KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – It didn’t matter that it’s February in Russia and the Olympic cross country stadium sits at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet. The U.S. women’s ski team wore tank tops for their 10-kilometer classic race on Thursday in temperatures that reached 55 degrees.
Those temperatures turned the tracks to slush and made ski waxing a challenge.
Sadie Bjornsen of Winthrop, Wash., was the top U.S. finisher, coming in 18th after skiing all-out for 29 minutes, 59.7 seconds. She described the race, a time trial that sent skiers off against the clock at 30-second intervals, as “one of those days where you really have to push your mind and your brain.”
Coming up the last hill that leads into the stadium, she said she just tried to numb her brain and “not listen to anything besides the rhythm of pole, pole, pole, pole.”
“That’s what I kept trying to tell myself going up the hill,” she said. “Then coming up over the top you know that every second is places, so I was just trying to push all the way into the finish.”
Vancouver Olympian and Seattle native Holly Brooks came in 35th with a time of 31 minutes, 19.1 seconds. Sophie Caldwell, who finished sixth in Tuesday’s sprint race, ended the classic race in 32nd with a time of 31:11.4, while fellow Vermonter Ida Sargent came in 34th, four seconds behind Caldwell.
“The conditions are definitely crazy,” Caldwell said. “It’s definitely the warmest and softest I’ve skied in in a long time.”
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Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland won the gold – her fifth Olympic medal — finishing in 28:17.8. The silver medal went Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla, who won her fourth Olympic medal. Therese Johaug of Norway took the bronze.
The U.S. Ski Team’s top racers, Liz Stephen, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins, did not compete in the Sochi classic race, despite the fact that Stephen finished 11th and Randall 15th in a pre-Olympic 10-kilometer race in Italy in February, a race that was considered the last test-race before the Sochi Games.
The U.S. team has set its sights on Saturday’s four-member relay. Women’s coach Matt Whitcomb has not revealed who will make up the team, but it is likely Bjornsen’s strong finish on Thursday will mean she’ll join Stephen, Randall and Diggins.
The heat was a huge factor in the day’s outcome.
“The snow is just super slow,” Brooks said. “The climb from the bottom to the top hurt really really bad. But it was fun, especially the first 5K, there’s so much rest on the first 5K you can feel really good. The second 5K was much much tougher, you’re tired. You have lactic acid all throughout your body.
The seven-minute climb to the finish “doesn’t exactly make you feel like a million bucks,” she said.
Bjornsen, who had two seventh-place finishes in World Cup 10-kilometer races in December, said the conditions on Thursday were completely different.
The December races were all “hard-wax skiing,” while the racers on Thursday had to use a soft, sticky wax called Klister to grip the snow on the climbs. Bjornsen said hard wax is her strength while Klister skiing is not her forte.
“Every course, every condition is a unique skill in itself,” she said. “My goal is to be able to ski all those conditions so I’m working my way.”
“In order to be top 10 today, I would have needed one more gear coming up that hill,” she added. “I was giving it all I had today, so that was that.”
Martha Bellisle writes for the Reno Gazette-Journal.