Suddenly, it dawned on her. Rosie Brennan of Alaska Pacific University (APU) hadn’t given the team sprint in Otepää, Estonia, much thought until she was on her way to Europe earlier this week and realized that she was going to be one of four U.S. women in Otepää, Estonia, this weekend.
A little quick math — the format required two-person teams — and she and APU coach Erik Flora determined that meant she’d probably get a chance to race the 6 x 1.2-kilometer freestyle team sprint on Sunday.
Brennan, a 26-year-old former U.S. Ski Team member and the current SuperTour leader, had done a team sprint just once before — back in 2009 at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, she teamed up with Morgan Arritola to place 17th. Arritola and most of the other women in that race are no longer competing.
At the time, the 2009 team sprint was only Brennan’s second World Cup race.
With nearly two dozen World Cup starts under her belt in the time since, Brennan returned to the international circuit this weekend for the first time since December 2013. Her expectations weren’t results-based, but she was definitely excited for the team sprint.
“Every time I watch [a team sprint], I always think, yikes, going out for the finals seriously seems like one of the hardest things in ski racing,” Brennan wrote in an email. “So, yes I was a little nervous and unsure how I would fare…”
Brennan and Ida Sargent formed the second-seeded U.S. team, and Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell teamed up for the U.S. first team. Both teams were put in the second of two semifinals, on 35-degree Fahrenheit afternoon when racing earlier was definitely better.
“It was really warm out there … snowing, raining so the course was breaking down,” Sargent explained on the phone after Sunday’s race. “It was pretty soft in the morning when we were testing and then by the final it was shin-deep slush.”
Vying for a top-two finish to guarantee themselves a spot in the 10-team final, the two American squads came through the final exchange alongside each other in first and second. Bjornsen handed off to Caldwell for the last lap, and Sargent tagged Brennan.
Sargent explained she had been in second heading into the descent toward the stadium on her last semifinal loop, trailing Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk closely to make sure she caught her draft. She passed Kowalczyk, and Bjornsen passed Sargent after following her in similar fashion.
“Sadie and I went into the exchange after our last lap in one and two, so that was pretty fun to be there together,” Sargent recalled.
After getting tagged in first, Caldwell explained that Germany’s Denise Herrmann and Poland’s Sylwia Jaśkowiec “took off” at the beginning of the final lap and left her struggling to keep up.
“They formed a little gap and I wasn’t close enough to take advantage of their draft on the [downhill],” Caldwell wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, I think I was leading a little train of my own, so people could hop into my draft.”
One of those people was Brennan, who shot past Caldwell to take third in the heat. Caldwell finished fourth, and the top three teams from their semifinal advanced to the final based on time. (The top-two teams in each automatically advance, then the next six-fastest times.) Seven of nine teams in the first semifinal made the final as well.
“Today was a tough day with the weather and snow conditions, with each lap getting slower than the one before,” Bjornsen explained in an email after her team placed 11th overall. “Since we were in the second heat, our strategy was to go as hard as we could, because we knew making lucky loser positions were going to be tough just the way conditions were working.”
One hundred meters out of the start in the semifinal, someone skied over Bjornsen’s ski.
“I found myself lying in the snow,” she recalled. “I worked hard to catch back up, but Soph had to finish closing the gap. From there we had two great laps in the mix. I tagged off in the front of the pack, and Soph did a great job holding on. … As we predicted, lucky loser time was tough to catch, so sadly, Soph and I weren’t able to catch the finals.”
Sargent, Brennan Sixth in Final
Meanwhile, Sargent and Brennan moved on, which both Caldwell and Bjornsen, Brennan’s APU teammate, were excited about.
“I have believed that Rosie is skiing at the same level as us [U.S. Ski Team women] since the start of the season,” Bjornsen wrote. “It was just so exciting and wonderful for her to feel and show that today! It brings tears to my eyes to see everything she has gotten through this year, and here she is on the World Cup, challenging the strongest skaters in the World.”
“We both skied our last laps with everything we had and it turned out to be just enough,” Brennan explained. “I had no expectations for this race so I psyched when we were finding it possible to easily ski in the front of the pack.”
In the final, she resolved to stick with the pack and see what happened toward the end of the race.
Sargent said she was pleasantly surprised to feel better during the final than the semifinal.
“I guess you’re always excited for another chance to race again,” Sargent said.
She expected to feel tired and “on flooded legs” by the last lap, but the goal was to keep pushing.
Out of the start, Sargent put the U.S. in fourth at the high point of the course, at the turnaround before the downhill. She came through the first exchange in fourth, half a second behind Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter — the eventual winner (with teammate Stina Nilsson).
Brennan kept them within three seconds of Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in first after her first lap, tagging Sargent in sixth. One lap later, the U.S. was back to fourth, 2.2 seconds from Poland in first and among the nine teams within 5 1/2 seconds of the lead.
“I tried to move up and ski towards the front of the pack more because in the beginning of the semifinal, I was in the back and felt like I was stuck in traffic for the first couple laps,” Sargent explained. “So I tried to get a little farther forward in the final and it was just really fun to be in the mix.”
On Brennan’s second lap, Østberg in first led Nilsson and Poland’s anchor, Jaśkowiec, as the three pulled away. By the tag, they were just over a second ahead of Germany in fourth, Finland’s first team (Anne Kyllönen and Krista Parmakoski) was 4.7 seconds back in fifth, Finland’s second team (Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Riika Sarasoja-Lilja) was 5.3 seconds behind in sixth, and Brennan 5.9 seconds back in seventh.
“The second lap was the hardest for me,” Brennan said. “I think the pace turned up a bit and I started questioning how much my legs had in them.
“The final was definitely faster paced, there is a lot more on the line,” she added. “It was super slushy and there were trenches around every corner. I think in general, there wasn’t one section that was really good for me or really bad, it was more about putting together a good lap, skiing each section as best as possible and trying to lose as little as possible.”
When Sargent set out on her final lap, she focused on cutting down the gap ahead of her and catching the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place teams.
Germany’s Hanna Kolb fell off the pace and into seventh, while Sargent moved into sixth, 8.4 seconds behind the leaders and 1.2 seconds behind Kyllönen in fifth.
On the last lap, Herrmann brought the Germans back into contention and led the pursuit of Sweden, Norway and Poland. While there was a three-way sprint for first, Germany finished 16.5 seconds back in fourth, Finland’s first team was another 1.1 seconds back in fifth, and Brennan anchored the U.S. to sixth, 18.1 seconds out of first and half a second behind Parmakoski.
Sargent said both she and Brennan were “really happy” with their result in the first-and-only team sprint before the freestyle team sprint at World Championships.
“[Rosie] just got over here and hasn’t raced a team sprint since 2009 … and she was just skiing really well all day and had some awesome finishes on both of the heats,” Sargent said. “So I was really impressed with her — first team sprint, first weekend on the World Cup this year and just to be right in there the whole time.”
“I was really impressed with her — first team sprint, first weekend on the World Cup this year and just to be right in there the whole time.” — Ida Sargent on teammate Rosie Brennan
“I surprised myself by having a little bit of finishing speed in both the semi and the final so I am happy I was able to pull together 3 solid laps each race even if none of them were outstanding,” Brennan wrote.
Finishing sixth, the two landed in the money, which Sargent said is always a goal. Moreover though, she wanted to make the final.
“We did that and after that, everything was just a bonus,” she said.
“Those guys skis great, actually all the U.S. athletes skied really good,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone. “Despite some crashes, everybody skied super well, so that was really exciting.”
Hamilton Crashes on Last Lap
Simi Hamilton crashed out of contention on the last lap of the men’s first semifinal, and he and Andy Newell, of the first-seeded U.S. men’s team, placed 10th in the heat for 19th overall. The top six teams from their semifinal advanced to the 6 x 1.5 k final.
“Simi and I did a good job of staying up front,” Newell, the team’s scramble leg, wrote in an email. He tagged Hamilton in fifth for the final lap.
“It’s our goal not to ski any harder than we have to until the last laps,” Newell added. “I felt I was able to pace well and did my best to chase down Russia on the last lap and tag Simi in a strong position.”
Positioning himself in the draft behind Nikolay Morilov of Russia’s second team and Canada’s Lenny Valjas on the final downhill, Hamilton went down in a pileup with France’s Baptiste Gros, who had been around third at that point.
According to Grover, Gros face planted on the last rise after the fast downhill into the stadium. Sweden’s Emil Jönsson clipped Gros and spun around, getting tangled with Hamilton, who was on his way down the hill as well.
“[Simi] face planted right into the bridge basically,” Grover said. “He is OK, but he is definitely sore.”
“He was in a good position to move on as [lucky loser] since our heat was a but faster,” Newell explained. “If it wasn’t for the crash I think we would have advanced for sure.”
While the bad luck and resulting missed opportunity to practice a final was disappointing, Newell wrote that they were looking forward to World Championships and putting together a competitive freestyle team sprint there.
“I was feeling pretty good today and think I have regained a bit of my strength and fitness that I was missing during the [Tour de Ski],” Newell added. “I think this is the best my skating has felt for a while and it was fun to be able to accelerate and ski with power.”
Bjornsen, Gelso Miss Top 10 in 11th
The second U.S. men’s team, with Erik Bjornsen and Matt Gelso, the SuperTour leader from the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, narrowly missed advancing to the final after placing fifth in the second semifinal. The top four moved on.
Bjornsen started them off in 11th of 12 teams, and Gelso skied up to ninth by the second exchange. One lap later, they were up to seventh, and Bjornsen came through the exchange in fourth on his last lap.
“Once the racing started it was super fun,” Gelso wrote in an email after his first World Cup race in Europe and second team sprint of his career, since racing one at Spring Series about six years ago.
“Erik and I both moved up some places on our second laps, then he moved really well on his third lap,” he added. “For much of the race it was a pack of guys so moving places within the group was more about position when the pace surged than it was about what place you would finish in.”
They had wanted to position themselves in fourth or fifth “as most times the top 4 qualifies for the final,” Gelso wrote. “We did not want to lead but we also didn’t want to sit on the back of the pack as once small gaps form in front of you it is really hard to close them down.”
After getting tagged in fourth just ahead of fifth place, Gelso set out to chase down three leaders. He stayed within a few seconds of them, but lost contact on the short, steep downhill before the wall-of-a-climb before the stadium.
“They really turned it on and put some more time into me and the fifth-place guy behind me [Italy’s Federico Pellegrino] passed me,” Gelso noted. “At this point I was fifth and got over the top of the wall and down into the finish as fast as I could for fifth in the heat.”
He explained that both he and Bjornsen were happy with their race and 11th overall.
“We both skied strong and smart and were able to mix it up with some of the best sprinters in the world,” Gelso wrote. “We would have liked to make the final but we still feel good about our result, that we had a good showing, and that we accomplished many of our goals for the day.”
Bjornsen was pleased that he posted the fastest time on the last lap, but wished he would have had more confidence to make a move earlier in the race.
“I think I could have brought us in at the front of the pack which would have really turned some of those Norwegians heads,” he wrote. “I’m very happy with the way my teammate Matt skied, he just got over here and he was in the mix. It’s a bummer we didn’t get to the finals. I was ready to make some more fast laps…next time!”
Bjornsen added that he’s starting to feel more confident in the event, one of the rarest World Cup formats.
“For some reason I always surprise myself in the team sprint discipline, I’m starting to wonder if it’s a race built for me,” he wrote.
According to Gelso, Bjornsen persuaded him to race the team sprint this weekend.
“I was actually planning to only ski the individual sprint here but once I got over here I talked to [Bjornsen] and he said how fun the team sprint was and how it was like a distance race,” Gelso wrote. “I also thought it would be a better prep race for next weekend in Russia.”
The Americans will head to Rybinsk, Russia, on Wednesday for the next World Cup races starting on Friday. There, they’ll meet up with Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen, who took the weekend off to recover from the Tour de Ski and train in Seiser Alm, Italy.
At the end of the day and Otepää World Cup weekend, Grover summed it up as “some more tough days. … Of course, there were a lot of crashes out there so we weren’t the only ones that had a rough go of it,” he said.
“I was happy to see that everybody was putting together some good legs out there and some of our best team sprinters weren’t here,” Grover added. “Athletes like Kikkan [Randall] and Jessie on the women’s side. So when it comes time to [make] World Championships [selections], were are going to have some hard decisions to make, that is for sure. It is a good problem. It is nice to know that you have four or five women that could fill that spot and potentially at least three men and maybe more.”
“We have a really strong team,” Sargent said of the women’s team. “We have the defending world champions [Randall and Diggins] in the skate team sprint. We have a lot of girls that can be top 10 in a skate sprint or top 10 in a skate distance race so I think there’s a lot of awesome combinations on our team, and it’ll just depend on who’s skiing fast at that point.”
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting