At the start of this season, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that we’d be able to race at World Champs in March with covid, let alone that it would be 60 degrees and sunny slush racing. It’s truly impressive to me that everyone has put so much time, effort and thought into safety protocols and that we’re here racing at all! So first, a big thank you to our staff, volunteers, FIS and the organizers of Oberstdorf for making the show go on.

Our World Championships team! Top to bottom, left to right: Meg Parker, Tim Baucom, Matt Whitcomb, Kate Barton, Scott Patterson, Per Erik Bjornstad, Gus Schumacher, Simi Hamilton, David Norris, Eli Brown, Hunter Wonders, Ben Ogden, Kevin Bolger, Oleg Ragilo, JP Laurin, Jason Cork, Heather Cichanowski, Zuzana Rogers, Hailey Swirbul, Jessie Diggins, Katharine Ogden, Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Sophia Laukli, Sophie Caldwell, Julia Kern, Chris Hecker, Karel Kruuser, Chris Grover. (photo by our team press officer, Tom Horrocks)

We stayed in a really cool hotel that was right on a farm, and we just loved the vibe. Our team took up every room, which was really awesome, especially from a COVID perspective. We gave the barn cat an incredible amount of love and attention and really abused the espresso machine. To be honest, in between races it probably looked really boring from the outside. When not training, we were resting and preparing to race, as well as just trying to be covid safe by not going anywhere. I did a lot of reading, sleeping, body care and talking to my fiancé and family as well as my sports psych. All in all, I felt ready to go and perhaps the most prepared physically and mentally that I’ve ever been. 

Simi, Hunter and Hailey enjoying some sunshine and getting schoolwork done!
Talking with coach Kate Barton during race prep! (photo by Nordic Focus)

We raced hard. We put our hearts into each and every start line, and never gave up. Each day had highlights, low points and inspirational performances, but to me the coolest part was how gritty everyone was in slushy, tough racing conditions! 

What good is a hot slushy day if you don’t even throw snowballs?!? (photo by Nordic Focus)

My takeaway after World Champs may surprise many people in that I feel it was a huge success, even coming in with expectations put on me of medals and leaving with 2 x 4th place. Here’s why: the process of preparing and showing up to these races physically, mentally and emotionally ready worked. I was in awesome race shape, and the peaking plan worked out. I had mentally prepared to push as hard as possible and focus on the process goals I had set for myself. Emotionally, I was able to keep shaking off one hard day after the next and keep stepping up to the line ready to keep giving it my all. I never gave up. Yes, it was heartbreaking to know that I rolled into Oberstdorf ready to go and had elements out of my control that made any outcome-oriented goals nigh impossible. There will always be things out of your control that mean you can’t ever guarantee an outcome! But man, I still tried, and nobody has ever pushed their body harder – including past versions of myself. And THAT is the part that I am most proud of, and what made these Championships a success in my mind.

Julia and I training on the courses before the championships began. (Photo from Daily Skier)
Chatting with coach Matt about the course the day before the classic sprint (photo by Nordic Focus)

At the same time, it was exhausting and stressful, not fun the way I usually feel about race weekends. I felt that I was there just to work; there was a lot of pressure on me to produce a medal for the team. Much of this pressure I put on myself, and some was put on my shoulders from external sources. It was not the way I like to operate, and no matter what the outcome of the 10km skate was, there would have been a huge release of stress and tension simply for having made it through that day and the weeks leading up to it. I learned that going into the Olympics next winter, while I can still produce all-out efforts every day under this kind of pressure, it takes a large toll on me physically and emotionally. I cannot let it become about medals when, intellectually, I know that medals are never truly within a single athlete’s control. 

My brain trying to make my limbs move faster! (photo by Nordic Focus)

To put it quite plainly, we didn’t have competitive skis in many of our races. That is just a fact, not an accusation or placing of blame, because it’s the whole system that has to work for a ski race to go right. We have to work with our techs, choose the right skis for that day, choose the right amount of kick, and be good communicators. The techs had little to no time on the course at all throughout these Championships, which made their job ridiculously hard. I have nothing but respect and admiration for our staff, and I am so proud of how hard they work for this team! And yet, as we have seen time and time again, you need competitive kick and glide under your feet to have a chance to perform well on the results sheet, not just perform well on the snow. I think that’s what made the Tour de Ski even more remarkable in my eyes, because although I sound like a broken record when I say this, it really is a true team effort – our staff gave us the opportunity to really get into the fight with competitive skis every day. Our struggles at World Champs were not due to a lack of effort or passion, and it’s important to know that. Even when we knew we were fighting an uphill battle, we never gave up. That’s why I think it’s important to address this here, because I know there’s a lot of young skiers reading this right now. Ski racing will never be an even playing field. On any given day, someone is always going to have the fastest skis, someone is always going to have the worst, and if you race long enough you’ll find yourself on every single part of that spectrum. But it’s never an excuse to give up, stop trying, or stop learning. No matter how a race goes, you’ll have things you did well that you can (and should!) be proud of. You’ll also have things you learned and can take with you for the next race to improve upon. 

Hailey, Katharine, me and Sophia taking a team moment after a tough skiathlon battle against the snow. (photo by Tom Horrocks)
Getting ready to go! Hailey, me, Katharine and Sophia before the skiathlon. (photo by Tom Horrocks)

There was, quite frankly, a lot of pressure, nerves, and expectations going into the 10km skate race and the 4x5km relay. Without boring you with race details, I sent it as hard as I possibly could in the 10km skate, and nailed my process goals. I managed to still get too hot despite chewing ice before the start, packing snow down the front and back of my suit and having Matt throw water on me twice during the race. I finished fourth, but man, I had no regrets! I got every single second I could out of my body that day, and that’s a good feeing to have deep in your bones. I learned that I needed to find ways to acclimate even more to the heat so that my body won’t start shutting down when it overheats. But I also learned that despite all the pressure on me before the race, I was able to focus on my process goals of technique, pacing and mental cues.

That is one very overheated gal right there folks! Giving it my all in the 10km skate. (photo by Nordic Focus)
Racing hard all the way to the line (photo by Nordic Focus)

What really gave me confidence was that for me to have been able to push THAT hard in the worst possible weather conditions for my body meant that I was truly in a good place. I was proud of that all-out effort, and there were no “what-if’s” in my mind at all. It was, of course, still disappointing to have come so close to a medal, but it would be weird if I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Sadie putting snow on me after the 10km to help me cool down! (photo by Nordic Focus)

Relay day came with all the nerves and pressure and excitement that it usually does, which is to say; a LOT. I was so proud seeing Hailey, Sadie and Rosie all ski their hearts out, and no stone was left unturned. Shortly after being tagged in, I realized that with the way my glide was stacking up to the girls around me, I couldn’t let it come down to what would surely be a three-way sprint-out if I did not take the lead and push the pace. I’d be sprinting against girls with much faster glide and more energy left, and I knew I had a better chance if nobody came into that last 100 meters feeling good. My only chance was to rely on my fitness and try my best to pull away on the long climb, slushy slow conditions and all. I didn’t succeed (although I did narrow it down to a two person sprint), but wow, I really tried. I don’t think I’ve ever been in more physical pain in my life, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I pushed through every limit my body had and tried everything I could. I set up a slingshot into the finishing stretch that ordinarily might have worked, and hammered down the last 100 meters with every ounce of strength and speed I possessed. But there are some obstacles that even the most motivated hearts cannot overcome. Having gone back and watched that last 100 meters on video, there is no doubt in my mind that I tried my best and that although I had exceedingly little glide for every push of my skis, the tempo, power and heart were there. That is simply a part of the sport that can make ski racing so exciting and simultaneously so heartbreaking. 

Working incredibly hard every single second of that relay! (photo by Nordic Focus)

But when I crossed that line, the coolest thing happened that really shows what our team is made of; every single one of my teammates was right there to shovel snow onto my body and tell me they were as proud of me as I was of them. There was no blame, no excuses, and only mutual admiration for how hard each of us had fought against the snow and the course. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of passing out before making it out of the media zone, and I’m not sure my body has ever been more wrecked after an all-out effort (and that is truly saying something)! That to me is what makes this team so worth destroying my body for – because it’s the act of going as hard as possible that earns you respect on this team, not the outcome on the results sheet. 

I was completely drained for a little while after that relay – I can only describe the feeling as being a raisin that got dried up from the heat, the pressure, and from having no energy left at all. Special thanks to my teammates for their grace in letting me “rehydrate” my raisin self that evening with time and space to process, and a very big thanks to my year-long roommate Julia for the hugs and support.

Trying to dislodge a chunk of snow in my ear, and also just needing some Sadie cuddles. (photo by Nordic Focus)
Literally being held up by my teammates when I couldn’t feel my legs or get them to function. (photo by Nordic Focus)

Ultimately, I think it comes down to this; who you are is determined by how you lose, not how you win. As soon as I could get my legs under me (and be sure I wasn’t going to accidentally throw up my lunch on someone), it was important to me to jog over to the Finnish truck and congratulate the team. Because if there’s one person I couldn’t have been more genuinely happy for, it was Krista. I love how she races all-out, cut-off shorts and t-shirt suit and all. It’s entirely possible to be simultaneously heartbroken for your own day AND happy for someone else as well, even if it’s the person who beat you to the line. Krista’s hug after the Tour de Ski meant a lot to me, and I wanted to be sure I could return the congrats!

Girls team huddle (Hailey, me, Sadie and Rosie) after the relay. (photo by Tom Horrocks)
Sim and Gus with their face paint before the men’s team sprint!

It was truly inspiring to see our men’s relay rally through some of the craziest course conditions I’ve ever seen. It was dumping snow the whole time and it looked like the slowest snow you could ever imagine, and still they were hammering! David, Scott, Simi and Gus made up the team and we were so proud. Then we were proud of them all over again with some personal bests being set in the 50km classic for the men, and our girls fighting so hard in the 30km through the slowest snow you could imagine!

Speaking of getting tough in tough snow conditions, I called my parents at the side of the Birkie trail to cheer for my SMST2 club teammates Alayna and Ian racing back home through tons of new snow! So fun to watch them ski by and cheer (from a phone…sadly, it wasn’t very loud)!

I made the call to sit out the 30km classic, because the toll that the previous four races had taken on me physically and emotionally required some serious rest, and I needed to respect that! I also wanted to be able to roll into the last World Cups of the season with a full battery pack and be able to fight hard to try and keep the Distance World Cup Globe, because that one is still very much up in the air. But Julia and Sophie just crushed the feed zone coaching areas, Kevin was on kick and glide many times, and they have been the most incredible champions of our team this week. The energy and positivity that they lended to the team was truly the boost we needed, and although it shouldn’t surprise you because they’re such amazing teammates, it’s still just so cool to see. We had so many athletes working on glide outs, testing for the team and working feed zones in races, and it actually gives me goosebumps to see how the whole team comes together to support one another. We literally had so many athletes volunteering to help that I found myself jealous of not having a staff bib to help with glide outs in! Can you imagine? What a crazy cool team to be a part of. 

Sophie helping Cork and I test skis the day before the 10km skate! This was so fun for me. Thanks Soph!

Last but certainly not least, I am just so stinking proud of Sadie in her last World Champs relay, as she is retiring at the end of this season, and leaving some mighty big shoes to fill. She has inspired a generation of young American skiers, and shown such dedication, work ethic, passion for sport and that you can love what you do while working so hard at it. Sadie has given back to the ski community in so many ways, locally and across the nation, and I feel so lucky to have her as part of my ski family! Sadie skied her last race at World Champs in the 30km classic, and it was very special to be able to celebrate a long incredible career with her back at the hotel after the race. 

One of my all time favorite race memories – having a moment with Sadie after the Lahti team sprint in 2017! (Photo credit CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Now we’re in to the stunning Engadin Valley in Switzerland for our last World Cup races to wrap up the year. I’m really excited to send it as hard as I can in these last races and I know the whole team is ready to go out in style!