Eight points. That’s the number that separated Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in the Sprint World Cup standings before Saturday’s freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland.
Three sprints. That’s the number of World Cup sprint races that remained in the 2017/2018 calendar, one of which took place on Saturday.
With one down and a classic sprint and skate sprint to go, Falla’s lead has grown to 28 points. It’s not much, with 150 sprint points remaining in the two remaining races (100 for winning the Drammen classic sprint and 50 for winning the skate sprint at World Cup Finals in Falun), but she’s getting there. Let’s just say neither of these two women can afford to skip a sprint.
Coming off her last race of the Olympics, the team sprint (where Norway took bronze behind the U.S. and Sweden), Falla had 10 days to recover before Lahti. Nilsson had six days after notably racing to third in the 30-kilometer classic mass start on the last day of the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Six time zones away from Korea in Finland, Falla and Nilsson faced off once again, but instead of racing for gold (which Nilsson had claimed in the Olympic classic sprint), they’re in a race for the Sprint Crystal Globe (of which Falla is the two-time defending champion).
As alluded to, Falla had the edge on Saturday, winning the women’s 1.4 k skate sprint by 0.36 seconds over Nilsson in 2:54.83 minutes. She did it by leading from start to finish — a tactic she hadn’t necessarily planned nor desired —on the same course that she won on at World Championships last year. In that skate sprint, Falla bested Americans Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall for gold. Diggins and Randall placed second and third in that race, respectively, but the two did not contest Saturday’s sprint in Lahti. Instead, they were coming off a New York City media tour that involved several appearances with major TV networks.
But back to Falla. The 27-year-old left her competition chasing on Saturday, advancing to the final after placing second in her quarterfinal (0.71 seconds behind Nilsson) and first in the first semifinal (just 0.04 seconds ahead of Nilsson in second place).
She had qualified for the heats in 12th, 7.96 seconds off of the top time of 2:54.72 set by Sweden’s Hanna Falk.
“I was really stressed in the prologue,” Falla said afterward, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “In the heats I had a better feeling.”
She had to fend off three Swedish heavy hitters in the final: Nilsson, Falk and Ida Ingemarsdotter.
But Falla never let any of them get ahead of her — an impressive feat on Lahti’s sprint course with two major climbs. The lone Norwegian in the final, Falla jetted out of the gate and into the lead, with Falk quick to challenge her before the first uphill. But Falla stayed ahead.
“I didn’t want the first position, but I just got it in the start,” Falla told FIS in a televised post-race interview. “So I just had to lie in front and do the best I could.”
While Falla continued to drive the pace, Sweden’s Falk took a breather near the back while Ingemarsdotter and Nilsson slotted into second and third. Germany’s Sandra Ringwald, in her first World Cup sprint final since the Tour de Ski in late December, skied in fourth, ahead of Falk and Switzerland’s Laurien van der Graaff.
Falla led the downhill then into last long, multi-tiered climb, while the three Swedes assembled hungrily behind her. Nilsson began her attack when they hit the steepest section near the top, but Falla was at least a step or two ahead as they rounded the 180-degree turn and began to descend down the other side.
Tucking into the stadium, Falla got low and used her fast skis to gain a few more meters on Nilsson. She then took a couple of strides to keep her momentum and finally launched her final V2 push toward the finish.
No one could match her; not Nilsson skiing closest to her, nor Falk or Ringwald just behind. She didn’t even have to lunge to secure the victory over Nilsson, but Falk and Ringwald did as they placed third (+0.78) and fourth (+0.88), respectively. For Ringwald, fourth place marked her best individual World Cup result in a little over a year (after she placed fourth in a 2017 skate sprint in Toblach, Italy).
For Falla, it was her second individual World Cup win of the season and first victory since Dec. 2 in Lillehammer, Norway, where she won the classic sprint. Falla was the 2014 Olympic champion in the individual skate sprint. And let’s not forget, she won the World Championships sprint in Lahti last year as well as the 2016 Lahti World Cup skate sprint.
“Last year here and also two years ago I was in front down the last downhill, and I succeeded there for the last three years so I knew it is very possible to lie in front as well,” Falla told FIS. “In the final I had Stina and Hanna behind me and I knew both of them are really fast. I have a big respect for them and I am very happy I could win today.”
Nilsson, who bested Falla for the classic-sprint gold medal in PyeongChang, had qualified for Saturday’s heats in 14th, 8.26 seconds out of first.
“I felt pretty good in the prologue, but in the end I was missing some seconds, which I probably lost after the start,” she told FIS. “In the heats I found my pace and I could keep all the way through to the final. In the final, I was not so fast after the start but I am happy to be on the podium again. It is very good for the sport that the battle for the Sprint Crystal Globe is still going.”
Falk also said she was satisfied with her end result, after winning her quarterfinal and advancing as a lucky loser in third in the semifinal with Falla and Nilsson.
“I had a very good qualification,” Falk told FIS. “I tried to fight in every heat. The final was hard but I am happy to be third today. I had a good speed before the last corner but it was always tight there. It was a tough fight between me and Sandra [Ringwald]. I’m happy to be third.”
Four Americans in Top 30
Leading the Americans in the qualifying round was Sadie Bjornsen in fifth, 3.88 seconds off Falk’s fastest time. Sophie Caldwell qualified in 17th, Ida Sargent advanced in 21st and Rosie Brennan followed in 29th.
For Brennan, it was her first time back in the heats in about two months after she qualified in 21st in the Tour de Ski classic sprint on Oberstdorf, Germany. While the heats were canceled that day due to a storm, Brennan went on to finish the Tour in 24th overall. Since then, however, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) member has finished outside the top 40 in four World Cup races and one Olympic event (the 15 k skiathlon).
Despite finishing sixth in her quarterfinal on Saturday, 4.91 seconds behind Ingemarsdotter in first, Brennan’s overall result of 29th indicated she was back on track.
“I have been struggling with health and recovery since the tour,” Brennan wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I’ve just been taking things day by day and trying to work through whatever issue I am facing. The Olympics was a huge disappointment for me. I did what I thought was best to prepare for the games, but have struggled with my health and my body and as a result was far from where I wanted to be at that time.”
In PyeongChang, she raced one event — the skiathlon — and placed 58th. She stayed with the team for the duration of the Games, hoping to have the opportunity to race the 30 k. But that wasn’t in the cards.
“It’s very challenging to be at the games and not be participating in the events that you have trained for over so many years,” Brennan reflected. “I have had some good races this year and have made some improvements so I am doing my best to remember that and try to see each day as a new opportunity. My goals moving forward are more about my feelings, my body, and my health than any results. I am very happy to have made a step forward today and am hoping my distance skiing will see the same results. I wasn’t able to ski my quarterfinal as well as I would have liked, but it’s been awhile since I’ve raced now so to just get another stab at it was a great step forward.”
Out of the four Americans in the quarterfinals, Caldwell was the lone U.S. woman in the semifinals. She had raced to second in her quarterfinal, finishing 0.25 seconds behind Ringwald, who won that heat. But her road there wasn’t an easy one, as Caldwell skied up from near the back of the pack into second coming out of the final downhill. There, she scooted ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng, who had been second at the time, while Weng dropped to last in the heat.
Weng, who placed 26th overall, told NRK that she was “mowed down” when Caldwell ran over her skis.
“… I had the ambition to do well, and it’s incredibly annoying when something like that happens,” Weng said, according to a loose translation.
She added that she didn’t discuss it with Caldwell after.
“I can’t do anything about it now,” Weng said. “Things like that happen in a sprint…”
Caldwell reflected that it might’ve been worth conserving less energy and using more to get in a better position before that last downhill.
“I found myself in the back there with no room to pass or respond to a move,” Caldwell wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “… There is a big draft on the final downhill and if you’re leading, you need to send it and have a good bullet tuck, and if you’re within contact of the leader, you can try to work the draft and in my quarter I was able to do that. I don’t remember there being contact with Heidi, but we both definitely bobbled a bit on the final corner.”
Caldwell’s first World Cup podium came in Lahti four years ago. Last year at World Championships, she reached the skate-sprint final and placed sixth overall.
On Saturday, she made it to the semifinals and finished fourth in the second semi, 1.46 seconds behind Ringwald in first.
“I have had some success in Lahti before and I’ve also had some disappointing results, and I think today was somewhere in between,” Caldwell wrote. “I enjoy how tactical this course can be with all the corners and transitions. I was feeling quite good today, but I struggled to find that extra punch and didn’t ski with the confidence or control I know I’m capable of, so even though the result is by no means a bad one, I was just disappointed in how I skied mentally in the semi final.”
She was pleased with her recovery after the Olympics, where she placed eighth in the classic sprint and fifth with the women’s 4 x 5 k relay.
“The Olympics can be physically and emotionally exhausting, so I made sure I took some time to take it easy and get my feet under me again,” Caldwell wrote. “I was really looking forward to getting back in the World Cup routine in Europe. We had a very long travel day, so we were feeling a little rugged the first day here, but some good sleep, food, and training had me feeling quite good a couple days later. I did some light intervals on Thursday that felt quite good and was psyched for today.”
Bjornsen described having some trouble transitioning from the Olympics back to the World Cup. She raced four events in PyeongChang, with a top individual result of 14th in the classic sprint.
“It was an interesting step back to the World Cup today,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to several media outlets. “It has been a real ‘homesick’ week here coming back from the Olympics, and sometimes hard to feel how your actual muscles are feeling instead of your head. Fortunately, my muscles felt surprisingly good in the qualifier and I felt really excited to see what I could do today!”
In her quarterfinal, she recalled getting “tangled” and losing her positioning on the first turn, leaving her chasing the rest of the group.
“I finally caught them on the very top of the course, but just narrowly missed getting into their draft down the hill, and missed moving with those top three,” Bjornsen wrote. “Sprinting has been everywhere from amazing to frustrating this year, and what I have learned is that you can never think too hard about it. Often for me, the difference between a fantastic day, and a frustrating day is some super move that I either find, or I miss.”
She ended up fourth in her quarterfinal, 2.84 seconds behind Falk in first, which put Bjornsen 17th overall.
“I am just looking forward to heading into tomorrow with a head that is back excited again, and some muscles feeling good!” Bjornsen wrote of Sunday’s 10 k classic. “I put a lot of focus into my form at the Olympics without much thought about afterwards. Fortunately, the majority of the World Cup field is in the same state, so now we are all just racing with what sort of energy and excitement we have left. I always kind of like that. It is raw and fun.”
Sargent finished the day in 27th overall after placing sixth in her quarterfinal, 1.07 seconds behind Sweden’s Anna Dyvik in first. After skiing in fourth in the middle of the race, Sargent moved up to second on the final downhill toward the finish. But on the tight lefthand corner before the finishing straight, she lost her position and momentum and slipped to sixth.
“Today wasn’t great but it was a huge step forward for me,” Sargent wrote to FasterSkier. “I haven’t raced much recently and was struggling with injury so I’m just super happy to be racing again and very excited to have a bunch more racing in the next few weeks.”
In the last World Cup sprint before the Olympics, she broke her thumb and flew to Colorado for surgery. Sargent then jetted to South Korea, where she placed 33rd in the Olympic classic sprint.
“I’m excited to feel like my fitness is still there after so much travel and not much racing,” Sargent wrote.
Beatty 34th for Canada; Phinney 36th in First World Cup
Canada’s Dahria Beatty missed qualifying for the heats in 34th, 0.9 seconds out of 30th place. While she was the lone Canadian woman competing on Saturday, three other American women started, with Kelsey Phinney of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) racing to 36th, 1.25 seconds out of qualifying, in her World Cup debut.
“I was pretty happy with my effort, definitely a little bummed to miss out on the heats, but cool to know that I’m pretty close to that level!” Phinney wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I’m psyched to be here and getting a World Cup start was one of my main goals of the season. Being a second out of qualifying will for sure help stoke the fire for next year and I learnt a lot today from things that went right and things that didn’t.
“This was my first World Cup start and everyone has been so welcoming,” she continued. “I’ve been having a lot of fun and just trying to take it all in. … It’s hard to put the feeling of being at the start line of a World Cup into words, it’s something I’m hoping to get to experience a lot more of!”
(Her Sun Valley teammate Kevin Bolger, also in his first World Cup, placed 11th overall after reaching the semifinals in the men’s 1.6 k sprint. “I am so proud of Kevin, it was so special to get to watch him holding his own with the best in the world in the heats today! Really cool to see your teammate crush it in his first World Cup.”)
Phinney explained that Saturday was a one-time opportunity since she’ll be joining the OPA Cup trip on Monday before flying back to the U.S. for SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury, Vermont, later this month. She’s spent the better part of the last month racing in Norway, placing sixth in a FIS skate sprint in Åsen and 13th in a Scando Cup skate sprint last weekend in Trondheim.
“She had a really impressive Scando Cup Sprint last weekend, and has shown she can skate sprint with the best of them,” SVSEF Head Coach Chris Mallory wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I thought she might squeak into the top 30 with a good day. She skied the first half of the sprint today very fast, so the pacing was just a touch off. But still, very solid effort for her first WC. She’s shown the speed is there, so she’ll be back.”
Also for the U.S., two Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) skiers, Caitlin Patterson and Kaitlynn Miller, placed 56th (+20.12) and 61st (+21.70), respectively.
Notes: In the first women’s quarterfinal, Germany’s Victoria Carl skied up on the ski tails of Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, which caused both women to crash out of contention on the final downhill. Pärmäkoski had been skiing in second at the time, behind Nilsson in first. She finished fifth in that heat (+12.11) and Carl, who appeared to hit her head, took a long time to stand back up and crossed the line in sixth (+49.5). Carl was relegated to last (30th place) for obstruction.
German coach Janko Neuber told reporters after that, “She crashed, fell on the head and bruised the back of her neck. As a precaution she is being taken to the hospital for evaluations, but we are optimistic that it isn’t anything serious.”
Pärmäkoski, who finished the day in 21st overall, wrote in Instagram: “This was a bit tough but today, with the fall, shorts [sprints] were short. Fortunately tomorrow is another chance.”
— Chelsea Little and Harald Zimmer contributed