The article on today’s men’s classic sprint focuses, understandably, on the greatness and individual domination of Klæbo at the top of the men’s field. For today’s women’s sprint, here is a brief history lesson on team dominance.
A Swedish athlete, Jonna Sundling, won today’s race at 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica, defending her title from Oberstdorf in 2021 in the process. A Swedish athlete, Emma Ribom, was also second. Another Swedish athlete, Maja Dahlqvist, was third. For good measure, the fourth Swedish woman in the final, Linn Svahn, was fourth, ahead of Norwegians Kristine Stavås Skistad and Tiril Udnes Weng in fifth and sixth.
(The fifth Swede in the race, Johanna Hagström, was a lowly tenth on the day to really bring down the curve. Hagström told journalists between her qual and the heats that she was surprised to get her period 15 minutes before she was set to race her qual, a day earlier than she had expected, but said that the experience did not directly impact her ski performance outside of the added stress of having to deal with this before racing.)
The overall performance of the Swedish women today is historic. Women have contested the sprint at 12 world championships, starting in Lahti in 2001. There have been two women from the same country on the sprint podium a number of times in that span — most frequently Norway, of course, also Sweden, once Finland if you go back far enough this century, Jessie and Kikkan for the U.S. in Lahti in 2017 — but one nation has never before swept the women’s sprint podium like this.
(It has happened in other events, e.g., Marit Bjørgen, Heidi Weng, and Astrid Jacobsen in the 30km skate in Lahti 2017. And the, yes, Norwegian men swept the sprint as recently as Oberstdorf two years ago.)
It’s hard to say with a straight face that the defending world champion winning a race is surprising, but the final (which starts at the 1:46 mark of the livestream replay, and is also embedded above, at least for now) is nonetheless surprising for the sheer extent of the Swedish women’s dominance. Skistad was squarely in the lead through the first third of the race, skiing with a relatively upright form and a mien of stolid determination. At roughly the eighty-second mark, however, Sundling moved alongside of Skistad, than past her, skiing with a more compact technique and higher tempo in her custom defending champion bib.
By two minutes into the final, the four Swedes were at the front of the race. Norway never threatened again.
Ahead of them, it looked for all the world like a Swedish interval session. Sundling was squarely in the lead over the top of the penultimate hill, Ribom behind her, her orange poles popping on the broadcast. (I’ve never skied One Way poles and can’t speak to their performance characteristics, but they are certainly visually distinctive.) The only question was whether Dahlqvist or Svahn would take the final podium spot.
Svahn got scrunched against the V boards as she skied alongside Dahlqvist going up the last climb, but rubbing is racing, and the jury seemed unconcerned by the incidental contact. Sundling pulled away in the stadium to take her third global championship sprint gold in a row, after Oberstdorf in 2021 and Beijing in 2022. Ribom broadly celebrated her silver as she crossed the line 0.87 seconds behind. Dahlqvist skied in unchallenged for bronze (+4.45), with Svahn (+8.06) having fallen off or backed off over the final few hundred meters.
Skistad in fifth (+10.93) and Weng in sixth (+27.29) were, literally, in the picture at the finish, but were far out of contention. It was a strong day for Sweden.
“I am fourth in Sweden, so I will definitely not ride that sprint relay,” Svahn told Expressen after the race, according to an auto-translation. “It is difficult to be Swedish in a sprint team right now.”
As for the world’s second-best women’s sprint team, both Norway and the U.S. are on the list for that title. Norway probably takes the lead — I count three Norwegian women currently in the top ten of the Sprint Cup standings, against “only” two Americans — but the U.S. is in the mix.
Rosie Brennan and Julia Kern led the way for the U.S. on the results sheet today, qualifying in sixth and 12th, respectively. They were joined in the heats by Jessie Diggins, who qualified in 14th. Hailey Swirbul missed joining them there by roughly half a second, ending her day 33rd in qualifying.
Brennan and Kern advanced out of the second and fourth quarterfinals, respectively, finding themselves in semifinal no. 2 (starts at: 1:26 of the full Ski & Snowboard Live replay) along with Svahn, Weng, Hagström, and Laura Gimmler of Germany.
The athletes skied together through the first 90 seconds of the heat, the Americans technically at the back but also absolutely in the mix. Brennan skied strong up the first climb, quickly moving up from the back to take the lead over the top. She ran up the next climb in warm, deep, slushy conditions that for an APU athlete can only evoke Eagle Glacier; #ifyouknowyouknow, as Brennan tagged her Instagram post.
Brennan, Svahn, and Weng crested the penultimate hill together, Brennan slightly back in third. Little changed by the finish; Svahn came around Weng by the finish, while Brennan couldn’t quite close the gap. Brennan finished third in the heat, 1.04 seconds back from automatically advancing to the final. Kern was another 0.16 seconds behind her in fourth. The first semifinal had been over five seconds faster; both women’s day would end there.
Brennan’s final finishing position on the day was seventh, and Kern’s eighth.
As Brennan plainly said last week of her results goals, “Honestly, my World Championships results are maybe some of my worst in my career. So I guess I set the bar low in that sense. Like, I would like to just do better than the past World Championships.”
I am frankly surprised to realize this, given the caliber of Brennan’s skiing the last few years, but her seventh today was easily the best individual world champs mark of her career. Brennan had previously finished 10th in the skiathlon in Seefeld in 2019, then 16th in the 30km, once in skate and once in classic, in both Seefeld and Falun 2015. Thursday was also the best classic sprint result of Brennan’s career, besting a tenth in this discipline from last month’s Tour de Ski stop in Val di Fiemme.
“World Championships seems to be a time for some wildly warm and springy conditions,” wrote Brennan of her race in an email to multiple media outlets. “Today was no exception with a lack of freezing temps last night, the track was soft and mushy. I love klister skiing and felt like the course suited some of my strengths so I held some optimism about the day heading in. My qualifier went very well and I found some speed that I haven’t had this year.
“Knowing my strength was in the gradual climb, I tried to push that section in both of my heats. Unfortunately, the first semi was very strong and was a much faster heat making me the first to not make the final. It’s of course hard to be that close, but this was my best classic sprint ever and maybe more importantly, I felt much stronger than I have in sprinting all year so I am very happy with the day. It was great to work out some of the kinks of the venue and get my body going again.”
Kern sounded similar themes in her post-race comments. Today similarly marked Kern’s highwater mark of World Champs results, which I am similarly surprised to realize given her recent success and my apparently short memory; Kern had previously been 19th in the skiathlon in Seefeld in 2019.
“I had a decently good qualifier,” Kern said in audio provided by USSS (thanks Leann!). “I was really happy with how I skied the quarterfinal. … The skis were actually kicking quite well in the klister conditions; I enjoy those conditions quite a bit.”
Kern noted that she and Brennan spent more of their semifinal heat fighting with Gimmler than she would have hoped, and ultimately made her move later than she should have. She called it a strong day overall, and appreciated the chance to shake out some of the dust coming off a pre–World Champs taper. Hear more from her here:
Diggins skied strong in qualifying but faded somewhat over the second half of her heat. She finished fifth in her heat, the fifth quarterfinal, and 21st overall. Today was not a World Champs career best for Diggins, who comes into this week with four world championships medals, from 2013, 2015, and 2017 (x2), and three more individual top-five finishes.
“It was really, really fun and exciting to get things rolling here,” Diggins noted in USSS audio. She spoke highly of her overall team support, including not only skis but also handling the heat and other logistics.
“The course was pretty crazy,” she noted, “because it was salted and then once it broke it got really mushy, which is for me, personally, my most challenging condition. I was actually very proud of how I skied; that was some of the best slushy striding I have ever done.”
Diggins frankly critiques several aspects of the way that she skied in her full audio, which you should listen to below. But she also notes that she is pleased to have learned these things about how the course skis to help her with the rest of the week.
Finally, Hailey Swirbul came within a half-second of making the heats, then devoted the rest of her day to disrupting the patriarchy and cheering on her teammates. Swirbul, who has spoken recently with Nordic Nation (thanks Rachel!) and before that with Nordic Insights about her approach to skiing this season while prioritizing her mental health, was in high spirits. As she wrote to Nordic Insights:
“Overall, I’m good, actually! I attribute a lot of that to the way I set up my race schedule this year and stayed in the US rather than racing on the World Cup all year. I don’t feel burnt out yet like have in the past at this time of year, which is great! It’s such an honor to represent the US at this event, and I’m excited to be able to be present for it and enjoy the vitality.
“I get the sense that I should be disappointed with my result today since I have qualified for heats in the past, but my race was fine. It wasn’t the best, and it wasn’t the worst. Overall though, I had such a great day! I got to put on a coaches bib and be out on course supporting my teammates in the heats, and I got to spend some time with my parents who are visiting! Those were definitely highlights of my day.”
The women next race in Planica on Saturday in the 15km skiathlon, an event that has not been contested on the World Cup this year. Therese Johaug (who is now retired), Frida Karlsson, and Ebba Andersson took the medals in this event in 2021, with Diggins the top American finisher in 15th and Sophia Laukli joining her in the top-30 in 25th. The men race a 30km skiathlon tomorrow.
— Gavin Kentch