WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — Attending, spectating at, or coaching at these championships can bring with it a certain sense of déjà vu. The event’s official name, accurately if slightly awkwardly, spells out the two different age groups it encompasses: Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships. In practice, you basically do every race twice, and a newfound concern for gender equity means that this year all the races are the same distance.
And so while Saturday brought 1.3-kilometre classic sprints for the junior athletes, Sunday brought 1.3-kilometre classic sprints for the U23 athletes. Women’s qualifying at 10 a.m., men’s qualifying at 10:25 a.m., heats starting at 12:05 p.m., first women, then men. Same course, same coaches, mostly the same countries at the top and bottom of the results sheet, largely the same tactics in the heats.
Something different about Sunday was that all four American men were seeded near the top half of the field, and came in with the expectations to match. Something similar was that most of them left disappointed, or at least with results not consistent with their hopes. Another similarity was a notably upbeat attitude about the day, and a commitment to build off of this race into the rest of the week.
The current mood on the team is “pretty high-spirited,” as Zanden McMullen said. “We’ve been having a lot of fun. It’s a nice mix of real seriousness for the races, and keeping each other high-spirited and laughing.”
Read on for more about how this played out earlier today for the U23 American men. The short version is that pre-race favorite JC Schoonmaker suffered an ill-timed fall in his qualifier that left him pole-less for what felt like forever and ended his day far earlier than planned; fellow favorite Luke Jager suffered a broken pole early in his semifinal that left him well off the back for the entire heat; Gus Schumacher skied strongly in his first sprint heats in a year, but did not advance from his quarterfinal; and Zanden McMullen skied well, but ended his day roughly 1.4 seconds from making the heats. None of them seemed heartbroken.
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Taking the athletes in order of descending bib number: JC Schoonmaker (USST/Sugar Bowl) had bib no. 102, reflecting the second-best FIS sprint points in the field. Schoonmaker finished 7th in his most recent classic sprint, in Val di Fiemme earlier this month in stage five of the Tour de Ski. He has another 7th-place finish in a World Cup classic sprint to his name, followed by 8th, 9th, 11th, and 14th places in World Cup skate sprints on his FIS profile from the last few seasons of World Cup racing.
Schoonmaker was many observers’ pick for a likely athlete to advance to the final, as well as perhaps the Americans’ strongest chance for an individual medal this week.
So what ended up happening out there? Let’s let Schoonmaker take it from here.
“I fell on the last corner going into the stadium and broke my pole when I crashed,” Schoonmaker wrote to Nordic Insights a few hours after the race.
“I got up pretty quick but I fell just far enough down the hill that our coach, Olof, was too far behind me to hand me another pole. By the bottom of the downhill Greta had sprinted over from the other side of stadium but I had gained just a little bit too much speed so she had to kinda javelin toss me the pole and I wasn’t able to catch it. At that point I was into the stadium just cranking with one pole and a Swiss luckily saw me and ran over and I finally got another pole which I finished the race with.”
“I’m not even sure how I fell but probably just caught an edge and lost my balance. It’s one of things where you can ski 99 corners without making a mistake but today just happened to be that 100th corner where my head wasn’t fully in and I messed up. That’s the way sprint racing goes so you just gotta take it on the chin and look forward to the next races no matter much it stings.”
So what happened after that?
“I just kept going as hard as I could,” Schoonmaker wrote. “At that point I have no general idea how much time I’ve lost so I’m just thinking to myself that I can still do it and to keep fighting for every second.
“That part is honestly pretty easy because I think the path is pretty obvious. When you get the results list from the coaches and find out that you’re outside the heats it’s quite a bit tougher because I think there’s so many different ways you can take it from there. Obviously I could’ve pouted and been pissed off the rest of the day and don’t get me wrong I definitely did a little bit of that. But you can also pour all of the energy you had for your own heats into cheering on your teammates and being there for them. I ended up going out on course and cheering and I made sure to bring some spare poles with me just in case. 😉 At the end of the day the race didn’t go my way but you can’t win them all so might as well enjoy the Whistler sun on an exciting sprint day.”
Schoonmaker finished his day in 43rd overall. His good humor, magnanimity, and ability to focus on the positive and to quickly reset for the future were roundly praised by his teammate, Luke Jager (USST/University of Utah), who spoke glowingly of Schoonmaker’s ability to quickly shift his attention to helping his teammates in their day. The mood on this team is good right now.
Jager was the next American on course after Schoonmaker for the qualification round, sporting bib no. 107 and the seventh-best seed position. He finished his qual in 2:48.81, which put him through to the heats in 20th, but was also a surprise to him.
“I came in here with some of the better sprint points,” Jager recounted, “and I was like, Alright, well, definitely gonna just mob this qualifier then roll through the heats. And then I had a shitty qualifier. I was like, Alright, people are fast, man. It was just me; I just didn’t ski that fast in the qualifier. And maybe my strength is not really as much in the raw speed; I’m still learning. It’s a bummer, obviously, in front of the home crowd, to shit the bed, but that’s life.”
Jager was placed into the first quarterfinal; athletes are assigned to heats at these championships based on their finishing position in the qual, rather than choosing them. Jager finished fourth in this tightly packed heat, just 0.13 seconds out of automatically advancing in second. But this heat was the day’s fastest by a considerable margin, and both lucky losers, including Jager, ended up coming from this heat.
The heat’s winner and fastest qualifier on the day, Lars Agnar Hjelmeset (yes, his father is Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset; yes, Hjelmeset père raced here in the 2010 Winter Olympics; yes, Xav McKeever’s father, Robin McKeever, also raced here in the 2010 Winter Paralympics; yes, high-level nordic skiing is a very small world), “just mobbed it,” Jager recounted in an expansive interview in the mixed zone at the end of his day, leading to the fast time and two lucky losers.
Moving on to the next round, Jager was placed into the first semifinal, which you can watch starting soon after the 1:24 mark of the livestream replay:
On the replay, six men go into the course’s initial left-hand turn, which pitches sharply upward into a steep climb. Only five men initially emerge, with a sixth, Jager, conspicuously absent from that group.
The incident that intervened — and Jager brooked no ambiguity that, on the spectrum from bad-faith shoving to “that’s just sprinting” race incident it was absolutely the latter — isn’t visible on the replay, so let’s let Jager fill it in from here. At least as well as he can reconstruct what happened.
“I don’t really know” what happened up there. “We just kind of got all tangled up. And it was hard, ’cause no one really wanted to be in the tracks. The tracks are so firm that they’re just kind of an obstacle more than anything, because no one’s in them. So we just kind of got tangled up, and I stepped on my pole, or someone else did, and it broke.”
Even then, Jager wasn’t counting himself out.
“I had images of Ben [Ogden] in Val Müstair” coming back from an initial broken pole to destroy the heat, Jager recounted. “So I was thinking maybe it was possible. But it took me so f–king long to get my strap off. But whatever. … Everyone kind of wanted to be on the inside, because there was no track there. And the wise thing would probably just have been to stay out of trouble and, like, suck it up with the tracks on the right, I guess.”
Jager has raced at a number of levels over the years, from the Olympics, to RMISA races, to NCAA Championships, to U.S. Nationals, to World Cups, and everything in between. He was asked whether things feel different at different levels, or whether ski racing is just ski racing. Here’s Jager:
“Honestly, I’ve learned, when you’re relaxed and skiing well, it doesn’t feel that different. I think a lot of the reason that people, myself included, are so afraid of this kind of racing, and World Cup, is just because in sprinting especially, there’s really an element of just franticness that is really disarming and, like, pretty shitty. And it makes you ski really badly, and use way more energy. But last year I worked really hard to just be like, Alright, it doesn’t matter who it is, I’m gonna ski as relaxed as I can, be passive when I think I need to be passive, and try and be assertive when I need to be assertive. It’s not easy, you know? But I’m kind of starting to figure that out.”
While his day clearly ended sooner than he had hoped for, Jager, like Schoonmaker before him, was notably upbeat about the experience.
Finally, Jager was asked what he would say to current junior athletes watching this race and looking up to him.
“At that age I felt a world of disconnect between this level and what we were doing at home, and honestly just pretty afraid of coming over here and facing these people who just seemed like they have it all put together. But at the end of the day, it’s all just people being people, and no one’s above nerves or doubt.”
“JC and I were talking about this last night, like we have a really nice, relaxed vibe. Because whether it’s here, or a World Cup, or just a time trial, doubt’s gonna find a way to creep in. And just like being okay with that and just knowing that’s part of the game. It’s not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean you’re a bad skier, doesn’t mean you’re gonna ski bad. I mean, after my qualifier today — and I’ve worked really hard to quell this, but in the back of my head I was like, Well, I’m probably gonna get last in my heat, I’m not in good shape, whatever. But I’ve just kind of learned to be like, Well, those voices are gonna be there. You’ve just gotta be present, and thrown down as hard as you can.”
Next on the start list was Gus Schumacher (USST/Alaska Winter Stars), bib no. 132, Jager’s longtime friend and training companion going back to their childhood in Anchorage. Schumacher skied a solid qualifier, finishing 24th in the morning time trial to move on to the afternoon heats.
Schumacher raced in the second quarterfinal; you can watch it starting at the 50-minute mark of the livestream (should be cued up here).
Schumacher vaulted to the front halfway through the heat, affording himself space to take the line he wanted through the course’s defining feature, a steep left-hand curve at the end of the upper section of the sprint course. He came out of this curve in second, then was —- entering the stadium a few hundred meters later. He was third at the finish, ending his day in the quarterfinal.
Schumacher was accepting of the result, speaking candidly about his relative rust in this event and his recent arrival at the venue (Schumacher traveled from Anchorage to Whistler on Friday).
“That was definitely the first sprint heats in a long time, I guess since U23s last year,” Schumacher recounted. “That was the only one of last year. The year before that I probably did one or two. So yeah, it’s been a while.”
“Obviously I was hoping to go through,” Schumacher said. “But realistically, that would have been a really good day for me to be in the U23 semifinals.
“I am really struggling on that corner on the back,” Schumacher said of Heartbreak Corner near the high point of course. “Pretty much every time I go into it, I think I just cut it a little hard. … I lost two spots there, which honestly wasn’t too bad, because I came into the stadium in third, which is pretty optimal. But maybe I just wasn’t quite close enough, because I didn’t really slingshot. My doublepole [in the stadium] was solid, but not quite as good as these 6’2”, 200-pound guys.”
“I wish I had held my edge on that corner,” Schumacher said when asked about a postmortem for the heat. “Because I think I could have been farther forward going into the last turn. I think part of that is just showing up yesterday, like having by now maybe five times through the corner. I think if I really wanted to do well in this race, I would have come here earlier, but I’m happy with that, given my situation.” (Schumacher is targeting the later distance races more so than the sprint.)
Finally, Schumacher is now 22 years old, and racing in his sixth consecutive World Juniors or U23 championship — that relay silver in Goms was in 2018, you may be surprised to learn. He was asked what this experience lets him bring to the team by this point.
“I think one of the biggest things is just — and maybe I don’t say this a bunch. But just being confident in yourself on the day, like, you only have what you have, and your goal should be realistic for that. And if if everything’s level-headed, you should be confident no matter how fast you are, you should just be confident and trust yourself as much as possible, because it’s gonna set you up the best for success. Hopefully I like lead by example a little bit, but that’s always an easier thing said than done. And I think that’s something that everyone just works on through their whole career. Probably never perfect.”
Finally, the third Anchorage native in the race, Zanden McMullen (USST/APU), had bib no. 134 for the qual, reflecting his seeding of 34th based off his sprint points. Two minutes and 54 seconds later, plus some change, he finished, well, 34th in the qualifier.
Like the rest of the Americans today, McMullen wished that he had done better, but was also accepting of the result and had many positive takeaways from the day.
“I was really hoping to just crack that top 30,” McMullen said. “Because this season, I’ve been racing much better in the heats and kind of struggled with qualifiers. But I knew that if I made it in, I was pretty confident that I could work my way up. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I don’t know where exactly I lost that time. But I’m happy to be racing, and I think this will set me up nicely for the next few distance races, which was more or less the goal. … Today was to get prepped for the 20km and the 10km skate. So I think I did that, and just kind of keep in high spirits about it.”
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Finally, at the front of the race, you can watch the men’s final starting at 1:50 of the livestream.
Ansgar Evensen of Norway used a vicious acceleration in the striding section of the climb to open up a gap roughly midway through the final. He kept it from there to the finish; while the rest of the field caught up slightly, by the time the men reached the start of the finish lanes the only real object of suspense was which Swede would take second behind him. George Ersson did, 0.80 seconds back of Evensen, and just 0.02 seconds up on Emil Danielsson in third.
Back to the Juniors/U23 duality that opened this article, Evensen won this same event as a junior in 2020 in Oberwiesenthal.
Racing at the 2023 championships continues today with a 20km mass start classic race for the junior men, then on Tuesday with a 20km mass start classic race for the U23 men. Max Kluck, Adrik Kraftson, Jack Lange, and Luka Riley will start for the men in today’s juniors race.
— Gavin Kentch
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