Anton Grahn of Sweden Takes World Juniors Classic Sprint Crown; American Men Optimistic


WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — Some race writeups are about results. Some race writeups are more about process goals. This article falls into the latter category, as the American men marked Saturday’s junior classic sprint, the opening event of 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships, with results that by all accounts largely fell below their expectations.

But bear with us anyway to see what they learned from the process, because unless your name is Klæbo, no one makes the sprint heats without going out in qualification a few times first. (Like, that’s literally a true statement about ski racing, but you can probably find a metaphor for life in there pretty easily, too.) And if you’re an aspiring junior athlete reading this, take heart, as a common theme of these athletes’ comments was that the distance from you to them is a lot less than you may think.

Max Kluck (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

Max Kluck (Bridger Ski Foundation) was the first American man on course this morning, leaving the start at 10:26:30 a.m. on a perfect day for classic skiing, clear and cold conditions overnight giving way to full sun and firm tracks during the day.

Kluck wore bib number 106, reflecting the sixth-best seed position (i.e., his current FIS sprint points were the sixth-lowest) in the field of 72 athletes. He ended his day slightly less than three minutes later, in 2:56.87, 1.11 seconds out of qualifying. Kluck will train hundreds of hours this year. Today, the difference for him between moving on and not was 1.11 seconds. That’s ski racing.

“It’s tough out here,” Kluck said afterwards. (All quotes in this article are from in-person interviews conducted at the venue earlier today.)

“Everything was set up right, skis were great, beautiful day. But the body was just a little flat. In a field this tight that can be what makes the difference. And sometimes that’s what happens. So yeah, that’s how it went today.”

Kluck was asked what he took from today even after he didn’t advance. “I think we had a really good process coming in,” he noted. “The ski testing went smooth. We had great skis today, I think. It was a great pre-camp. I think I was just a little tired today, a little flat. I think especially as a junior it can be really hard to predict how your body’s gonna feel on race day, and it just didn’t all perfectly come together today. And in a field this tight, that’s what it’s gonna take. And it just didn’t happen today.”

Kluck also had some thoughts for younger juniors who are watching these races from afar and thinking about taking that next step.

“It’s closer than you think,” Kluck said. “I think a few years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have thought I’d be right here in this position, two spots off qualifying at Junior World Championships. … It all comes quicker than you think. It comes when you don’t expect it. So just trust what you’re doing and have fun with it, and it’ll come.”

Adrik Kraftson (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

Next to start for the American junior men, 38 bibs and 9.5 minutes later, was Adrik Kraftson (Northern Michigan University). Kraftson finished his qual in 3:02.13, good for 51st overall.

“It was a tough day out there,” Kraftson said. “But I’m happy to have two more races left this week, and I’m looking forward to those.”

Kraftson felt like he skied the course roughly as he had wanted to, skiing over the top of hills and through transitions well and carrying speed through the corners. “Just a tough day for the body, I guess,” he noted.

Was there anything that surprised Kraftson about his first international race? “Just how fast they are. I think one North American [male, Xavier McKeever] qualified for heats, which was shocking to me. Just gotta step up the game the next couple years.”

Anders Weiss (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

One bib behind him was Anders Weiss (Montana State University), bib no. 145, who like Kraftson skied roughly according to his seeding when he finished in 43rd. Weiss’s time was 3:00.12, leaving him 4.36 seconds out of the heats.

Weiss had a rough day from the start, racing while feeling somewhat under the weather. He took solace from the fact that the classic sprint was not his main focus for the week

“It was really good to experience the whole start zone and all that area, just to get a feel for it,” Weiss said. “This isn’t my race of focus; that’s the 10km coming up.”

Jack Conde (photo: Graeme Williams/@oneskatephotos)

The day’s final starter for the American men, Jack Conde (also Montana State University), most outperformed his bib number, starting in 58th and finishing in 47th.

Conde was also the most buoyant about his day.

“I’m doing good” said the Montana State sophomore, basking in the sun in the finish zone while his parents looked on. “That was my first World Juniors race, and I’m just pumped I can come here and race. I’d never dreamed of qualifying for this event, and it’s been awesome. All the support from the techs, the coaches and everything else has been awesome. So that made it a fun day.”

Conde was happy. “You know, my time may say otherwise, but I’m pumped just to race. I mean, as a kid, I never thought I’d come and race here” at this level, he said.

Like several athletes who raced today, Conde was asked what he would tell younger juniors following along. Here’s his thoughts:

“To the younger kids, I’d say, you see athletes, you know, four or five years older than you and you think you’d never be there, or you’re this speed now and it’ll take, oh, so many years to reach there. But skiing, at least in my experience, has been a game of attrition, where if you stick with it, and you know, are coachable, respect your teammates and your coaches, you can get as far as you want in this sport. And even if where you are in the current state isn’t, you know, World Junior athlete or whatever you want to be, as long as you keep with it, I think you can accomplish a lot. So that’s what I would say.”

*   *   *

Finally, Greta Anderson, USST Development Team Coach, spoke more broadly to how she would contextualize the day’s results for the American men.

“It’s a really tight competitive field,” Anderson noted. “Thirty advance. We have some athletes that are very early in their careers here. They’re in the game speed-wise; of course we’d love to see them advance and certainly there are some things we can work on. But I think they skied really well, all things considered. And you know, the focus for Anders is a distance race later this week. And the focus for Adrik is the distance races later in the week. And Max Kluck will also be doing another distance race that he’s pretty psyched about. So we’re looking forward to that. And I hope today was a bit of a tune-up and a three-minute, welcome to World Juniors; this is what international World Championship–level of racing looks like.”

*   *   *

Finally, I should probably also tell you who won the race. Anton Grahn of Sweden did, over his countryman Elias Danielsson, the duo happily crossing the line in a 1–2 finish for Sweden and celebrating together soon after. Eero Rantala of Finland was third. Norway put a heady three of its four athletes into the final, but Mathias Holbæk, Casper Kvam Grindhagen, and Kristian Kollerud had to settle for fourth through sixth.

You can watch the men’s final in full starting at roughly the 1:50 mark of the fine livestream:

The two Swedes led the field out of the stadium and up the steep initial climb. They calmly led up the striding section that marks the rest of the climb up to the course’s high point, steadily marked by a doublepoling Rantala and three other striding athletes.

The Swedes skied well around the course’s first major curve, a sweeping lefthand turn, as the whole field stayed on their feet. Grindhagen came past them as they approached the descent to the stadium.

It was Norway 1–2 at the base of the downhill, but a common theme from the day had been that there was still a lot of race left to go by this point. Indeed, the lanky Grahn came around them in the final 180° turn with surprising ease, followed by his countryman. Rantala from Finland, wearing bib no. 101 as the day’s top qualifier, came close, but Danielsson’s lunge secured him second. Norway rounded out places four through six.

Here is a screenshot from the livestream showing unofficial times for the final, since precise finish times aren’t yet available in the official FIS results:

Racing continues tomorrow at Whistler Olympic Park with the U23 classic sprint. Start lists are not yet available for Sunday’s races; it will be four of Luke Jager, Johnny Hagenbuch, Gus Schumacher, Zanden McMullen, and JC Schoonmaker for the Americans. I feel comfortable predicting that Jager, McMullen, and Schoonmaker, all of whom have recent strong results in classic sprints, will start. The fourth spot will by definition be filled by one of Hagenbuch or Schumacher.

Unofficial results: qual | finals

— Gavin Kentch

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