Sophia Laukli 5th, Novie McCabe 7th, Sydney Palmer-Leger 9th in U23 10km Skate in Whistler


WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — The snow was softening, along with the American women’s grasp on an individual medal at these championships, as Sophia Laukli willed herself toward the finish line here Friday afternoon. The women’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate race had Laukli’s name all over it, at least in the abstract. “I think 10km skates are kind of my go-to and I would have loved to be on the podium,” as Laukli said after her race.

But that’s why you play the games. Laukli came close, flirting with a medal all day, but ultimately had to settle for fifth, 13 seconds out of bronze. Behind her, Novie McCabe was seventh, Sydney Palmer-Leger ninth, and Kate Oldham 39th. Most of them seemed accepting of the result, given what they came to the starting line with that day, but also still hoping for more.

“There’s one person on the day … that doesn’t want more. And that’s your race winner. And everybody else wants more,” as USST D Team Coach Greta Anderson told Nordic Insights earlier this week. For better or for worse, the current state of American skiing is such that Team U.S.A. can put three athletes in the top ten at a world championship, and be left wanting more. That’s sports.

(I wouldn’t normally lead so heavily with results and disappointments like this, but both Laukli and McCabe volunteered that their result today fell short of expectations, and it’s no secret that a hilly 10km skate is Laukli’s bailiwick, so it feels like fair game for this race.)

Sophia Laukli at the finish (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Sophia Laukli started today in bib no. 24, second-to-last in the seeded group of athletes. While today’s predicted heavy snowfall ultimately held off until shortly after the men’s race had finished in the early afternoon, the race jury had decided, with an eye on the forecast, to arrange the field as Group 2–Seeded Group–Group 3.

The principle here is to let 10 projected midpack skiers go out on course first, let projected top-15 skiers follow with, hopefully, optimal conditions, then send everyone else out in what’s left of potentially deteriorating trail conditions. “As a principle, the Seeded Group should start with the most advantageous position,” as FIS ICR 314.6.3 advises.

In practice, while the weather was benign throughout the women’s race and course conditions seem to have been relatively the same for everyone, Laukli was starting in the advantageous position of being able to get splits from all but one of her projected main competitors. You can find the full starting list here if you are as much of a ski nerd as this reporter.

At 10:17 a.m., wearing bib no. 24, Laukli pushed through the start wands and made her way onto the course. By 10:17:30 a.m., Margrethe Bergane of Norway was starting behind her, and Laukli was launching into a V1 up the steep climb leaving the stadium.

Sophia Laukli on an uphill is a sight to behold. There is a reason that she garnered her first World Cup podium finish atop the Alpe Cermis, less than a month ago. It is hardly effortless; the appeal (?) of standing courseside at a world championship race with very few spectators is that you get a front-row seat to labored breathing, pained exhalations, and a rictus of focus and pain. Skiing is, like, hard.

But it is also, when Laukli does it, really darn fast, and deceptively smooth given the amount of speed that she is generating. Even starting at the sharp end of the seeded group, she carried her V2 farther up the hill, and did so faster, than most of the athletes around her. It wasn’t, ultimately, enough for a medal, but it seems to have been the best that Laukli could do today, which is the best that any of us can ever do.

Whistler interval-start distance course (photo: screenshot from event website)

Turning, finally, to some raw data, Laukli was sitting in seventh at the 2.8-kilometer mark of the race, roughly the top of the long extended climb that starts the race. She was at this point ten seconds off the win, and just three seconds off the podium. At the 4.7km mark she was up to fifth, four seconds off the podium. Same at 5km.

At 7.8 kilometers into the race, the second and final time to the high point of the course, Laukli shows in the post-race results as ranking fourth, seven seconds out of a medal. But these finalized results include Bergane of Norway, the one athlete with a later bib number who finished ahead of her. So Laukli would have at the time heard something like, “you’re in third, ten seconds out of first.”

Unfortunately, ski courses that go up, ultimately have to come down. And the uphill may have been more of a strength for Laukli today than the down. Laukli ceded one position over the final 2.2km of the race, crossing the finish line in fourth, then was bumped down to fifth when Bergane came in less than 30 seconds after her.

The final podium was Helen Hoffmann of Germany in first, an ecstatic Izabela Marcisz of Poland in second, and Bergane in third. It was Bergane’s second bronze this week. Laukli was fifth, 17 seconds back of Hoffmann and 13 seconds back of Bergane, according to the live timing/unofficial results that are the only results currently available as of late Friday.

Sophia Laukli signs autographs. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

“It was good,” Laukli said of her race today. “I’ve been coming off some sickness. And so I definitely, results-wise, I have big goals today, but for how things have gone in the past few weeks, I’m definitely happy with being able to be in the top five. And obviously, I didn’t finish the 20km [earlier this week] because I wasn’t quite ready to race yet, but today was definitely a step in the right direction. So I’m super happy with that.”

It’s no secret that Laukli is good at skiing uphill; she has a World Cup podium finish to her name reflecting her skill at this, and captioned her Instagram post regarding same, “& more uphill pls.” But her focus for today was on the parts of the course that were not uphills.

“I’m always someone to push the uphills,” Laukli said in response to a question about something she liked about how she skied today. “And when I was starting to get tired, I tried to not just let the flats be rest and just to keep pushing on the flats. And I think for the most part, I was able to push through that, until maybe like the last km, I was pretty blown up at that point. So in general, like this whole season, I’ve been trying to work on beyond the uphills, and I felt like I did that for the most part today.”

A fully rested Laukli may have been gunning for the podium here today, but Laukli was clear-eyed about what she brought to the starting line.

“Given how things were after the Tour” de Ski, she said, “and the lead-up until now, I I knew that I maybe wasn’t in my best shape. And so I was kind of changing expectations. And it’s hard. I’m definitely someone who is results-focused or has results goals. And so I was still hoping for — a top-five today, I knew I was going to be happy with that. And so I am happy that I achieved that.”

File photo: Novie McCabe races earlier this week (photo: Graeme Williams, @oneskatephotos)

The narrative was much the same for the day’s second American skier, Novie McCabe, who finished seventh, forty seconds back of Hoffmann: skied the best she could; pleased with the effort; left wanting more with the result.

“I tried really hard, and just did what I could today,” McCabe said soon after her finish. “So I’m happy with that.”

“It was, in general, pretty good,” McCabe said of her race. “It wasn’t really what I’d hoped for. But that’s how it is a lot of the time, or a majority of the time. I think my dream day would have been a little different, but I think I executed it as well as I could, and pushed hard. The skis were really, really good; they felt awesome. And there were so many coaches out there, which was fun. So it was a good day.”

McCabe appears to have had more successful pacing today than some of the athletes around her on the results sheet. She ranked 11th at 2.8km and 11th at 5km, then moved up to (a tie for) 8th at 7.8km, then up one more spot to 7th by the finish (+:40). McCabe leaves Whistler with finishes of 23rd, 14th, and 7th in her three individual races, moving steadily up the results sheet throughout the week.

And as for results, what does she think about the number by her name from today? “To be honest, I was hoping to be fighting for a podium this weekend,” McCabe said. “That didn’t quite happen, but it’s not like a bad result. So I’m okay with it.”

Sydney Palmer-Leger, leftmost non-prone skier, approaches the finish line, and the carnage of recent finishers immediately beyond it. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Three seconds and two places behind McCabe there followed her teammate at the University of Utah, Sydney Palmer-Leger, in ninth (+:43). Palmer-Leger paced the course roughly the same as McCabe; she ranked 15th at 2.8km, 17th at 5km, 12th at 7.8km, then up to ninth by the finish.

Palmer-Leger was unavailable for comment after the race. That’s hardly a euphemism for “she blew me off” or anything, so much as a euphemism for, “the mixed zone here is pretty informal, I was interviewing other athletes when she came through, and I simply never connected with her after that.” Sorry about that.

Palmer-Leger placed 30th in the classic sprint to open these championships, then 8th and 9th in the two distance races.

File photo: Kate Oldham raises in the classic sprint qual earlier this week. (photo: Graeme Williams, @oneskatephotos)

Finally, Kate Oldham finished today’s race in 39th. (Oldham skis for Montana State University. The three other Americans discussed here all ski for the University of Utah and are also on the U.S. Ski Team.) Oldham skied consistently, ranking 39th at 2.8km, 38th at 5km, 41st at 7.8km, and 39th at the finish, 3:22 back of Hoffmann.

“How are you doing,” Oldham was asked to start her interview.

“I’m good. I feel a little bit like I might throw up, but I feel pretty good,” Oldham said. I mention this detail just for perspective on the baseline of skiers immediately post-race: having to throw up = feeling pretty good. Skiing is fun.

“It was pretty good,” Oldham said of the race itself. “I really tried to go into it with no expectations of myself. This season hasn’t started exactly how I wanted it to, so it’s been sort of, like, a lot of mental ups and downs. So I wanted to just sort of let it all go and just go ski.” Oldham felt that she had been able to successfully do that on Friday.

Oldham also spoke candidly about her internal goals for the race: “One of my goals for today was not to let myself talk too negatively in my own head. So I felt like I was able to do that. And just like, whenever I skied a transition well, just take that positively and keep going.”

In that vein, when asked for any further thoughts, Oldham said, “I think I just really want to shout out the coaches and teammates that are really positive to you and support you no matter what, because sometimes you’re the most negative voice to yourself.”

*   *   *

The final race for U23 athletes this week will be the 4 x 5km mixed relay later today, in the order of classic woman–classic man–skate woman–skate man. I feel comfortable penciling in Laukli for the women’s skate leg and Palmer-Leger for the women’s classic leg, but honestly see arguments for a lot of different starters on the guys side and so don’t want to make a prediction there. If Zanden McMullen’s Instagram post means that he is racing in the relay, I would predict McMullen and Gus Schumacher for the men, but I might be misreading that.

Relay starts at noon today local time. Relay day!!! Hopefully the weather is not frightful. Stay tuned.


— Gavin Kentch

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