WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — On a course that was 20,000 metres long, Sammy Smith’s race came down to the final centimetre. Take a moment and click through to slide number four of this embedded Instagram post, which shows footage of the final few hundred metres of Monday morning’s women’s 20-kilometre mass start classic race at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships:
That’s Sammy Smith (USST/Sun Valley) in bib no. 14, coming into the stadium alongside three other athletes, the podium established about 90 seconds ahead of them but final finishing positions within the top ten still very much in play. Smith is last of this group of four, by several ski lengths, as they round the bend and approach the finishing lanes.
Suddenly Smith has drawn even with Anniken Sand of Norway and passed her. Two Swedish athletes, Elin Näslund and Tove Ericsson, had seemed well out of reach just a few seconds ago, but Smith’s closing speed is something to behold.
Smith doublepoles with controlled ferocity up the false flat through the western edge of the stadium. The finish line approaches. Smith uncorks an all-time lunge, just inches off the snow and nearly parallel to the ground. Her momentum carries her across the finish line before she collapses in the snow. Ericsson, on her left, perhaps not realizing that anyone could close that quickly, effects a more modest lunge.
Disclaimer, the scoreboard says that Ericsson, 8th overall, beat Smith, 9th overall, to the line, 1:02:57.4 to 1:02:57.4, on the basis of finish-line video that can distinguish between athletes with the same time. But Smith’s lunge was something to behold; Ericsson is lucky that the course was not 20,001 metres long. (Yes I know it was four laps of a 5,267-metre course, which is literally over 21,000 metres total. Work with me here. And they’re “metres” now, because Canada.)
* * *
Let’s back up a little. Monday brought the third day of racing at this year’s championships, and the second day of junior racing, as the world’s best women skiers under age 20 contested a 20km mass start classic race.
Milla Grosberghaugen Andreassen of Norway, who is still just 17, took the win, her second podium in as many races here. Even if she wins every race she may not leave Whistler with one medal for each member of her cheering squad, which is substantial and makes for a boisterous and supportive presence on the side of the course, but she may come close.
Andreassen skied in a two-person breakaway with Lisa Eriksson of Sweden for the lion’s share of the race, the two women distancing themselves from their pursuers midway through the second of four trips around the five-kilometre red loop on the Whistler Olympic trails.
Andreassen dropped Eriksson with around 4km to go and skied in unchallenged for the win, crossing the line in 1:01:17.6 to take gold. Eriksson followed 21.2 seconds back for silver, with Eevi-Inkeri Tossavainen of Finland coming out on top of a three-women chase group for bronze, 33.9 seconds back.
Monday’s podium represented only a slight reshuffling from Saturday’s classic sprint podium, where Tossavainen, Andreassen, and Eriksson went 1–2–3. The three women are skilled at classic skiing over all distances.
Smith’s group at the finish, introduced above, contained places seven through ten within 2.5 seconds.
So how did Smith approach the close of the race?
“The last k I was definitely hurting a lot,” she told Nordic Insights after the finish. “I’m sure the other skiers were as well.”
Smith had skied as high as seventh in the later stages of the race, but was then passed by the rest of her four-person group to sit in tenth approaching the stadium. “Once they passed me, I just knew I had to stick to them and kind of tried to use the draft on the downhill. … I know coming into the last downhill I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be; I was hoping to be kind of two or three more people ahead of where I was. But I just went for it in the lunge. Still waiting to see who got it on the lunge” said Smith, speaking soon after the race when final results were not yet known.
Smith added, “I was obviously hoping to be in that other group that was a little farther up, but seeing as it was my second 20km, I’m happy with it.”
Smith’s first-ever lifetime 20km was earlier this month, in Houghton for U.S. Nationals.
“I think it’s always kind of an opportunity, when you haven’t raced a distance, to be able to do it in a championship,” Smith said. “Because for me, personally, a lot of my race plan kind of goes out the window. I’m just excited to be here and excited to be racing. So my goal was just to try and stick in a pack and just keep with the skiers, and hopefully have a good finish. So I didn’t really honestly think too much about [the new distance]; I was just kind of in survival mode.”
Survival mode for Smith has now brought her seventh- and ninth-place finishes in the only 20km races she has ever done, at U.S. Nationals and here, respectively. Smith has yet to graduate from high school.
Ava Thurston (Dartmouth College) finished roughly three minutes after Smith in 28th, midway through a small pack that made up places 26 through 29. Thurston was consistent in Monday’s race, ranking 28th after one lap, 27th after two laps, 26th after three laps, and 26th through much of lap four, before ceding position slightly in the stadium to finish 28th.
“I had a good bib number to start,” Thurston recounted. “I was tenth at the start. I kind of hung back a little. I really wanted to say relaxed and calm on the first lap, and I think I did a good job with that. And so by the time I came to the second lap I was still feeling like I had a bit left. And then as the laps wore on the technique started to slip a little, but that’s gonna happen, and it just became trying to push as hard as I could.”
Thurston elaborated on what she tells herself over laps three or four, when wax or technique or both are slipping, and skiing is harder for any athlete:
“I had a lot of the race where I was actually kind of in no-man’s land between two groups,” Thurston said. “And so I just tried to think about skiing well, and also just remembering, like, when your body starts to feel tired, that everyone out here is feeling like that, and if I can ski a little technically better, then hopefully I’m feeling it less.”
Compared to her experience two days ago in the classic sprint, Thurston thought that she did a better job of staying relaxed in today’s race. “I think I was able to adjust today and relax,” she said. “So I’m happy with how I was able to change things up during the race, and stay calm during what can be a chaotic time.”
Roughly four minutes later, Rose Horning (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail) crossed the line in 42nd, a position she had occupied for much of the race after skiing up from her starting position in bib no. 48.
It was the 17-year-old’s first-ever 20-kilometre race at any level.
(As an aside, you can also read more about Horning in the long Vail Daily piece mentioned on this site two days ago that also profiles Nina Schamberger. While Anchorage (disclosure: my hometown) is justly renowned for its ski talent, with three out of five U23 men on this year’s team plus a fourth who trains there, Leadville, Colorado, with a population of roughly 2,700 and two out of twelve athletes on this year’s World Juniors team, is punching way above its weight on a per capita basis.)
“I liked it,” Horning said soon after the finish of her inaugural 20km. “I feel like longer races are good for me; it gives me time to settle in. And I have a lot of endurance. So I think the 20km was great. … I might not go farther than that, but 20km was definitely fun.”
Horning also liked the way that she skied today. “I feel like I climbed really well,” she said. “I liked my skis, and my kick was great. So I was able to give big, powerful kicks, and be strong up all the hills.”
When asked about potential growth areas for her next race, Horning observed, “I think right off the start I had a little crash, and then got kind of frantic. So I guess next time if I settle in a little bit more and don’t get so frantic right off the start, it’d be better.”
Horning’s hometown of Leadville is noteworthy, as stated above, for providing a full one-third of this year’s World Juniors women’s team. It is also noteworthy for being nearly two miles above sea level; Horning lives at a hardly FIS-legal 10,000+ feet.
“That’s part of the reason I think that the longer courses are better for me,” Horning reasoned. “I’m used to that altitude. I guess it’s harder to train for sprinting there.”
As for the differences between skiing at the notably high altitude of Leadville versus the 2,800 feet of Whistler Olympic Park, Thurston said, “The biggest thing that’s hard for me [in Whistler] would be that my muscles get tired really quickly. So I’m used to my lungs giving up first at altitude, but here it’s always my muscles. So I guess I have to adjust for that. But it’s helpful that it takes a while before I start to get out of breath.”
The fourth American in the race, Nina Schamberger (Summit Nordic Ski Club), withdrew at roughly the 9km mark in evident pain. She was stretching out her back, while actively skiing, when she lapped through the stadium the first time at 5km. By 9km, a coach was directing her off the course; she was half-helped, half-carried down the hill. Encouragingly, Schamberger could be seen up and walking around later in the day.
Schamberger has had a rough month; she received a concussion from “a vicious fall in the 20k mass start” race at U.S. Nationals in Houghton, according to the Vail Daily article.
All junior athletes, ailing or not, now get a few days off; tomorrow is U23 classic distance races, then Wednesday is a rest day for all cross-country athletes.
Juniors will race the 10km interval-start skate on Thursday. Hattie Barker has yet to race for the U.S. this week, and so will presumably receive a start on Thursday. The Americans will also start three of Haley Brewster, Horning, Schamberger, or Thurston; coaches will look to a variety of factors and work with athletes in making the decision on who starts the skate race.
— Gavin Kentch
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