Top International World Cup Contenders
by Peter Graves and Karen Messenger
Last season, the FIS World Championships in Falun, Sweden were indeed a huge success in every way. Notable memories include Alex Harvey's medal-winning skiing, Petter Northug's comeback, local Swedish stars such as Charlotte Kalla and Johan Olsson performing grandly at home and the U.s.-medal-winning performance by Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg.
All eyes were turned on Norway last June during the off-season when Norwegian superstar Marit Bjoergen announced that she was pregnant and due in December, promising to return to competition in 2017. Yet soon after that, she said that if things went well, she might try to attend some of the Ski Tour Canada races. This fall, Bjoergen was still training three hours a day and was at a camp in Livigno, Italy.
The Norwegian buzz continued as fellow superstar Petter Northug was unable to reach an agreement with the Federation, sparking controversy. The dispute centered around his private sponsorship with Coop Norge SA, a retail cooperative, but also a direct competitor of the Norwegian team's sponsor Spar.
Happily, a three-year deal similar to last year's agreement was struck, with Northug announcing his desire to win more gold for Norway and the team happy to end the dispute.
Another big story brewing on this side of the Atlantic is Ski Tour Canada 2016, set to host the world's best — probably 25 nations — at cross-country's grand finale in March. With no Olympic Games or World Championships this season, it will certainly be the sport's top event of the season. The Tour begins March 1 in Quebec at Gatineau, then travels to Montreal and Quebec City and concludes with four events in Canmore, Alta., the end being a Pursuit on March 12. There was a site inspection in August, with Cross Country Canada's Dave Dyer noting, “We took the time to analyze everything in order to prioritize the work that remains to be done before the start of the Tour.”
In September, Norway was struck with another challenge as Therese Johaug broke her right hand while training in Italy. Earlier in the summer, she broke her left hand. This was obviously not the way Johaug planned to start her season after winning a stunning gold in the 30km CL at Falun, Sweden last year. She is joined by Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and Maiken Caspersen Falla, both very fast sprinters. Heidi Weng is another strong contender, as is Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen. The Norwegian pipeline is always full.
Weng and Simen Ostensen were the overall winners at Norway's Toppidrettsveka rollerski competition in July, where the U.S. team strutted its stuff for the first time. Meanwhile, Ragnhild Haga, 24, is a huge talent and was impressive last winter as a two-time U23 gold medalist, and a shocking fourth overall in the Tour de Ski and with 12 top-10 World Cup results under her belt. It's all in the family for her, as she is the niece of Anders Bakken, who took part in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. She is a great distance-skate-skiing specialist, but can rise to the occasion in every discipline.
The Norwegians have been training in Hemsedal, Norway, as well as at Italy's Seiser Alm and Livigno in August. With elites such as overall World Cup overall winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Norway continues to be the sport's dominant power with remarkable constellations of talent that include Anders Gloeersen, Eirik Brandsdal, Ola Vigen Hattestad and Finn Hagen Krogh.
The Swedish team spent some fun days of training and sunning on the Canary Islands in May followed by official camps in Torsby, Sweden and in the Idre Mountains. Kalla is ready to uncork a great season, and will take part in this year's Tour de Ski after two years as a spectator. With 40 skiers, the Swedes had a record number of athletes at a camp that wrapped in early September. Others to watch, of course, are Stina Nilsson, Calle Halfvarsson and Marcus Hellner (the gold medalist at Falun), plus Olsson and Daniel Richardsson.
Finland made some progress with its new head coach last season, and much effort is being focused on the 2017 Nordic Worlds, which will be held in Lahti, Finland. Also, Aino-kaisa Saarinen announced that she was also pregnant as we went to press, so the team will rely on the talents of Kerttu Niskanen, Mona-liisa Malvalehto and Riita-liisa Roponen. The Finnish women took home bronze in the relay at Falun last February.
Leading men include Matti Heikkinen, Sami Jauhojarvi, and Ville Nousiainen, who does well in both distance and sprint events. A young man on his way up is sprinter Toni Ketela – coaches see him as having abundant potential.
The German team spent two weeks in Ramsau, Austria in June and later in Oberstdorf , Germany and Lillehammer, Norway. They have suffered very significant retirements recently with skiers such as Tobias Angerer, Jens Filbrich, Axel Teichmann and Katrin Zeller leaving the sport. That said, this is a completely new era for the DSV squad. Two strong veterans Claudia Nystad and Hannes Dotzler are returning, but look for new names and faces too.
Poland's multi-decorated Olympic and World Championships medalist Justyna Kowalczyk took an impressive win in Argentina at the 29th edition of the Marchblanca race in August, besting all skiers, male or female. Kowalczyk teamed up with Sylwia Jaskowiec for team sprint bronze in Falun.
Czech cross-country skier Eva Vrabcova-nyvltova has shown great fitness, setting a National run record at the Birell Grand Prix in Prague in the 10,000 metres with a time of 33:07.
The Italian team has been looking hard for emerging talent and has found some in 22-year-old Francesco De Fabiani, who won a World Cup in Lahti last winter. He finished 13th overall in the World Cup standings. The team will be
training often this fall at Val Senales and the Stelvio Pass in Italy and Ramsau.
France has named a new women's coach this summer when Alex Rousselet, a former National Team athlete, replaced the outgoing Coraline Hugue and Anouk Faivre-picon. They were all disappointed to see top skier Celia Aymonier leave cross-country skiing for biathlon. On the men's side, Maurice Manificat took silver in Falun – the strong skier from the Haute-savoie is truly capable of fighting it out with the best.
On the Russian front, strongman Alexander Legkov has hired a new personal coach, former German junior and U23 trainer Marcus Cramer. He will also oversee the training of Sergey Turyshev. Russian sprinters such as Nikita Kriukov and Alexei Petukhov are also in good form. It has been noted that Legkov's goals for the season are to win the FIS Distance Cup and the Tour de Ski. Meanwhile, Maxim Vylegzhanin, at 32, may still be the team's top distance man.
The Swiss team opened up training for the off-season in Sardinia and have also conducted camps at the Stelvio Pass and in Ruhpolding, Germany. Once again, their top star will be Dario Cologna, who finished second overall last year. Cologna plans to attend three stages at the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland this winter, where he will fight for his fourth Tour victory.
As well, for the first time, Rasnov, Romania will host the world's-best junior skiers at the FIS Junior/u23 Nordic World Championship held from Feb. 22-28.
All this, the 10th anniversary of the Tour de Ski, along with the extraordinary Ski Tour Canada in March – who could ask for more?
IBU Biathlon World Cup 2015/16 fever will hit North America this winter at the inaugural World Cup at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Alberta, round seven, on Feb. 4-7 followed by round eight, Feb. 11-14, in Presque Isle, Maine, last held there in 2011. Racing on home soil should prove to be one of the highlights of the season for both the Canadian and American teams this winter.
The World Cup season kicks off in late November in Sweden, which is followed by World Cups in Austria and Slovenia. Defending overall champion Martin Fourcade (FRA) will undoubtedly continue to be a force to be reckoned with. However, due to mononucleosis, defending women's champion Darya Domracheva will not be competing this season, setting the stage for a new overall champion.
The new year begins with two World Cups in Germany, followed by one in Italy, after which the entire World Cup circuit travels to North America to duke it out first at Canmore, where the event kicks off a month-long festival there, followed by more action in Maine.
Sporting the Stars and Stripes at the World Cups before Christmas are National Team biathletes Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke and Leif Nordgren. They will be joined by Annelies Cook, who won both of the final rollerski trials in Jericho, Vt., and Sean Doherty, who finished second in both trial races. Clare Egan has been invited to train with the team at the Utah camp, while Russell Currier and Jakob Ellingson have been invited to the Lake Placid training camp.
Having had a solid summer of training with the entire team healthy and excited to race, there could be an American fighting for the podium on any given day. Achieving solid results at the previous World Cup in Presque Isle, the Americans will be eager to perform at home. U.S. Women's Coach Jonne Kahkonen is looking forward to the North America races and told us, “. . . all in all, it will be an exciting two-week block of racing!”
All 12 members of the Canadian National A and B teams are poised and ready for action. Fresh from a summer filled with excellent training both locally and internationally, the successes of last season have the teams thirsting for more.
Sharpshooter Nathan Smith, who achieved numerous personal bests last season, leads the men's A Team. His silver medal in the men's 10km sprint at the IBU World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland was only topped by his World Cup victory in the 12.5km Pursuit at the final race of the season in Khanty-mansiysk, Russia. Joining him on the A Team is Brendan Green, who posted a career-best fifth-place finish in the sprint last January at Antholz, Italy. Considering that not even two years have passed since he underwent two serious back surgeries, Green proves to be a Herculean force to be reckoned with.
Hot off her victory at the Blink Rollerski Biathlon Festival in Norway this summer, Rosanna Crawford is a strong leader of the Canadian women's team. Her personal-best finishes of fourth and fifth indicate that the podium is within her reach. She will certainly have the support of her hometown crowd during the Canmore World Cup. Rounding out the solid A Team is Megan Heinicke, who achieved four top-15 World Cup finishes last season.
National Team Head Coach Matthias Ahrens, Coach Roddy Ward and now-assistant-coach Kathy Davies have been working hard so that all eight athletes on the B Team are also prepped and ready for action. Olympian Scott Perras is joined by Macx Davies and brothers Scott and Christian Gow. The men have seen improved individual success, and when combined with Smith and Green, the Gow brothers raced to a fifth-place finish in the relay in Oslo last season.
The women on the B Team have a strong contingent, as well as up-andcoming biathletes such as Emma Lunder, who had a personal-best second place in the IBU Cup sprint last March in Canmore, along with Julia Ransom, Audrey Vaillancourt and Sarah Beaudry, who have also been making their mark on the World Cup and IBU Cup scenes.
And don't count out three-time Olympian Zina Kocher. She has returned to her former coach, Richard Boruta, and has had a productive summer of training with the Biathlon Alberta Training Centre.
Upon leaving North America, the world will be watching the World Championships in Oslo, Norway at the famed Holmenkollen from March 3-13, while World Cup action wraps up March 17-20 at Khanty-mansiysk, Russia. – KM
In ski jumping, the German team has been a dominant force on the Nordic-combined World Cup tour for many years, and this winter should provide more of the same. With such big names as Eric Frenzel, Bjorn Kircheisen and Johannes Rydzek, it's challenging for a newcomer to break through, but, at only 19, young Jakob Lange is about to do just that. The Bavarian athlete had medal performances at last year's World Junior Championships, and his time seems to have arrived. He's looking for his first top-10 World Cup result this season, and don't be surprised to see his name in lights soon.
Speaking of Rydzek, he took top honours this summer at Germany's Nordic-combined Nationals in late August at his hometown venue of Oberstdorf. It was his fifth National crown. The German combiners have had a great summer, with an amazing finish on the final day of the Summer Grand Prix (SGP) in Oberstdorf as Fabian Riessle took his first-ever international win, although Rydzek's second place was enough to give him the overall summer crown. Japan's Watabe Akito was third, with Austrian Seidl Mario from Salzburg in fourth. American Taylor Fletcher was ranked 18th overall, with brother Bryan in 24th, while Adam Loomis ranked 43rd and Michael Ward was 46th.
Watch for a classic comeback story from Norwegian Joergen Graabak, the Sochi Olympic champion, who has been sidelined with a painful thigh-muscle injury and missed a great deal of last season and the key summer period, too. Despite a break of nearly six months' training, he resumed preparations in September. Graabak, who is back to approximately 85-90% of his normal training, went directly to Trondheim for a team camp and told news media, “I am carefully optimistic when it comes to my level of performance this winter, but my main goal is the Lahti Worlds in 2017.”
The Norwegians have also enjoyed a true rebirth of their combined program, and most of their off-season training has been in Norway. They plan on traveling to Oberhof in October to use their famed ski tunnel and then perhaps Oslo or Beitostolen for on-snow preparations. Then they'll travel to Ruka, Finland for the start of the World Cup season. “Our goal is to fight for podiums in every single race this winter,” noted Sports Director Sverre Rotevatn. Magnus Krog performed beautifully to take two summer wins at two Norge Cup events in Trondheim, so he could very well be set for a strong season.
The members of Squadra Italia had a six-day camp in Tarvisio, Planica and Villach, based at the border-police barracks in the village of Friuli. Athletes such as Armin Bauer, Sam Costa, and Lukas and Mattia Runggaldier were on hand. Not present was star Alessandro Pittin, who works independently and trains with National cross-country team members.
The French combined boys have been training hard under Coach Jerome Laheutre and spending the bulk of their time training at Courchevel. There they have spent much time jumping and working on cross-country skills such as mountain hiking and strength training.
The Austrian combiners under Head Coach Christoph Eugen conducted an eight-day camp in Lillehammer and Oslo prior to the start of the SGP. They also did some tough rollerskiing in Sjusjoen on a very challenging paved loop. The Austrians will need to find a quick replacement for the amazing 38-yearold Mario Stecher, who retired at the end of the last season. Stecher was one of the all-time greats and set the bar high for all those who will follow. He's currently on a book tour and studying at the University of Wismar, where he is pursuing a sports-management degree.
In U.s.a.-combined circles, Bryan Fletcher grabbed a repeat title at Nordic-combined Nationals held at Park City and Soldier Hollow. Loomis finished second, while Taylor Fletcher took the bronze medal. Bill Demong, an Olympic and world champion, retired last spring, and his leadership role will be missed this season.
Both of the Fletcher brothers had some strong results this summer on the SGP, and their cross-country-skiing times have been particularly strong against the world's best, which have also been very fast.
Other young Americans have spent time throughout Europe this summer, as well as at the SGP, with athletes such as Loomis, Ward, Ben Berend and Jasper Good gaining loads of experience. Longtime U.S. Head Coach Dave Jarrett commented that “The Summer Grand Prix is mainly a way to see how our summer training, especially jumping, has been. Both Bryan and Taylor have had good results on the jumping hill, while Taylor has also been extremely fast in many of our test races as well. I am excited to see how everyone stacks up this season.”
After years of struggling for local recognition and sponsorship, Canada's National Nordic- combined team has found support from a faraway friend – Finland. “Finnish Know-how”, a collection of like-minded technology, product and clothing companies in Finland, is helping to support Canadian athletes train toward success at the 2017 Nordic World Ski Championships to be held in Lahti, Finland.
The connection comes via Jouni Kahkonen, a Finnish ski-jumping and Nordic-combined coach recently hired and brought to Canada by Alberta Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined (ASJNC).
“This project also involves a Finnish media company, Topline Media,” says Andy Mah, chair of Nordic Combined Ski Canada. “The Finns have shown great interest in our athletes, now dubbed `Nordic-combined Team Canada,' as they train for the 2017 World Championships and hopefully continue towards the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Korea and beyond.”
Canada's Nordic-combined and ski-jumping teams are located at Canada Olympic Park (COP) in Calgary, the only facility of its kind in Canada. Other development locations include legacy facilities from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games located at Whistler Olympic Park. In Alberta, ASJNC is also in the process of establishing programs at Canmore Nordic Centre and Camrose in Alberta. –
Anew season of ski jumping beckons, and once again the German squad has been on form with strong summer results by Severin Freund, 27, last season's overall World Cup champion. No doubt this puts a smile on the face of Head Coach Werner Schuster, a native Austrian who has been at the helm of the German Ski Association (DSV) program since 2008.
Germany's Michael Neumayer has also been jumping especially well, winning at a Summer Grand Prix in Japan. “I hope this gives me some confidence,” he commented.
Despite Freund's marvelous record, the Munich resident wants to win the overall Four Hills crown badly, something that has eluded his impressive resume. In a candid interview with the newspaper Badische Zeitung, he offered, “Winning the Four Hills Tournee would be rated [for me] about as high as an Olympic gold in an individual competition. It would be very, very nice if it would happen.”
For the women, Juliane Seyfarth won the National title at German Summer Championships in Oberstdorf, while Katharina Althaus was second. Sochi 2014 Olympic gold medalist Carina Vogt finished fifth.
Despite some ups and downs during the past season, the Austrian team still has abundant proven talent in Gregor Schlierenzauer, Thomas Diethart, Andreas Kofler and Stefan Kraft, and they will also be contenders.
In Switzerland, the ageless Simon Ammann is largely a one-man show backed up by Gregor Deschwanden.
The 22nd edition of the FIS Summer Grand Prix, with 13 competitions at eight venues, is one of the most-watched events of the summer season and gave fans a taste of what's to come.
Lukas Hlava won top honours at the Czech Summer Nationals on his home hill in Liberec, with the 30-year-old star taking the Normal Hill title. Roman Koudelka was second. Jakub Janda (CZE) scored his first podium in the Grand Prix in two years, a nice way for him to get his early-season vibe on. Along with veteran Jan Matura, they boast a very strong team.
Klemens Muranka (POL) is a young jumper starting to flex his muscles on the hill, as he came up with a Camp of Champions (COC) win this summer in Frenstat, Croatia. In the same event, the U.S.A.'S Mike Glasder finished 27th. And Poles Kamil Stoch and Piotr Zyla have also had a good summer.
Women's flyer Ema Klinec (SLO) won the start of the women's COC in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, while the Slovenian squad sees promise in two young men: Andraz Pograjc, who won a COC in Kuopio, Finland this past August, while Anze Lanisek has had some very long jumps. In addition, Robert Kranjec also had some good results this summer, including a second-place Grand Prix finish in Russia.
The ageless and immensely talented Janne Ahonen of Finland took a fall at the FIS Grand Prix in Hinterzarten, Germany in the out-run in late summer that resulted in some knee pain, but happily he suffered no lasting effects. The former World Cup champion found nothing was broken and no ligaments were torn, only strained, and he only lost a few days of training. Meanwhile, Jarkko Maeaettae just missed his first podium result in the Summer Grand Prix in Japan and looks poised for better things.
The Norwegian squad has seen its most encouraging results this summer from 26-year-old Kenneth Gangnes, who displayed strong form and good fitness, and took a pair of Grand Prix wins in Chaikovsky, Russia. And 19-year-old Joachim Oedegaard Bjoereng is a name to remember. Despite several serious injuries in his career, he continues to bounce back, pleasing Head Coach Alexander Stoeckl, who noted that Oedegaard Bjoereng is jumping “at a very high level.” Others looking strong for the Norwegian Ski Federation are Rune Velta, Anders Fannemel and Joachim Hauer. The Norwegian women's team is also fielding such strong jumpers as Line Jahr and Maren Lundby.
Japan's stunning Sara Takanashi bested the field to take the win at the women's Grand Prix opener in Courchevel, France in August. “Of course, the winter is more important than the summer,” she commented. “But I'm very happy with
this victory.” Japan, as always, will field a strong men's and women's team. Takanashi also enjoyed superb form, taking two Grand Prix events in Russia in September, and she remains undefeated on the Summer Grand Prix circuit.
In late August, Kento Sakuyama took his first win in the FIS Summer Grand Prix, with Taku Takeuchi placing second in Hakuba, Japan.
One event all fans will be watching closely this season beginning Jan. 14 is the 2016 FIS World Ski Flying Championships in Kulm, Austria for a fifth time. You might recall the massive slide was rebuilt in 2014 and became an HS 225 metre, and the current record is 237.5 metres, set by the daring and stylish Freund. Kulm is not only memorable because of its difficulty, but also for being a rocking party zone, as more than 50,000 people attend each day.
In early August, the USSA held its summer Nationals again at the Park City, Utah complex, and it was a great show for winners Will Rhoads and Nina Lussi. The 20-year-old Rhoads took his first gold at the National Championships. Talented Kevin Bickner was second, while Christian Friberg took third. Canada's terrific Mackenzie Boyd-clowes, who is just starting a comeback following a year off, placed second overall, but was not eligible to take home any USSA medals.
In fact, three cheers for North Americans such as Canada's Dusty Korek and the U.S.A.'S Bickner for scoring Grand Prix points this summer for the first time, in 29th and 30th respectively.
Lake Placid's Lussi took the top honours for the women, followed by a strong performance by Vermont's Tara Geraghty-moats, while Abby Hughes finished third. Lussi also took a solid ninth place at a Summer Grand Prix event in Russia, with Nita Englund in 16th. In late August, it was announced by USSA that Sarah Hendrickson, the 2013 women's world ski-jumping champion, would be out for the coming season due to further surgery on her right knee. Her story is a powerful one, and she commented, “I'm not giving up on my dreams that I set years ago – this is just another speed bump in the road, but my story isn't over.” Hendrickson is expected to return for the 2016-17 season. – PG