Norway Beats Norway in Beitostølen Mixed Relay; U.S.A. 10th


This is a pretty late race recap, because this reporter also raced today, albeit poorly, and the only thing harder than contesting multiple sprint relays in a day is contesting multiple sprint relays in a day followed by writing a good article while hungry and tired. Sorry.

Race: Mixed-gender 4 x 5-kilometer relay (female classic–male classic–female skate–male skate), Beitostølen, Norway

Is there embedded video you can watch? Sort of. Here is a six-minute highlight video from NRK, which is short on the Americans but otherwise hits the, well, highlights:

What happened at the front of the race? Load management happened. The World Cup season is a four-month, 35-race grind under the best of circumstances. Few athletes not named “Jessie Diggins” plan to contest every race all season long, and even Diggins ended up sitting out today. This year, mixed-gender races do not accrue individual World Cup points for athletes, following an off-season rule change from FIS. Plus this was the third consecutive three-race weekend to start Period 1. Plus it was really cold all weekend in Beitostølen, which is always draining for athletes gasping for air at race intensity.

Put all that together, and World Cup overall leaders Pål Golberg and Tiril Udnes Weng, among many others, did not start for Norway. Sweden trotted out A-list athletes for its first team — Maja Dahlqvist, William Poromaa, Frida Karlsson, and Calle Halfvarsson — but many other nations did not.

And to answer your question, no, Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins did not start today, leaving it to a quartet of young Americans to defend the inaugural mixed-relay title that the U.S. won in Falun last March. (Of note, that was the final race of that season, and did count for individual World Cup points.)

Head Coach Matt Whitcomb spoke candidly to this decision in a pre-race text message to Nordic Insights:

“It’s difficult to pass over Rosie and Jessie for relay selection, but at the moment, we must find a little breathing room in the schedule for these two; Jessie has raced eight races in the last two and a half weeks, and Rosie is returning from an illness in Lillehammer. So, while it’s a bummer, it’s the obvious choice we need to make. Due to a FIS rule change this year, athletes do not receive individual World Cup points for team events any longer. While team events are scored to our Nations Cup scoring, this decision will not affect the standings for the World Cup overall.”

For her part, Diggins wrote on Instagram, “It hurts my heart to not race a team relay, but right now it would have hurt my tired body more, so I got to help with face paint and cheer!” She lauded the effort and commitment of the American starters (more on that in a minute).

Back to the front of the race, and at the risk of spoiling the outcome: Norway II didn’t know that it wasn’t supposed to win today. Norway I (Anne Kjersti Kalvå) led the scramble leg through the stadium, for the first time; each athlete skied two laps of the same 2.5-kilometer course. Julia Kern, skiing leadoff for the Americans, was 2.5 seconds back at this point, as the top 13 teams, out of 17 starters, all skied together.

Gaps were opening by the next time checkpoint, at 3.7km, but Kern was still within contact, eight seconds back. But then Kalvå and Finland I (Johanna Matintalo) surged, marking the race’s first sizeable disruption. The two finished the distaff classic leg nearly 15 seconds ahead of third, handing off to Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget (Norway I) and Perttu Hyvärinen (Finland I) with a sizeable gap.

But the race was only a quarter over by this point. By 7.5km, midway through the men’s classic leg, it was still Norway I and Finland I skiing together, 23 seconds clear of third, and looking as if this could be a two-team duel to the finish. By 10km, though, one lap later, it was still Norway I in the lead, but now France, Italy, and Norway II all bunched together in second close behind.

It was the women’s turn again now, and the first skate leg. Karlsson destroyed her leg, skiing the day’s fastest leg-three time (it was within six seconds of besting the Polish anchor among the men’s leg-four times) to drag Sweden back into contention. Heidi Weng, the third leg for Norway I, had a rough time of things, losing 18.5 seconds to Karlsson over 5km as her team lost ground. She later spoke critically of her performance, saying, “It was tiring and it was heavy. I didn’t have much to go with today,” according to an auto-translation.

By the final exchange it was Norway II and Sweden I at the front, with Norway I now 7.7 seconds back in third. Finland I was very much still in the mix for a podium spot, seven seconds back of Norway 1, with France lurking nine additional seconds back in fifth if the wheels came off someone in front of them.

Simen Hegstad Krüger headed out on course for Norway II at the 15km point of the 20km, marked by Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden I. Emil Iversen came through for Norway I 7.7 seconds later, and immediately set about trying to track down Halfvarsson and his teammate.

It took some time, but Iversen eventually caught them, making it a three-way race for first midway through the final leg. The men probed each other for weaknesses, until finally Krüger made a move that stuck on the penultimate climb of the final lap. He would ski in unchallenged to the finish, taking the win for Norway II in 54:04.

Behind him, Iversen (Norway I) and Halfvarsson (Sweden I) staged a furious battle for second, jumpskating up the final climb back to the finish as if it were a sprint heat. It was extremely close, but Iversen got there first, or at least close enough to first to grab the inside track coming into the stadium. He swung wide into the finishing lanes, forcing Halfvarsson to go even further, and sprinted it out for the win. Norway II first, Norway I second, Sweden I third.

Joni Maki, the anchor leg for Finland I, hemorrhaged time throughout his leg, giving up over 33 seconds to Iversen over just 5km. He was fortunate to hold off France for fourth.

“Everyone thought Norway I was the best team today but we fooled everyone and sent the second best team over the finish line first,” Norway II skier Mikael Gunnulfsen told FIS.

It was the first World Cup podium of Gunnulfsen’s career. It was the first World Cup podium of fellow Norway II skier Silje Theodorsen’s career. It was the first World Cup career win for fellow Norway II skier Lotta Udnes Weng. There are a lot of good skiers in Norway.

What happened for the Americans: Julia Kern, Hunter Wonders, Sophia Laukli, and Ben Ogden, in that order (average age: 23; senior citizen: Kern is 25), carried the flag for the Americans. Team USA was 10th at the first exchange. They were 10th at the second exchange, 10th at the third exchange, and 10th at the finish. The athletes’ lap times ranked between 8th and, well, 10th on the day. In conclusion, the young Americans were approximately the 10th-best team today.

The team that raced today was more precisely USA I. There was also a team USA II on yesterday’s start list, consisting of Alayna Sonnesyn, Zak Ketterson, Novie McCabe, and Gus Schumacher. By the time race day dawned, Schumacher had been swapped out for fellow Alaskan Scott Patterson. By the time the race started, USA II was listed in the results as DNS (did not start), reflecting the toll of a long season to date.

The American squad is currently populated by, in part, “some tired pups,” as Sonnesyn noted on Instagram (see below).

Photo: screenshot from @asonnesyn Instagram story

What do the Americans think about their day? Here are some answers for you from Julia Kern. Kern speaks to what relay day means for the team-centric Americans, and provides some great detail on why the classic scramble leg shook out the way it did: Recent snowfall meant that everyone wanted to ski in only one of the tracks, so the whole pack skied en masse through the first 2.5km before things started stretching out, in a move that Kern didn’t initially even see because she was still skiing in a single-file line of athletes.

You can hear Kern’s full audio here:

What’s next: Some rest, frankly. The next World Cup race is not until Saturday, in Davos, Switzerland, marking the first five-day respite between races since the start of this season. After a skate sprint on Saturday and a 20km interval-start skate on Sunday, there is a break of nearly two weeks until the Tour de Ski begins in Val Müstair, Switzerland, on December 31.


— Gavin Kentch

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