Relay Day in Whistler: Canada 6th, U.S.A. 7th in Both Junior and U23 Relays; Norway and France Win


WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — Relay day sounds different. Athletes take to the course amidst a polyglot cacophony of encouragement, the sentiment universal but the expression differing depending upon which team is courseside at any given moment. “Allez allez allez!” begets “Heia Norge!” begets “¡Vamos!” begets “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” begets [very loud cowbells for Switzerland].

Fans and flags on course (photo: Gavin Kentch)

All of the athletes who are not racing flock out to cheer; there is no spectator more amped than a non-racing athlete supporting their teammate. The techs might have a rare break from waxing, at least for the day’s second race, and get to spend more time outside the wax cabin than at any other point all week. The facepaint and flags come out, for athletes and spectators alike.

The course changes to a more spectator-friendly 2.5-kilometer loop, traversed twice per athlete. It is the last race for everyone, at the end of a long week, so the athletes attack a 5km leg taking as little as twelve minutes essentially the only way it can be skied: really, really hard the whole time. You’re racing for your country, with its flag on your cheek and your heart on your sleeve; it’s no time to hold anything back. Ask anyone who has ever represented their country in international competition what it feels like to wear that Team U.S.A. suit on relay day. It will kindle national pride in even the staunchest curmudgeon.

There were two relays earlier Saturday to wrap up 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships, one for the juniors in the morning and one for U23 athletes in the afternoon. Each country got to enter one team, with two men and two women. Norway won the juniors relay going away, which was not really a surprise at the end of a week of Norwegian dominance in both genders, while France edged out Sweden and Switzerland for the win in the U23 relay, which was a surprise. The U.S. was seventh, close behind Canada in sixth, in both races.

It was snowing at times. Hard. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

It was snowing heavily throughout the day, and/or had been snowing, and/or would snow again. The precipitation was falling as snow, rather than as rain, but it was close, and the difference may have been more pronounced at the bottom of the course than at the top, even over a gradient of just a few dozen metres.

The official results list the snow conditions for Saturday as, in full, “Wet,” which seems accurate, but maybe only because “classic Whistler snow” was not available. The air temp is listed on the results as +1 C, and the snow temp as -0.5 C, which seems optimistically cool to me but to be fair I also did not have a snow thermometer with me.

I am very, very glad that I was not in charge of kickwax today. I can also tell you that, standing courseside, you could hear the moisture squishing out of the snow as the skis went over it. It was a day for white bases, or for orange or green bases for the Rossi or Madshus athletes among us.

2.5km courses used for today’s relay (photo: screenshot from event website)

The Americans trotted out a lineup of Sammy Smith, Luka Riley, Haley Brewster, and Jack Lange, in that order, for the 4 x 5-kilometer mixed junior relay. Smith and Riley each skied two laps of the black 2.5km course in classic; Brewster and Lange each covered two laps of the yellow (on the map: orange) 2.5km course in skate. The courses overlapped for roughly half their length. The athletes spent far more time today visible from the stadium and adjoining trails than in either of the week’s first two distance races, which did not harm the mood for spectating.

Sammy Smith (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Smith stood in the first row of the chevron start, moving her skis back and forth as she waited for the race to begin. She was wearing bib no. 2, reflecting her country’s aggregate finishes in the junior men’s and women’s relays in the Junior World Championships in Lygna last year. (This was the inaugural year of the junior mixed relay.)

You can watch the start of the race at roughly the 16-minute mark of the livestream.

Smith had a slow opening kilometer of the race, but was squarely back in contact by midway through the first lap. At 1.6km in she was three seconds off the lead, then had moved up to lead a close-knit pack of six nations through the stadium at the 2.5km mark. She lost ground slightly over her second lap, but not too much, handing off to Riley in third. Sweden was leading at this point, with Norway two seconds back and the U.S. another sixteen seconds back in third.

Luka Riley (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Riley lost some time during his leg. By the 7.5km mark of the race, halfway through the second classic leg, the U.S. was in a three-team group fighting for third, roughly thirty seconds back of Sweden and Norway. Canada was in seventh, another twenty seconds in arrears.

The Norwegian leg two skier, Lars Heggen, at this point put in a massive surge. Sweden lost 23 seconds over the next 2.5km, and the race for first was essentially over.

By the second handoff, 10km in, it was Norway first, Sweden second (23 seconds back), Switzerland and Italy fighting for third. Canada was in sixth (+1:14), and the U.S. in seventh (+1:20).

Haley Brewster (bib no. 2) on course (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Brewster skied a strong third leg to move the U.S. up into sixth, ten seconds ahead of Canada. At the front of the race, Norway was unchallenged, Sweden looked secure in second, and the only question was whether Switzerland or Italy would take third.

Team Norway, ft. a very large hat (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Five kilometers later, Mathias Holbæk came into the stadium with enough time to place a Norwegian hat on his head and flag in his hand as he approached the finish line. Sweden took second, 33 seconds back, but it wasn’t even that close, as Holbæk had slowed during his final lap to soak in the moment and accept celebratory accoutrements. Italian anchor Aksel Artusi skied a strong final leg to distance Switzerland by 5+ seconds and claim bronze for gli Azzurri.

Behind them, American anchor Jack Lange had set off virtually neck and neck with Canadian anchor Luke Allan, who is in domestic contexts Lange’s friend and teammate on the Dartmouth ski team.

Jack Lange, right, leads out Luke Allan into leg four (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Let’s let Lange take it from here for the battle for North American supremacy:

“It was really fun to represent Team U.S.A., and intense to get [the handoff] right next to someone whom I know so well. And I guess he skied a better race than I did, and I’m happy for him.”

Allan caught Lange within the first “like 200 meters,” he recalled. “And then we did a little cat and mouse. He made me lead the big hill on the second lap, which was not exactly appreciated. But then he got a little 10-meter gap on me, and just held it to the finish. So it was a fun race.”

Jack Lange, left, and Luke Allan at the finish (photo: Gavin Kentch)

At the end, Canada finished sixth, roughly five seconds ahead of the U.S. in seventh. The Americans had the 3rd-, 10th-, 8th-, and 9th-fastest leg times, respectively.

For some final words from the juniors on this week, here’s Lange on what he learned here:

“Being confident [at these races] is super important. But also just like working with your team and figuring out how to communicate best and encourage your teammates is super important always, especially when it’s people from all over the country that are getting together and representing one team. It’s fun.”

There was more drama at the front of the race, but a remarkably similar experience for the two North American teams, in the U23 relay, which started roughly an hour later:

In this race, the Americans started Sydney Palmer-Leger (who turned 21 today!) for the scramble leg, Zanden McMullen for the second classic leg, Sophia Laukli for the first skate leg, and John Steel Hagenbuch for the anchor leg. Perennial American anchor Gus Schumacher had removed himself from consideration for the relay team due to general fatigue at this point in the season and race week and enjoyed cheering instead, to answer a question that I received from multiple readers.

Gus Schumacher, front, joins many other Americans in cheering on Sophia Laukli on course. (photo: Amy Schumacher)

Briefly put, Norway seemed poised to run away with the U23 relay as well, before fading near the end and allowing an exuberant France to come out on top of a bunch finish. The Americans spent much of the race in no man’s land, a chase pack tantalizingly close in front of them but unable to close the gap. In the end, for the second race in a row, it was Canada sixth, U.S.A. seventh, this time by roughly four seconds.

At the end of lap one, Norway was clearly in the lead, 29.5 seconds up on Germany according to the replay (5km splits on the FIS app are incorrect, official results are not up yet as I write this, and live timing is no longer available through the main FIS site. I’m doing what I can here; the races this week were of high quality, but World Cup this is not.) Sweden was in third, 38 seconds back, and Palmer-Leger in fourth, 39 seconds back, when she handed off to McMullen.

Zanden McMullen (back right, bib no. 30) skis in a pack (photo: Gavin Kentch)

McMullen both lost a few positions, but also made up some time, during his leg. At the 10km mark, the U.S. was down to eighth, but was also just nine seconds off the podium and 25 seconds back of Norway in first. Norway had skied poorly during this leg, and/or leg two Sweden skier Gustav Kvarnbrink had skied quite well, to shrink the gap from silver to gold from 38 seconds down to five.

Laukli took the handoff from McMullen in eighth, with five teams in sight shortly in front of her. She spent much of her leg skiing alone, able to glimpse these teams ahead but just unable to close the gap.

Sophia Laukli (closest athlete to camera) was thatclose to the athletes in front of her (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Team U.S.A. is listed as seventh in the FIS app live results after Laukli’s first lap, 12.5km into the race, but Canada simply does not appear in those results, so let’s say that the U.S. was either seventh or eighth at this point (again, work with me here). There was a gap of nearly a minute back to a surprisingly mortal Finland in ninth, and fifteen seconds up to Switzerland in third.

By the end of Laukli’s leg, things had coalesced at the front: Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden all essentially tied for first, France six seconds back in fifth, and Norway nine seconds back in sixth. Canada was in seventh (+:22), and the U.S. in eighth (+:26).

The drama over the final two laps, which was substantial, all occurred at the front of the race. Here is a photo of the lead pack of men at roughly the 16.5km mark of the race:

Lead pack late in the race (photo: Gavin Kentch)

That’s Italy, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and France all together, with Canada threatening to join the party as well. John Steel Hagenbuch, skiing gamely for the U.S., was able to see this group in front of him, but couldn’t quite close the gap.

Seven nations came through the stadium for the last time, with 2.5km left to go in a cumulative 20km relay, within nine seconds of the lead. The top five teams were within two seconds of the lead. There are only three steps on the podium. Something was going to have to give.

Ultimately, Norway gave. And Germany. And Italy, which hemorrhaged time over the final skate lap.

The second slide here is video of the finish:

Gaspard Rousset of France digs desperately deep to lead out Truls Gisselman of Sweden down the final few hundred meters, then uses deft positioning to claim the inside line and force Gisselman to swing wide around him entering the stadium. Rousset establishes a slight lead at that moment, which he keeps to the end as Gisselman is forced to switch lanes to attempt to find space. Rousset crosses the finish line and is immediately tackled by his joyous countrymen, the FIS broadcast representatives having finally cleared them to move toward the finish line. Gisselman, to his right, collapses into the arms of pack of Swedes:

Team Sweden at the finish (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Antonin Savary is enveloped by the Swiss team, who may be the happiest of all. A bevy of red-clad Swiss fans just outside the finish pen will spend the next five minutes vitiating my finish-line audio interviews with their ringing cowbells, but they were so happy I don’t really mind. A very lusty rendition of La Marseillaise will later grace the podium ceremony. Nobody doesn’t care on relay day.

Norway finished fourth, eight seconds back. Germany was fifth (+:26). Canada was again sixth (+:35), and the U.S. seventh (+:39), for the second time in as many relay races. If the FIS timing app is correct, Italy went from nine seconds off the win at 17.5km to 1:05 out by the finish, a single 2.5km lap later. Five kilometers is more than enough time for things to go south pretty drastically once an athlete reaches their limit.

Sophia Laukli (photo: Gavin Kentch)

5km races “are hard,” concurred Laukli. “And they’re hard — somehow I can still manage to blow up in a 5km, which is really surprising to me, because it’s so short. … It’s such a unique distance. And I’ll take a 10, 20, 30km over a 5km in terms of pain.”

Despite this answer, Laukli clarified that she potentially does enjoy this distance: “I do,” she said. “If I’m feeling good, 5km’s are a lot of fun. But when I’m not feeling so hot, they’re one of the hardest things.”

As for how her 5km skied today, Laukli recounted, “I was tagged off with a pretty short gap that I was really trying to reel in to the big group, because I knew that it was still pretty tight. And on the uphills I was kind of making up some ground, but on the very last uphill I was just so done; my legs were, like, shot. And it kind of — it didn’t go so well from there. I was just trying really hard to reel in the group because I knew that would leave a lot of potential for Johnny, but it didn’t happen.”

John Hagenbuch (photo: Gavin Kentch)

In that vein, here’s Hagenbuch on his leg four, describing a similar experience in no-man’s land while decorously alluding to potentially suboptimal skis on the day:

“It was kind of strung out at that point. And there were Canadians immediately in front of me; I was just trying to make up as much time as I could. I think the techs have been working their asses off, but it’s hard in conditions like this, is what I’d say on the ski front. And I think we were all fighting super hard out there, and I couldn’t quite get up to that group when it coalesced. But I felt like I was skiing well and trying hard.”

Similarly to Laukli, Hagenbuch noted that the 5km distance is hard “because you’re skiing at a pace that’s maybe not quite sprint race pace, but faster than 10km pace, so you just are kind of pinning it the entire time.”

Team U.S.A. at the finish (photo: Gavin Kentch)

And here’s McMullen, also on the challenges of this distance, in the last bit of legible audio that I got from him before the cowbells took over: “How do you, quote unquote, ‘pace’ a 5km, or is it just, ‘I see the guys in front of me, let’s just pretend that it’s a sprint qual’?”

McMullen: “Well I might be the wrong person to ask there, because I did not pace that well.”

If you want to destroy some of the best athletes in the world, it seems, have them race a 5km.

*   *   *

Time passed. The plucky Slovakian team crossed the finish in 14th, and cross-country ski racing at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships was officially concluded.

The snow continued to fall. It felt like rain by this point. Everything was damp at an elemental level. The athletes joyfully traded jackets with other nations, Team U.S.A. going home rebranded as Team Norge and Team Deutschland and Team Française and so on. Athletes met for hugs, then scattered to the wax cabins to pack up.

Sydney Palmer-Leger’s mom had brought coffee and sweets for the team. Sydney Palmer-Leger walked around getting everyone on Team U.S.A. to sign a bib to present to the techs. For the past ten days, everyone had come together as Team U.S.A., and had shared the highs and the lows together. But now the relay was over, and it was time to go home. If you see someone in the Vancouver airport tomorrow in a team jacket, be nice to them; they’ve had a big week.

Results: junior mixed relay | U23 mixed relay (still waiting on these to be posted as of late Saturday, sorry; yes I wrote this entire article off of just the results on my phone in the FIS app. Should be up here eventually.)

— Gavin Kentch

I benefited from the assistance of many people during my time in Whistler. A full thank-you post is forthcoming next week (for the benefit of my GoFundMe donors, I will, as promised, break down my expenses for the Houghton and Whistler trips), but for right now I have to be sure to thank Graeme Williams, of Team GB, who drove me to the venue for the first six days, and Amy Schumacher, of Team Schumacher, who drove me to and from the venue today. The discovery that the shuttles to the venue were for athletes only was both a last-minute and an unwelcome one (and came well after I had booked nine nights at the cheapest Airbnb in central Whistler with an eye to pulling off the entire trip with no rental car); I am deeply grateful to them both for taking my car-less self the thirty minutes from Whistler up to the venue and back down again. Amy made a deadhead run today just to take me up there, before returning two hours later for the U23 relay with a carload of kids.

I am writing this late on Saturday, at the end of a very long week. I am tired, and still need to wash all the dishes in my condo by hand before getting on an early airport shuttle tomorrow morning, but I am also proud of all the work I have done, and like to think that my telling the athletes’ stories has helped to make a small difference in advancing the visibility and ultimate success of American junior skiing.

If you’ve liked what you read here this week, and/or respect the dedication of a one-man reporting crew churning out roughly 5,000 words a day for a week straight, the Nordic Insights GoFundMe is still open, and Whistler has not exactly been the cheapest place to spend the past week, even with bringing as much food from home as I could to help keep expenses down. Not saying, just saying (but thank you for following along this week regardless, and I appreciate your reading what I have written. I hope that you have found it worth your time.)

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