Planica Preview: Julia Kern on the World Champs Sprint Course, Imposter Syndrome, and Becoming a Distance Skier


Racing begins at 2023 FIS Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia, with the classic sprint a week from today. In advance of the championships, four members of the U.S. Ski Team took time out from a pre-Worlds training camp in Obertilliach, Austria, earlier this week to answer questions in an online press conference attended by roughly ten members of the English-language cross-country skiing media world. (I.e., the press conference was attended by, I would estimate, at least one-half of the English-language cross-country skiing media world. There’s not that many of us.)

Hear from Julia Kern today, then either Rosie Brennan or Ben Ogden tomorrow, depending upon what I transcribe next. Jessie Diggins’s thoughts should follow next week before the races begin, depending upon other reporting commitments. Diggins does speak up at the end of this transcript to answer a question, addressed to both her and Kern, regarding imposter syndrome. Read to the bottom of today’s article to hear the most decorated U.S. nordic skier of all time candidly note, “I don’t ever consider myself a favorite in anything because I try to race everything,” among other remarks.

Transcript is from a press conference held on Wednesday morning via Zoom. Media questions are in bold, athlete answers are in roman. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tom Horrocks, USSS press officer: Julia, you have made huge strides so far this year. A number of top-10 results, and your fitness and form, particularly in distance events, have really been coming around. What do you credit for taking that next step at the World Cup level? And what are your goals for the upcoming World Championships?

Julia Kern: It’s been a really exciting season, seeing not just consistency in sprinting but also now distance coming around as well. I think often you don’t really realize what’s happening until after the season when you can reflect, but I think a big thing has just been consistency throughout the summer and fall training, and having less injury and illness; especially in the winter, knock on wood, I’ve stayed healthy.

I think that’s just kept the ball rolling with good energy and good advice from coaches of when to back off, and being a little bit smarter about how I’m training and approaching races.

I think the other thing is that I’ve actually built in some training blocks this winter, which I normally have not, and I worked with Kristen [Bourne] on sitting out the Davos 20km. Even though I love to race, I’m just being a little bit more strategic in what I race, since there are a lot of races on the calendar this year. And so I think that, combined with just more years of experience and comfort and confidence, has paid off with having more consistent performances this year.

Tom Horrocks: Has it been a little bit more inspiring, now that we’re kind of in post-pandemic, to have family and friends cheering you on on the sidelines this year?

Oh yeah, that’s a big X factor for me. Having social time on the road with the team is really important. And I had my parents along for the Davos World Cup and all Tour de Ski and Christmas break, and I saw my sister as well.

[Kern was too modest to note this here, but her family ended up playing an important and substantive role in several of those races, shuttling skis back and forth and handing out poles and skis on course when half of the U.S. tech team went down with Covid mid-Tour.]

And so having family and friends has been a huge component of that. And I would say our U.S. fan base contingency has been really strong throughout the whole season, stronger than any other country. It’s been really cool. Spread out through every World Cup we’ve had family and friends from someone come over and cheer for us. So we’ve had a really good fan base, and with the pandemic relaxing a little bit, a lot more social interactions amongst the team and just having family and friends come over to watch.

Chad Salmela: Julia, when I think of you, I think of this course. I remember that your first World Cup podium was here. It was freestyle, though. Have there been any changes to the course that you’re aware of, and how do you see that translating into classic? Is it a big difference for you?

[I can’t manage to embed the video, but here is a USSS replay of that sprint final, with commentating by… one Chad Salmela.]

We believe there has been a change — actually, we do know, for the individual sprint, that they added a small hill towards the end of the course. I can’t even really visualize what it would be since it was green grass the last time we were there, with a little white strip [of snow], but they added maybe, I think, point two kilometers to the course. So I’m pretty familiar with how it goes, just adding a little bit of a hill.

And of course it’s classic, so it’ll ski a bit differently.

Sophie Caldwell (bib 5, second from left) skis in the skate sprint final on a very moist day in Planica in December 2019. Kern’s ski is just coming into the frame at right; she finished third in the final after a strategic race that saw her conserving energy at the back for much of the heat. (photo: screenshot from race broadcast)

And when we were there last it was pouring rain, frozen manmade, salted, lightning conditions. So I think this time around, it might be quite different. Maybe a little bit slow in the heat. But I think it’s really cool to finally go back, and I’m really excited to go back to Planica, because it’s a beautiful venue and has a special place in my heart.

This reporter, Nordic Insights: As Tom noted, your results in distance skiing have been remarkable this year. I’m curious how the distance skiing helps you with the sprinting, or vice versa, be it physically or psychologically or anything else. How do those two things work together? Are they really that different, or are they all helping you become a single better skier?

I think it depends on the athlete. But for me, I’ve always generally raced myself into form, and later in the season, I’ve always had my best races. And so for me, I think the distance races improve my fitness for the sprint, and making more rounds in the sprints and making it to the finals is more hard efforts, more experience. And so I think that also improves my distance fitness.

And so I think the combination of racing both and making more rounds, or making it through the rounds, I think helps my fitness. And you just can’t quite simulate it, even though you can like go out and do intervals after a bad race or whatever.

But racing for me is just another another level and component. And so for me often racing is part of my peaking plan and part of what gets the form for both distance and sprint. And I think for sprint, if you want to make it through the finals with good energy, you’re gonna have to have good distance form. And so it definitely gives me confidence that maybe the fitness isn’t something I have to worry about, or worrying about blowing up in a sprint as much as I maybe used to. And so that’s been fun to see and experience in the sprints.

Matthew Futterman (yes, that Matthew Futterman), New York Times: I guess this is for both of you [both Kern and Jessie Diggins, who were sitting in the same Zoom window]. I ask this as someone who suffers from this as well, but is there still any sense of imposter syndrome when you’re at these events or these races? Or is it just like complete comfort — and I say this as someone who, like, every time I get on a plane to go to cover something professionally, I think, Okay, this is the moment when they find out I’m a fraud. Psychologically, when did you get comfortable with this, or is it always a process when you get there and you see the best racers in the world?

I would say the imposter syndrome for me has gone away. I think my podium in Planica a few years ago, gave me — I had the belief that it was possible, but I think it gave me the belief that I can do this, and this has shown that I can reach the podium. And so I think that is something that I hung on to since, despite not having an individual podium since then.

But I would say there’s definitely days where I have less or more confidence, and I surprise myself sometimes. But I think one of the big things for me in sprints in the last few years is that if I don’t believe I can reach the podium, I won’t reach the podium, and you have to come out ready to be aggressive, and on the offensive side in racing.

And I think in sprinting a lot of it is skiing big, and not having people step all over you, and having people be a little bit afraid of you and having that presence of, I have what it takes and I’m going to ski that way.

But for me that imposter syndrome definitely has gone away in the last few years, with having podiums under my belt and feeling like I have the belief in myself.

Jessie Diggins:

It’s funny, because I’m really proud of you [Kern] for that answer, because I wouldn’t have been able to give that answer. Because I don’t even know if I still can give that answer, which is why that’s so rad.

Because I feel like every time — and you know we pick our heats in sprinting now. And there’s kind of this thing that happens where people will try to avoid other people in the heats, and you might pick your heat strategically based on other people. And it’s funny because in the last couple years I’ve noticed sometimes people are avoiding *me* in the heats, and I finally realized that, and I was like, That’s ridiculous. They don’t know that I consider myself a distance skier.

But I think it’s something that I am surprised at sometimes. I don’t ever consider myself a favorite in anything because I try to race everything, and therefore I feel like sometimes I get too focused on how much further I feel I have to go than on celebrating where I am, if that makes sense. It’s something I’m working on, is giving yourself a pat on the back while reaching for the next goal. You can do both at the same time. But I definitely do identify with the imposter syndrome thing, for sure.

— Gavin Kentch

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