Graves on Nordic
By now, everyone is aware of the amazing early-season results had by both U.S. and Canadian cross-country skiers. They mark a very, very strong start to the 2018 Olympic season.
What follows here is not intended by any means to be Olympic predictions, but indicates how well our athletes are doing in the ramp-up period to the Games.
For most, the early-season results have been reasonably predictable. Norwegian superstar Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo went on a tear with an impressive string of victories, while the Norwegian women’s team has proven to be a constellation of excellence with Heidi Weng, Ragnhild Haga, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and Maiken Caspersen Falla looking powerful. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla has also been triumphant with her first-ever Skiathlon World Cup win, accompanied by Stina Nilsson, who has started with a strong campaign as well. Weng again demonstrated her readiness for the Olympic Games by being a repeat winner at the Tour de Ski.
Then, of course, there’s Marit Bjoergen, the most decorated cross-country female skier of all time, who rested and trained during the Tour de Ski and will be ready to rock Pyeongchang.
Canadian superstar Alex Harvey is off to a sensational start with his brilliant performances. At the team’s pre-olympic training camp in Livigno, Italy, Ivan Babikov, the Canadian team’s head coach, said, “You can just tell that he [Alex] is coming into his optimal shape for the next period when he climbs up Alpe Cermis with one of the best times of the day. In the past, it used to be one of his hardest races, and [now he’s] had an historic finish on the last day.”
Harvey’s early-season results included a fourth in Ruka, Finland; sixth in Lillehammer, Norway; 10th in Davos, Switzerland; fourth in Toblach, Italy; followed by two fourths and his first podium of the season in the men’s 15km Classic at the Tour de Ski, plus a third overall finish at the Tour – a Canadian first. These fine results indicate that Harvey is in a great space. This has to help the entire squad have an optimistic mindset.
The U.S. women’s team has also captivated the world’s attention with their extraordinary streak of success.
Recently, Chris Grover, U.S. head coach, spoke about the season’s fast start: “I was a bit surprised that some of our results were so strong, so early. The fields were incredibly deep in Period One of the World Cup, with some of the men’s fields exceeding 100 starters and very strong nation’s groups in Finland and Norway in particular. The U.S. athletes also had a relatively short period to acclimate to the time change and to log time on snow before Ruka, as compared to the Scandinavians and some of the central Europeans. But the U.S. athletes stepped up and demonstrated that they had done an excellent job preparing for the season.”
Clearly, it was a great start for the U.S. team. “The athletes can have a lot of confidence in knowing that their hard work during the preparation period is already paying off and will continue to do so as we move closer to the Olympic Games,” he noted.
With skiers such as Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell and Kikkan Randall’s notching up some stunning performances, Grover expressed his thoughts on this impressive surprising string of podium achievements: “Well, I think there were several great surprises, the biggest being Sadie’s [Bjornsen] back-to-back podiums in the Classic races. We’ve had Classic sprint performances in the past by Andy [Newell], Kikkan, Sophie and Ida [Sargent], but they’ve been infrequent and sporadic. Sadie’s podiums solidify this event as a possible medal event for the U.S.A. at Pyeongchang. Other surprises for me included the strength of the U.S.A. sprint group in Davos, and how well Paddy Caldwell was skiing in his first season on the World Cup.”
And the U.S.A. women have impressive depth – to wit, four American women were in the top 20 in Davos, Switzerland in the 10km freestyle race.
Diggins’ start was perhaps more predictable, with a string of impressive finishes. She said, “I’m really happy how the start of the season has gone for myself, but I’m also totally wowed by the team overall – what a great way to get the season rolling. I’m focusing my peak of the season towards the Olympics, so for the first period of the World Cup, I felt like I was in good shape, but without that ‘sharp’ feeling you get when you are in peak form. This was the plan, so I’m not worried about it, but I am looking forward to getting those feelings back as we move closer to the Games and we start to shift my training a bit.”
Diggins was equally impressive on the Tour, taking a brilliant historic third-place overall – an American first. Sadie Bjornsen, too, capped a stellar nine-day Tour de Ski, finishing ninth overall and putting two U.S. skiers in the top 10, also a record.
Rosie Brennan also looked impressive in some of the early World Cups and could well have a breakout season.
Prior to the start of the Tour de Ski, Grover was asked how the men’s team was coming together. “The men’s team start has been solid, but it’s still fermenting and coming together. Erik Bjornsen has been impressive in training all year, so it’s very gratifying to see him skiing well in both skate and Classic, distance and sprint. Paddy [Caldwell] has also entered his rookie season with a lot of poise and maturity. Andy [Newell] and Simi [Hamilton] both had rough starts to the first World Cup period, but were starting to come into form in Davos, where they qualified 10th and 12th respectively. The next weekend, they dominated an OPA Cup sprint, with Simi narrowly out-lunging Andy in the final for the victory.”
Caitlin Patterson also shone brilliantly Stateside, as she dominated the 2018 L.L. Bean US Cross Country Ski Championships at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Alaska by sweeping to four straight gold medals. Impressive indeed.
The Winter Games are on the horizon, and the timing of all of this simply couldn’t be better. Let us hope for the best Olympic Games possible, one that celebrates the best in the human spirit and that just might help ease existing political tensions.
Chris Grover, U.S. head coach
Ivan Babikov, Canadian head coach