The men’s U23 sprint article will be up on the site tomorrow morning. Thank you for your patience, and thanks for reading.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — The women’s ski team at the University of Utah isn’t actually coterminous with the U.S. Ski Team; it can just feel that way at times.
Like Sunday, the second day of races at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships here at a sun-drenched Whistler Olympic Park, when Utah teammates Novie McCabe and Sydney Palmer-Leger led the way for the Americans, finishing 23rd and 30th overall in the women’s 1.3-kilometre classic sprint. Fellow NCAA skiers Anabel Needham (Michigan Tech) and Kate Oldham (Montana State) finished in 34th and 41st, respectively.
McCabe and Palmer-Leger have shared World Junior relay podiums, U.S. Nationals podiums, RMISA podiums, NCAA titles, and all the things both mundane (van rides, shakeout jogs) and significant (time trials, race days) that go into being teammates on the nation’s dominant NCAA ski team by a substantial margin. Sunday, they shared the experience of making the U23 sprint heats with no broken poles, sadly a rare occurrence for their teammates in the men’s races today.
The two women were closely linked in qualifying as well, with Palmer-Leger going out 30th and McCabe 31st on another perfect morning for classic skiing in the Callaghan Valley. McCabe finished 24th in the qual, in 3:21.05, to safely make it into the heats. Live timing initially suggested that Palmer-Leger had landed in the wooden-medal spot of 31st in qualifying, but updated, and official, results ultimately had her in 30th, 0.02 seconds clear of 31st. Every second, and fraction of a second, counts out there.
Behind them, as noted, Needham ended her day in 34th, with Oldham in 41st.
On to the heats.
Palmer-Leger was placed into the first quarterfinal (heats at these championships are assigned on the basis of finishing position in the qual, not selected by the athletes), which starts at the 16-minute mark of the above livestream.
Palmer-Leger stumbled slightly immediately off the line, not breaking a pole but not planting cleanly, either. She was in sixth throughout first the steep climb and then the gradual climb in the first half of the course, not losing too much more ground but also not coming back in contact with the pack.
Little changed throughout the rest of the heat. Jasmin Kähärä of Finland, who had the day’s fastest time in qualifying and would also win her semifinal en route to winning the final, skied away from the rest of the field, leaving the three athletes in third through fifth to fight for what were ultimately both lucky loser spots that came out of this quarterfinal. Palmer-Leger doublepoled valiantly behind them but was ultimately unable to make up much ground; she finished sixth in the heat, roughly seven seconds out of fifth.
“I felt a little tired in my qualifier and I made it in by just a slim amount,” said Palmer-Leger at the finish. (All quotes in this article are from in-person interviews with Nordic Insights at the race venue.)
“And then I had the first heat, which was with the girl that won” the qualifier. “I didn’t have the best start — I actually tripped myself up a little bit, just kind of poled right between my legs. So it was okay to have the experience, but I got dropped a little bit, which was hard and didn’t feel super well, but that’s okay.”
Palmer-Leger was asked what she learned from the day.
“I learned that things can change a lot, and just staying positive and look at the positives in the race,” she said. “And my body might not feel the best, but you’re not always going to be at the top. And there’s so many other races to look forward to, so you don’t want to put yourself down.”
The second women’s quarterfinal, with Novie McCabe, went off as Palmer-Leger was conducting her interview in the mixed zone. You can watch her heat at the 21-minute mark here.
McCabe skied well off the line and up the initial sharp climb; she was sitting in third as the lead pack of five strode up the plateau. She dropped off slightly coming into the start of the initial descent, and was in fifth as the athletes navigated their way through the sharp left-hand turn. She was squarely in contact through the ensuing downhill, but became distanced on the final few hundred meters of doublepole within the stadium. She finished fifth in the heat, and 23rd overall on the day.
“My race got off to a pretty good start,” McCabe recounted. “I feel like I was in a pretty good position coming into the last 400 meters, but I just don’t really have the speed there, unfortunately.”
A common theme in yesterday’s junior races was that the stadium part of the sprint course is long, and skis longer than it looks. McCabe did not disagree with this assessment.
“It’s just a really hard doublepole” from there to the end, she said, “and pretty much nothing else. Like it’s just a doublepole fest, and is pretty hard, in my opinion. You don’t really have any breaks or transitions. I think it’s kind of important to be in a good position at the end of that last corner, and kind of try to slingshot yourself around. But other than that, it’s just a lot of doublepoling.”
And as for takeaways?
“I learned that I need to work on my doublepole speed,” McCabe said. “Which I knew. But work on it more, I guess.”
Behind them, Anabel Needham, 34th in qualifying, regretted not finishing four positions higher, but found many positives in her day nonetheless.
“I was just really excited to be out here,” Needham said. “It’s my second time at U23s, and of course I really wanted to get through to the heats, but I just wanted to leave it all out there and ski hard. I haven’t skied a sprint course like this before, so it was fun to have different terrain, and turns. I think I skied it pretty well. I can always nitpick it, but overall, I’m happy. And a sunny day never hurts.”
As for the day overall, Needham was happy with her striding in the first half of the course, and how she had stayed on her feet through the corners. She looked forward to using this course knowledge to aid her in the distance classic race in two days.
Kate Oldham, 41st in qualifying, was not immediately available for comment. Sorry.
At the end of the day, Jasmin Kähärä made it a clean sweep by winning the final, as well as her semifinal, her quarterfinal, and the qualifier. Kristin Austgulen Fosnæs and Sigrid Leseth Føyen, both of Norway, were second and third. Moa Hansson of Sweden, who has multiple World Cup top-30s, was fourth.
Kähärä has an impressive race résumé at the age of 22, including a third-place finish in the classic sprint at Finnish national championships last weekend, a 13th place in the classic sprint at Ruka to start this World Cup season, six other World Cup top-30s, and a 26th in the skate sprint at the Beijing Olympics. Her previous best finish in an individual event at U23s was eighth, two years ago.
Racing in Whistler continues tomorrow with the junior women’s 20-kilometer mass start classic race. Four of Hattie Barker, Haley Brewster, Rose Horning, Nina Schamberger, Sammy Smith, and Ava Thurston will start for the U.S. Each American athlete is guaranteed at least one individual start at these championships, USST D Team Coach Greta Anderson told Nordic Insights yesterday.
— Gavin Kentch
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