As promised, here is the update with all the details from last weekend’s team sprint race at World Champs that Kikkan and I won! It was a historic win and the first Gold medal US Cross Country skiing has ever won. And it took such a big team of people (coaches, wax techs, teammates, family, friends) to get us here…thanks so much to everyone! Warning: this is a long blog post, so hats off to you if you finish reading it all 🙂 But that’s because there are details I haven’t told any of the press.
This story really starts two years ago, back in Oslo World Championships. I saw Kikkan come into the individual sprint as one of the favorites and then after a super unfortunate tangle in the quarterfinals, not make it through the rounds, which was heartbreaking but inspiring in the way she handled the media. I watched the team sprint, saw Sadie and Kikkan give a great fight and then watched in amazement as the Canadian men’s team of Devon and Alex won the gold medal. And right then and there, I made it my goal for the next two years that I would train my ass off, work as hard as I could, to get a chance to be Kikkan’s sprint partner. I’ve seen her training and working so hard for so long, and wanted to help give her the best tag-off possible. I started imagining how awesome it would be if we could get on the podium in the team sprint.
Last year, in Milan, I got to be Kikkan’s sprint partner for the first time (and do my first team sprint ever), and we got a silver medal! It was all thanks to Kikkan skiing so strong and smooth, and catching up after my two falls. But still, I started hoping even more and thinking that maybe my goal was going to become reality. But it was still a long, long ways out! Then this winter in Quebec, Kikkan and I won the first World Cup team sprint medal ever for the USA. I started thinking that I wasn’t crazy after all for continuously imagining the US winning a relay medal, and I started to really truly believe. A little over a month ago, I saw the sprint course for the first time, and my visualizations of every possible race scenario were complete. I guess you could call me crazy, but I think I’ve played this race in my mind around 100 times.
The day before the race I couldn’t stop playing the race in my head – I kept looking for things totally not related to skiing to distract myself! I was so nervous, it felt like there was a hole in my stomach. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, and the uncertainty of not having raced at World Champs yet was killing me – not knowing if the tapering and training plan had worked, not knowing if I had rested enough or too much. You need to have confidence in yourself and your plan, and I did, but it was still really hard to have such high hopes and not know if I was in good shape or not.
Race morning we did our usual routine…both Kikkan and I stuck to what we’d been doing all year, not changing anything. We got to the venue and practiced a few tags in the zone, and I tested skis with my tech, Jason Cork, who picked the pair for me when I got too nervous to be able to feel my feet anymore. About our staff – they work so hard every single weekend, and they get up before anyone else so they can spend hours dialing in the wax. And on Sunday, they absolutely nailed it, and we had the fastest skis in the world! I actually had to stand up a few times so I wouldn’t pass people before I wanted to. They deserve so much more recognition than they get, and I’m so proud to get to work with them all year long!
Ok, back to the race. For the semifinal, Kikkan and I wanted to ski tactically smart and save as much energy for the final as possible. So I tucked into 2-4th place whenever I could, and stayed out of trouble, often accelerating a little into the tag zone so I could get a clear line to my teammate. We moved on through to the finals without a hitch, but what I was most excited about were my skis – they were SO fast, and I kept telling the techs what an incredible job they’d done. Also a huge thanks to Salomon, because I’d just gotten the race pair 24 hours before the final, and they ended up being the fastest skis for the day. Perfect timing!
In-between the semifinal and the final round, we had just enough time to cool down, chill out (as much as I could chill out when my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my fingertips) and then warm back up again. Steph Caverhill, an amazing massage therapist who volunteers her time with us on the road, gave us a rub down, which helped a ton!
Then it was time for the final! The nice thing for me about racing is that no matter how nervous I am beforehand, once the race starts and it’s time to focus in on what I need to do, that’s pretty much all I can think about. I was so concentrated on skiing smart, staying out of trouble, and being ready to cover any attacks made by the other skiers that I didn’t have time to feel nervous!
The first leg was a much more relaxed pace, and I started out in front to stay out of trouble but then settled into third or fourth. Again, I was thrilled to notice that my skis were running super fast, which was especially good since the course ended on a downhill and flats. Kikkan and I had smooth exchanges – we’d tag off and immediately pop our skis off and hand them to the techs in the pits, who’d brush them out and keep them running fast.
On my last leg (the 5th lap total of 6), I knew I had some extra energy kicking around, and I wanted so badly to tag Kikkan off into a great position. I knew that with the way she’d been skiing and how strong of a sprinter she is, I really just had to tag her into the first pack of skiers and she’d be able to pull it off, but crazy things happen in sprint races and I wanted to try to get her a lead if I could. So on the big hill, I made a move, and started to string out the field. But near the top, before we went under the bridge and around the corner, the Finnish girl behind me stepped on my pole and it came straight off my hand!
A couple thoughts flashed through my mind – first, a little irritation because I was trying so hard to get a lead and skiing with one pole isn’t usually the way to get a lead, then secondly I thought “well, the course is mostly flat and downhills from here…I can totally finish this thing up with one pole”. Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking much beyond “go, go go!” And I guess because I skate a lot with my legs anyways, I was able to keep the pace up till I got under the bridge, where the coaches were standing at the top of the hill.
And that’s when Erik Flora did his amazing 50m dash down the hill with one of the spare poles – he got it to me so fast, it was incredible! I was able to tuck behind the Finn and slide my hand into the biathalon strap, and re-boot mentally for the second half of the course. A quick note – the Finnish girl didn’t mean to take my pole off, and she came up after the race and apologized. But I wasn’t mad at her – that kind of thing happens in sprint racing! And it all worked out ok anyways.
We came flying down the steep downhill of the course, and I was able to slingshot into the lead and somehow hold it until I tagged off to Kikkan. Then she flew around the sprint course and crossed the line with over a 7 second lead! She skied an incredible race – the whole team’s efforts made that race possible – and as I ran over to the finish pen I could barely breathe I was so excited. I hugged Kikkan and then realized that my parents and friends and family were watching that race on TV, and I started crying as it hit me that we really won.
The rest of the day was a total whirlwind – press conferences, about a million pictures and interviews, and then the awards ceremony that night. What made the ceremony even better was that the Nordic Combined relay team won bronze!
So we got to have a medal in each Nordic dicipline. A funny note about the awards ceremonies – backstage, they have everyone arrive super early so they can have you pose for sponsor pictures and have a makeup artist get after your face. I guess because the lights on the stage are so bright, or maybe they just want to see what Cross Country skiers look like with makeup on, they had these ladies really do a good job hiding each and every freckle on my nose! Hah.
The last few days have still felt pretty crazy busy, but now everything’s shifting back to normal. Which is so important for me to say, because Pete Vordenburg once said “you have to enjoy the process, because man, that’s all there is”, and that couldn’t be more true. Winning a race feels really awesome, but the podium ceremony lasts a couple minutes, and to get up there, you have to train for years and YEARS. And if you aren’t loving what you’re doing, enjoying each and every day of training with a team that you like and respect, then it’s not going to be worth it. Because having a gold medal doesn’t change you. It doesn’t make you happier or smarter or more successful. It means you have a shiny piece of metal that will end up in a drawer somewhere! What stays with you are the memories, the friendships, the great moments over the years with your team. So, to all the young skiers out there – find a team you like, with people you like, and make your goal not to win a medal but to enjoy every day and every step of the way there!
As I wrap this post up (finally! I can’t believe you’re still reading this!) I just want to say thanks to my family, friends and sponsors for always being there for me and the team, whether or not the results roll in. That’s the most important part of all this – knowing the people that care about you will always be there. So thanks guys!