WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — The race of the day for the American women in Thursday’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate clearly went to Hattie Barker, who massively over-performed her bib number — but not, according to coaches, her range of expected performances today — when she started the day with the tenth-worst points in the race and ended it with, for not a brief period, the fastest time over the course, which took her straight from the finish line to the faux fur–lined leader’s chair and several minutes of facetime on the global FIS livestream while sitting in front of a comfy fire.
Unless it clearly went to Haley Brewster, who logged the fastest splits throughout her race, supplanted Barker in the leader’s chair upon its conclusion, warmly greeted her teammate, and took her spot in the ceremonial perch. Then stayed there. For the next 26 athletes, nearly half the field. En route to finishing 10th overall. And, by the way, presumptively skiing her way onto next year’s U.S. Ski Team.
Unless it clearly went to Sammy Smith, who finished sixth, her third top-ten mark here in as many races and the Americans’ single best result all week — and who was disappointed not to have been higher.
Unless it clearly went to a hobbled Nina Schamberger, who on paper finished far down the results sheet in an unremarkable 36th, but who, according to USST D Team Coach Greta Anderson, had the day’s grittiest performance.
Bottom line, there was a lot to celebrate for Team U.S.A. on yet another uncharacteristically sun-drenched day at Whistler Olympic Park, in the final day of individual junior racing at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships. Whether you want breakthrough results, supportive American results, consistently strong results, or all-time gritty results, you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
Let’s start with Barker, the first American skier across the finish line today. Hattie Barker, from Vermont, skis for the University of New Hampshire. She went out on course as an early starter, wearing bib no. 10 in a field of sixty. Bib numbers, in a traditionally seeded interval-start race, are a useful heuristic for past performance, and also, it must be said, for the day’s likely results.
For example, bib no. 60 today, Milla Grosberghaugen Andreassen of Norway, came into the race with the lowest (i.e., best*) FIS distance points, and won the race. Bib no. 59, Tuva Anine Brusveen-Jensen of Norway, came into the race with the second-lowest FIS points, and was second. Bib no. 58, Trove Ericsson of Sweden, had the third-lowest FIS points, and was fifth. The correlation is not perfect, but is strong.
But that’s why you play the games. Barker headed out on course wearing bib no. 10, one of the earliest starters on the day. The other athletes skiing around her at this stage were, if I can gracefully say this about junior girls who all have far better FIS points than me, skiing like, well, some of the ten slowest athletes in the field.
Then Barker came through. She exploded up the quick V1 climb out of the stadium, and switched into a V2 on the ensuing “flat” far before any of the other athletes around her. The race was admittedly not very old at that point, but Barker was off to a strong start.
This strong start continued, as Barker, who was making her first race start here this week, received splits that she was leading throughout much of her time on course.
“It definitely feels like I just have to keep working as hard as I can to try and hang on to what I had out there,” Barker said when asked about the experience of being race leader in a world championship. “And that’s something that I feel like I can do pretty well mentally as a good part of my ski racing, is to be able to push myself.”
The yellow jersey gives you wings, as they say, but the second lap of a two-lap interval-start course has a way of clipping those wings.
“The second lap was definitely harder,” Barker acknowledged. “I was definitely having to really dig deep and push myself.” Barker said that she focused hard on pushing the uphills, a particular strength of hers.
After 10 kilometers of skiing and 346 meters’ worth of climbing, Barker flung herself across the finish line. Her time, 28:33.9, was the fastest of the day’s early starters (it would ultimately rank her 14th), and garnered her a spot in the leader’s chair.
Sitting in the chair was “a first-time experience,” Barker said, “which was super awesome.” It was, she said, “To be honest, kind of unreal. I didn’t think that was gonna happen. So it was pretty cool.”
When Barker vacated the chair, it was only to cede it to her American teammate, Haley Brewster. Brewster, from Colorado, skis for the University of Vermont. She had another relatively low bib number, no. 16, and similarly turned heads when she danced up the first uphill leaving the stadium. Brewster’s FIS points will be a lot lower when the next list comes out.
The next athlete to cross the finish line with a time faster than Brewster’s bore bib no. 42. At 26 intervening starters, and a 30-second interval start, Brewster spent a full 13 minutes sitting in the leader’s chair. The cameraman for the FIS livestream stationed in the finish area did not spend 13 minutes straight with his camera in Brewster’s face — there were finishing athletes to highlight, and collapsed athletes to zoom in on — but Brewster did get plenty of airtime.
What’s it like to go through one’s post-race routine (wiping spit, putting on a jacket, etc.) in front of a global audience?
“It’s definitely a little awkward with the camera pointing in your face,” Brewster acknowledged. “But it was really cool to see Hattie sitting in it, and just getting to tag it off was really nice to see.”
It was “really exciting” to see a pair of Americans in that position, Brewster said. “Especially because I feel like, all this week, it’s been a lot of Scandos up there. But it was really good to see Hattie out there. With this being kind of new for us, it was really fun to have her out there, and be getting comments from Bryan [Fish] about where she was, and just like chasing her down. It was just like East Coast skiing,” i.e., the EISA collegiate circuit where both women typically race.
Something different from the Carnival circuit is that this was a world championship. What’s it like to be skiing up hills on a one-time Olympic course, redlining for all you’re worth, and hear your coach tell you that you’re literally leading a world championship?
“You’ve got to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt,” Brewster realistically said, “just because, you know, a lot of fast girls are still out there. But it’s good to hear. It’s definitely exciting. A little nerve wracking, I’d say, knowing that you’ve got to, like, keep pushing that pace. But yeah, it’s exciting to hear Bryan shout that.”
Brewster spoke with Nordic Insights while the race was ongoing and the fastest 20 athletes were still on course, i.e., when her final position was not yet known. She was asked what her results goal for the day was.
“I’d be happy with the top 30,” Brewster said. “That was, like, my loose results goal.”
Brewster was asked, if she did end up 15th, how that would make her feel. “I’d be really excited,” she said. “That’d be a good day to walk away from.”
Brewster’s time held up for 10th overall on the day. She will presumptively be nominated to the U.S. Ski Team D Team next year on the basis of this result.
Sammy Smith never got to sit in the leader’s chair, but she had the best result of any American today, as well as this entire week so far. Smith, who is from Idaho and skis for Sun Valley, was sixth overall, 1.7 seconds out of fifth and 25.9 seconds off the podium.
“I’m really happy with it,” Smith said of her result. “Obviously if I’d found two more seconds somewhere on the course I could have been top-five. But going into the week, I thought this was probably going to be my weakest event. So I’m really glad that I was able to have a good race. It was a ton of fun, extremely challenging.”
Today marked only Smith’s fourth skate race of the year. But she did not blanch before inexperience, nor did she overthink things much when it came to race strategy.
“I just tried to go out hard and start strong,” Smith said. “It’s always nice having an interval start where you’ve got people who are fast ahead of you, because then you can kind of gauge your speed off them. So my goal is just to catch the person in front of me. And then once I got there, get the next person and that sort of thing.”
And finally, a few words about Nina Schamberger. Schamberger, from Colorado, currently skis for Summit Nordic Ski Club, and will be joining the powerhouse ski team at University of Utah next season.
Schamberger has had a rough few races. She was pulled from Monday’s 20km classic by her coaches, and was literally carried off the race course. She raced in evident pain today. Many athletes push themselves while racing; just take one look at the finish area of any ski race. Fewer athletes push themselves racing, cross the finish line, collapse, scream in agony, clutch their back, and hobble off leaning heavily on a coach. Schamberger’s experience today fell into the latter category.
“I’m okay now,” Schamberger said when she was asked roughly 45 minutes after her finish about how she was doing.
She continued: “So a bit of a backstory, at U.S. Nationals [last] month, I crashed really hard in the mass start and ended up with a concussion and bent my back over the wrong way. And so I had to take a week off from any activity and spend a lot of time recovering. Then I showed up here with a little bit of a stiff neck and everything, but I was cleared to compete for my concussion. The sprint actually went really well. And then starting the 20km I had some back pain that just increased until I couldn’t really see anymore. I was just in excruciating pain.
“And so when a coach pulled me from that race, about halfway through, I spent the last couple days doing a lot of PT and resting and trying to get back to a normal state. But the tucking during this race was really, just, pretty agonizing. And so, I did not feel like myself at all, but I gave everything I had and I couldn’t have done anything differently with the process. So I’m still proud of that.”
Schamberger did not regret starting today, she said. “I really wanted to throw it all out there and see what I could do. And I’m still really proud of what I was able to do, even though it’s far from what I’m capable of.”
Greta Anderson, USST D Team Coach, sounded similar notes. Anderson is unambiguously, undeniably, unquestionably proud of all her athletes every day. But she was really proud of Schamberger today.
“I think she definitely won the toughness competition for today,” Anderson said of Schamberger soon after the race. “She was outstanding today; she did something miraculous. With what she had, she made the most of it. So we’re real proud of her for that and for that finish and for staying in it and looking for ways to accelerate on the course instead of excuses.”
Anderson later added, “I thought that Nina Schamberger, while she didn’t have the results she wanted today, was the most outstanding performance of the day in terms of maximizing what she came in with, maybe not as prepared as she would have liked to have been.”
Anderson was also proud of the team’s wax techs, who gave the American skiers, in both the women’s and men’s junior races, noticeably superb skis.
“Our top racers of the day were our techs, no doubt,” Anderson said. “This week, they’ve been doing a tremendous job. I’ve seen several staffs at these championships now. And while we always have a great staff, I’ve never seen a staff so coordinated, so able to resolve personal and ski issues so rapidly and move forward in the direction that’s on the trajectory we want to continue on. August Teague’s leadership in the wax room right now is — that effect is trickling down to the whole team. And it’s very noticeable. So we’re really happy with the skis so far today.”
And finally, back to the athletes, Anderson was asked what it’s like for her, or for the other coaches on the team, to be able to give their athlete that split that they are the race leader.
“It’s a good feeling,” Anderson noted. But then she instantly reflected attention, and credit, back to the athletes:
“I think any time that you get to be the one to deliver great news to an athlete, Hey, you made this trip, or Hey, do you want to go to Norway or Hey, want to go to Oberwiesenthal next year — they earned that. And so we’re not giving them anything that they don’t absolutely deserve. But it’s fun to be able to deliver the news. So giving good splits on a race like that and being in it fighting the whole time. That’s things that we need to develop as a nation more. And I feel really great about the team we have. So it’s nice to see them have numbers that reflect the belief that we have in those athletes and their potential.”
* If you’d like to learn more (much more) about how FIS points work and are calculated, I once wrote several thousand words on just this subject; you can find that article here if you are curious (and Part II of the article/several thousand more words here if you are really, really curious).
— Gavin Kentch
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