(This article has been updated to reflect that American Hailey Swirbul was in second for most of Tuesday’s 5 k race, not over one minute back as previously reported based on a live timing error. It has also been updated to include comments from Americans Hailey Swirbul, Ben Loomis, Stephen Schumann, and Gus Schumacher, Canada’s Antoine Cyr, University of Alaska Anchorage nordic head coach Andrew Kastning, and U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish.)
Junior World Championships (Goms, Switzerland): 5/10 k classic
Hailey Swirbul became the second American cross-country skier to earn an individual medal at Junior World Championships and first to take silver (Katharine Ogden claimed bronze in last year’s skiathlon) in the women’s 5-kilometer classic individual start on Tuesday in Goms, Switzerland.
Swirbul, a 19-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage sophomore, also tallied the best American finish at a Junior/U23 World Championships since Jessie Diggins earned silver in 2014 in the freestyle sprint. It was Swirbul’s second medal the last two Junior Worlds after she teamed up with Hannah Halvorsen, Julia Kern, and Ogden to take bronze in last year’s relay.
Going into this week’s championships, Swirbul, a Colorado native, explained she was aiming for a top 10 in one of the distance races. U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish pointed out that she wasn’t sure she’d feel up to racing on Tuesday.
“She had been feeling under the weather so she didn’t come up and ski yesterday,” Fish said on the phone Tuesday. “It was a little bit of a shock to Hailey herself that she skied so fast because there was some contemplation of whether she would race or not.”
“I made it a goal to stay relaxed and ski the race I would ski in a lower pressure race,” Swirbul wrote in an email. “I often find that I, and others, change their good race habits when at a high pressure event, so I was hoping to pace the race evenly and not start out too fast.
“The key for interval starts for me is to only think about skiing smoothly and powerfully for the first few kilometers of the race, and I’ve been discovering that that usually leads to decent splits throughout my race,” she continued.
She ended up racing to second place on Tuesday in the second race of 2018 Junior World Championships. The 61st starter (out of 84), Swirbul skied in second for most of the race, just behind Russia’s Polina Nekrasova, according to Fish.
“She was basically tied for second and really had a strong second half of the course, and really skied solid in particular the last kilometer,” Fish said. “Always in the top five for sure, and well within striking distance [of the podium].”
She initially crossed the finish line in first place, more than a minute faster than the previous race leader. Her time remained faster than all but one of the women who started behind her — as Russia’s Polina Nekrasova (bib 71) took the win in 13:58.7 minutes, 14.4 seconds ahead of Swirbul.
Finland’s Anita Korva started 77th and finished third, 25.4 seconds out of first.
The Czech Republic’s Barbora Havlickova (bib 81) followed in fourth (+26.8), and Norway’s Kristine Stavås Skistad (bib 67) finished fifth (+31.9), and France’s Laura Chamiot-Maitra (bib 83) placed sixth (+34.9).
“… I honestly had no idea I was in the running for the podium during my race, because about 20 girls had yet to finish, so it wasn’t until the last girls came in that I knew I claimed a spot!” Swirbul wrote.
“It was a special moment when I ran down off of the course and I knew her split,” Fish said of Swirbul’s finishing time. “I knew she was sitting in second and they kept announcing and kept announcing, and I told her, ‘You will be second today,’ and it was kind of a combination facial expression of shock and elation. She really couldn’t believe it, but [I said], ‘You’ve got a big enough gap over third place and no one’s catching you.’
“It’s our best Junior Worlds result ever,” Fish added. “Last year was the first individual medal we had ever won or team medal at Junior Worlds and to follow that up with a silver is incredible.
“She was obviously on our podium relay last year, but she came in from U.S. nationals skiing well, qualified very high and she skied incredibly well today,” he explained. “Very fluid stride and did a great job shifting gears and doing a bit more running during the second half of the course.”
“The result hasn’t hit me yet,” Swirbul wrote. “It was beyond what I expected, so my brain is still catching up to the reality! I’ve been dreaming of racing how I know I could for the past 3 years or so, and this season has finally been my chance to break through. I’m so fortunate that things aligned for me on the day that really counted. I couldn’t have done it without Bryan Fish’s unwavering belief in us athletes, and my mom and dad’s support all these years, of course.”
Fish emphasized that while snow conditions have been “very, very good” and “very stable” in Goms, which received 1 1/2 meters (nearly 5 feet) of snow a week and a half ago, the waxing had been a bit challenging due to a temperature range of around -9 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius each day.
“I’m sure there were some teams on klister, some on klister covered with hard wax,” he said of Tuesday’s classic race. “Our techs did a really good job and they were clever with what they came up with when I heard what they were trying. … They’ve been right in the ballpark the last few days and I think they really dialed it in today, and it was impressive kick and glide. To get a podium you ned to have everything going right and I definitely think we had the skis in our favor.”
Halvorsen was the second-best American in 22nd on Tuesday, 1:10.1 out of first, Kathleen O’Connell finished 38th (+1:33.5) and Hannah Rudd was 59th (+2:24.1).
Canada’s Natalie Hynes placed 36th (+1:30.5), Hannah Mehain was 45th (+1:53.3) and Annika Richardson was 67th (+2:53.7). Catherine Reed-Metayer did not finish.
Andrew Kastning, head coach of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) nordic team, stayed up late the night before Alaska time to watch three UAA skiers (Swirbul, Rudd and Hynes) race on the Junior World Championships livestream.
“Hailey has made classic technique a priority since she stepped on UAA’s campus because that’s where she had the most potential for gain,” Kastning wrote in an email on Tuesday. “She has been working hard on a more powerful and smooth stride on the uphills while getting over elbow pain when double poling. The course looked like it played well to her strengths and that strategy.
“I saw one clip of her entering the big climb and could see that she was relaxed and striding really well,” he continued. “I knew then she was going to have a really good race.”
He noticed that the course had some intimidating downhills and corners, but he knew Swirbul wouldn’t have a problem navigating them.
“Hailey has a solid alpine skiing background and I figured if anyone would be willing to straight line the descents and flatten the corners then a massive amount of time could be saved,” Kastning wrote. “Hailey must have done that because she put 47 seconds on a Russian she was tied with at the high point. I was sort wondering if I was dreaming at moments and had to refrain from yelling and screaming because I’d wake up three daughters and a wife if I did. What a night, what a day. Seawolf Nation and USA are very proud this morning.”
Ogden 7th, Cyr 12th
In the men’s 10 k classic that followed, the excitement continued for Team USA, with 17-year-old Ben Ogden, of the Stratton Mountain School, racing to seventh in his Junior World Championships debut.
Ogden started 72nd and crossed the finish line in first, 16.6 seconds faster than previous race leader Alexander Terentev of Russia. Six later starters ultimately bumped Ogden to seventh, and Norway’s Jon Rolf Skamo Hope took the win in 24:58.8, 40.5 seconds ahead of Ogden.
Russia’s Sergey Ardashev placed second, 9 seconds back, and Norway’s Jørgen Lippert reached the podium in third (+27.9). Norway put four in the top five and Russia had two in the top six, making Ogden the first non-Norwegian or non-Russian male finisher on the day.
According to race splits, Ogden skied an extremely consistent race, clocking the eighth, ninth or 10th fastest times throughout the 10 k.
Canada’s Antoine Cyr placed 12th (+1:07.7) in the second race of his career at Junior World Championships. Two days ago, he finished 30th in the freestyle sprint. Cyr, 19, started 78th and also skied a consistent race, hanging mostly within the top 12 throughout it.
“I knew that classic 10 km was good race for me,” Cyr wrote in an email. “On a good day I was hoping for top 30 but the course was hard and I knew that if I played it smart and paced myself I would be happy with my race.”
He focused on skiing powerfully on his first lap, with big strides and strong double poling, and tried to attack the A-climb and “punchy climb towards the end of the loop” on the second and last lap.
“A top 12 for us in Canada means a lot and with a 25th place in the [skate sprint qualifier] and a 12th place today I think it makes me realize that I have my place on the world level scene,” Cyr wrote. “… This race was a good redemption after my crash in the sprint. I am really happy with the results !!”
Gus Schumacher notched his second top 20 of the week in 17th (after placing 19th in the skate sprint), finishing 1:19.1 out first first, Hunter Wonders placed 22nd (+1:39.1), and Canyon Tobin was 37th (+2:17.2) for the U.S.
In an email, Schumacher, of Alaska Winter Stars, explained he had been aiming for a top 10.
“For this race I really focused on keeping the first quarter super relaxed and then picking it up after that,” he wrote of his pacing. “During the race I felt like I raced the first lap well but somewhere on the second lap I must’ve pushed just a little too hard and gone over my threshold, because I really faltered in the middle of that one on the big sprint hill. Other than that I felt like I skied the flats and most of the gradual uphills well, especially before 7.5k.”
Overall he added that he was “fairly satisfied … but I know that I can do better and that kind of hurts me. I just didn’t feel like I had the spark that I normally have towards the end of a race like this.” Moving forward, he had similar goals for the skiathlon and was excited for the relay.
Canada’s Etienne Hebert finished 44th (+2:42.3), Ty Godfrey was 57th (+3:29.5), and Felix Longpre 58th (+3:29.7) out of 96 finishers.
“It’s really exciting when you look at our day in general,” Fish noted. “We had two young boys with 2000 birth years; there was only three boys in the top 40 that had a 2000 year of birth and we had two. … That’s just really exciting for U.S. skiing in general, that we have athleetes showing up not just to participate, but to really perform.”
Nordic Combined Junior World Championships (Kandersteg, Switzerland): Normal hill/10 k Gundersen
In the first competition of 2018 Nordic Combined Junior World Championships in Kandersteg, Switzerland (about 75 kilometers west of Goms), American Ben Loomis achieved the first podium of his career in his fifth Junior Worlds (counting his first in straight-up ski jumping), racing to third in the individual normal hill/10 k Gundersen on Tuesday.
Loomis, a 19-year-old U.S. Nordic Combined national team member who grew up in Wisconsin, was recently selected to compete at his first Olympics next month in PyeongChang, South Korea. In an email, Loomis explained he found out just over a week ago, which motivated him to compete at a high level, but it didn’t change his plans or goals for his last Junior Worlds.
“My focus of the winter has always been the Junior World championships so my Olympic nomination has not changed my training in the last few weeks,” he wrote. “Going into this week, and for the last 2 years now my goal was always a podium finish.”
He started out Tuesday by jumping to seventh on the 106-meter “normal” hill, then started the 10 k race 38 seconds out of first.
“The hill here in Kandersteg is very new which is nice because it feels similar to other modern jumps,” Loomis explained. “I was satisfied with my competition jump but not 100% happy. There are still a few things I need to fix on the technical side of my jumping.”
The Czech Republic had the two best jumpers on the day, with Ondrej Pazout leading after the jump portion, followed by his teammate Jan Vytrval in second. Pazout started the 10 k with an 11-second head start on Vytrval and ended up holding off his challengers to secure gold, finishing first in 22:58.3. Norway’s Einar Lurås Oftebro raced from 10th after the jump to second at the finish, just 2.3 seconds behind Pazout, with the second-fastest 10 k time.
Loomis passed four skiers to finish third, 8.3 seconds out of first, with the third-fastest time. Norway’s Johannes Lamparter slipped from third to fourth overall (+16.2), and Vytrval finished fifth (+21.6).
“I knew with a good race a podium was still possible from 38 seconds back,” Loomis wrote. “The track here is really tough with technical decent which leaves good opportunity to make up time.”
Working within a group, he caught up to third place on the first of four laps and was up to second on the second lap.
“We had 5 or 6 guys in this group and on the 3rd lap I took the lead,” Loomis explained. “Towards the last hill on the 4th lap, I made a move alongside Einar Oftebro. Einar was strong on the last stretch and able to beat me as well as almost catching the leader Ondra.
“Taking a step on the podium was an excellent feeling today,” he added. “I have been working very hard, especially towards this specific race for a long time now. Accomplishing this is a huge relief and very motivating for the future.”
The U.S. had two in the top 15 with Stephen Schumann in 13th (+1:29.1). Schumann was 29th after the jump and started the 10 k 1:47 out of first, then posted the fifth-fastest course time to pick off 16 places.
“Going into today I was really just hoping to put together a solid jump and a good race and hopefully finish within the top 10 like last year,” Schumann wrote in an email. “Unfortunately I did not have the jump I was hoping for. I was about 1 meter late off the end of the take off, taking away some of the power and height that my legs otherwise would have given me. Luckily the conditions on the hill were pretty consistent today so I knew about where I would be standing after jumping going into the race.”
Given his starting position, he believed a top 15 was within reach. He ended up catching Italy’s Aaron Kostner, who started 27th, and the two worked together to catch one group after another.
“I felt pretty good but he got me on the last lap,” Schumann wrote of Kostner, who finished about 20 seconds ahead of him in 11th place. “But over all it was a pretty good race and I finished with the 5th fastest time. Behind Aaron with the 4th fastest.
“Overall I feel that had I had a little bit better jump on the hill I could have contended for a top 10 maybe top 5 but was happy with my race and my 13th place finish,” he added. “Coming across the line I was pretty sure Ben had finished in the top 5 at least, as I could see him going up the last hill as I was staring down it. But when I actually crossed the line and saw him I could tell he had gotten to the podium and I was psyched for him, went and gave him a hug and congratulated him.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the week, Schumann’s hoping for a medal in the 4 x 5 k team event.
“And personally I hope to finish in the top 10 in the 5km race with a better jump and another solid race,” he wrote.
Also for the U.S., Jared Shumate placed 35th (+4:06.3), up from 49th in the jump, and Tucker Hoefler was 51st (+6:37.4), up from 53rd.