Sprint Win for Sophie Caldwell
In an aggressive head-to-head battle, Sophie Caldwell (Peru, Vt.) put down some powerful skiing over three heats to tie for the win in the 2019 World Championship test event freestyle sprint in Seefeld, Austria. Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, Wash.) joined her in the finals, finishing sixth. Swiss Laurien van der Graaf joined Caldwell for the win.
Simi Hamilton (Aspen, Colo.) was ninth to lead the U.S. men as Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo continued his domination.
“I was not expecting to take the win and didn’t realize I had tied for first until 20 minutes after the race had ended,” said Caldwell. “Any day in the final is a good day, any day on the podium is a good day, so of course I’m thrilled with a win.”
The short 1.1k flat course provided some intense skating action with Caldwell and Bjornsen in it across each heat. Caldwell found herself up against Norway's powerhouse skier Maiken Kaspersen Falla in every heat, taking down the Norwegian star in both the semifinals and finals.
“Maiken and I both chose the first heat, which I was pretty psyched with because I really enjoy skiing with her and I knew they would be fast heats,” said Caldwell. “She likes to lead and she’s a very clean skier, so my strategy was to follow her and have a strong finish. I got off to a slow start in my quarter final, but I was able to take the top corner well and move into second.”
Caldwell, who qualified fourth, was just .08 off Falla's pace in the opening heat - the fastest of the opening round by over two seconds. Bjornsen took a half second win in her heat.
Caldwell and Falla battled the entire way in the first semifinal heat with the American taking the win. Bjornsen was second with the pair advancing into the finals.
“After that opening heat I tried to have stronger starts to put myself into a good position,” she said. “I was feeling good all day and knew this was a course that suited my strengths, so I thought if I skied it well in the final I might have a shot at the podium.”
Falla set a torrid pace in the title round, but Caldwell never left her tails. In a field sprint to the finish, Caldwell powered by Falla while van der Graaf came charging up the other side to grab a tie with Caldwell in a photo finish that could not be separated.
It was Caldwell's fifth career individual podium and second sprint win - one each in classic and sprint. For Bjornsen, it was her first appearance in a skate sprint final.
“It was extra special to be in the final with Sadie,” said Caldwell. “She is skiing so well in every discipline right now.”
Bjornsen clearly showed she was back to form after several weeks of recovery from the Tour de Ski.
“It was an incredible day out there today on the World Championship course for next year,” said Bjornsen. “It is fun to have our final preparation for the Olympics on our World Champs course for next year! I finally had some of my first good feelings since the Tour de Ski today, and had a ton of fun with it.”
Bjornsen had a strong qualifier and set a goal of getting out of quarter finals for the first time in two years in a skate sprint
“The quarter finals went really well and my legs were feeling really good and strong,” she said. “In the semi's, I again felt good, but could feel some fatigue coming in for the final climb. I tried to recover as fast as I could, and stay positive for the finals to try to fight for a podium alongside Sophie.”
While the field was tightly packed in the final, Bjornsen just didn’t have the power on the final climb and finished sixth - a career best skate sprint.
The one-two punch of Caldwell and Bjornsen showed, once again, the depth of the women’s team going into the Olympics.
“Big huge congrats to Sophie for the win today,” said Bjornsen. “She is an inspiration, and one speedy teammate to look up to.”
Bjornsen’s appearance in a sprint final added yet another name to mix as a contender for the upcoming two-person freestyle team sprint in PyeongChang along with Diggins and Caldwell.
Seefeld is the site of the 2019 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. The sprint will be freestyle next year in Seefeld, with classic on tap at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. The short, flat sprint course is expected to be enhanced for the World Championships.
Bjornsen remained seventh in the FIS World Cup overall rankings, while Jessie Diggins (Afton, Minn.), who sat out the race, stayed in third. Diggins had planned to skip the freestyle sprint to pace herself going into PyeongChang. She is expected to compete in Sunday’s 10k freestyle mass start. The men will run 15k.