in the fast semifinal!”
After finishing 22nd in the skiathlon, some might question from the comfort of their couches whether Diggins is on the same form that we have seen in previous years. As was discussed with Matt Whitcomb, “success breeds expectation.” We expect to see Diggins at the top of the results sheet day in and day out, and that pressure can creep into an athletes self-expectation as well. When asked how she handles this, Diggins explained that she does not dwell on what is on the paper or posted in the comments.
“That’s a great question about handling expectations and pressure…and my plan for that has always been to set really concrete process-oriented goals, work as hard as I can to meet them, and then regardless of the result on paper I can decide if it was a “good” day for myself or not based on my effort, focus, technical progress and strategy.”
In her post-race remarks, Caldwell offered an insightful perspective that took into account her strengths as a sprint specialist versus an all-arounder like Diggins or Maubet Bjornsen.
“This sprint was definitely one of our longest ones, and for sure the longest one of the year. I think it’s really exciting to have varying sprint courses throughout the year and this is about as far from the Dresden course as you can get. I used to think short and flat suited me best, but now I don’t really know what I like, especially for classic, but I try to be excited for any kind of sprint so I don’t count myself out before it begins. That said, I do think that there are already a lot more distance races than sprints, so when it gets much over 3 minutes, it’s starting to favor distance skiers more, which is fine to do sometimes, it’s just too bad when there are already so few sprints if too many of them start getting really long. But I personally really enjoyed the course and the race today. I don’t think it’s too much different for recovery for me whether the course is 3 mins or 3:30, but I think for the men it is probably harder because if they’re in the second half of the bracket, they have a lot less recovery. I usually just try to move around until I’ve flushed my legs out and then relax for a little bit and then start moving around again before my next heat!
“Today was a really awesome day for our team. I was psyched to make my first classic final in years, and I think only my third ever. I’ve now had three 4th places in the last four races, which is a little bittersweet, but it’s important to remind myself that 4th is still a really strong result, especially in a tough classic sprint. It was great to ski with Sadie in my semi and I know she’s bouncing back from giving her all in the tour, but is getting stronger each day and a good result today is a huge step in the right direction. And Jessie was on fire all day and it was awesome to see her get another classic podium. So really fun to have such a strong day for our women and even though it was a tough day for the guys, I know they will be fighting back in Falun!”
Between the city sprints in Dresden and today’s event in Oberstdorf, Caldwell headed to Austria for an altitude camp. She explains the role this plays in balancing training and recharging, and how the sprinters use an altitude stint to build fitness without losing their top end speed.
“Simi and I just took a little break in Seefeld during the distance weekend in Nove Mesto and it’s was really nice both physically and mentally. The schedule this year is very demanding, with almost no weekend off, so we felt it was important to find in a couple times to work in a break, remove ourselves from the World Cup, and take some time for ourselves. I was really tired right after Dresden and didn’t realize it until I allowed myself to take a break, so it was nice to have a few days of true recovery and then I felt I was able to train really well for 9 or 10 days before coming here. Seefeld is at mild altitude, but I think it’s only at 3,700 ft, so as long as I keep my easy skis easy, I don’t feel too many effects of altitude and don’t worry about not being sharp when coming down a little in elevation.”
Racing for Canada, Maya Macisaac-Jones posted the top qualifying time in 35th (+14.28), followed by Dahria Beatty (+15.79), Katherine Stewart-Jones in 50th (+18.58), and Katherine Weaver 65 (+26.08).