Wow, the last couple days have been a whirlwind! I will try to recollect what happened...
The week leading into the Russian races was full of anticipation. After a solid weekend racing in Davos, I had a day or so to recover and then jumped into a sprint prep workout with Chandra Crawford ('06 Olympic sprint gold medalist from Canada). We powered through the soft snow, taking turns leading each interval. The workout went well, giving me confidence that I was ready to sprint fast. We also managed to fit in a short powder run on our cool-down, keeping the atmosphere light.
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On Thursday morning, the US team and I met up with a load of other World Cuppers for a charter flight to Yaroslav, the nearest big city to Rybinsk. It was a full day of travel, first flying into a military base in Yasoslav and then boarding a bus for 3 hours. We eventually arrived at our cabin around 9pm and had dinner at the dining hall. I was quickly reminded of what a strange place Russia seems. A random mix of music (including techno, classical and 40's bandstand) was playing over the loud speaker, the course was illuminated off in the mist and there were uniformed soldiers everywhere.
Friday and Saturday went by smoothly. I was able to test skis and get re-familiar with the course. All the US athletes stayed together in one cabin and it was fun bonding with the guys, watching movies and such. The meals were interesting with a mix of grizzly meat, fish covered in mayonnaise, mixed vegetables and french fries. No regular coffee, just instant.
Building up to race day I was full of mixed emotions. When I was out training, my body felt a little sluggish and it was hard to judge whether it was just nerves of actual fatigue. I did my usual pre-race workout, alongside Chandra, and by the end of the ski I was feeling pretty good. I decided to sit out Saturday's distance race to be rested for the sprint, so I watched the race from the TV. It was an exciting mass-start race and part of me wished I was in there racing.
Saturday morning came early. Russia was two hours forward of Central Europe, and I hadn't adjusted yet. So my 7am alarm felt more like 5am! I had a good breakfast, opting to skip the instant coffee, which felt a little risky because I always have coffee on race day. I packed up my bag and walked the 10 minute trip over to the stadium. The fans were beginning to file in.
Peter, my wax tech, had two pairs of skis ready for me and we took a few laps around the course. Both pairs felt free and fast but after a couple glide-outs we decided to go with a brand new pair of Fischer Carbonlite 610's with the factory grind. The rest of my warm-up went smoothly, although I still had a heavy feeling in my legs.
During the qualifying round I was happy to find that the heaviness in the legs was just nerves and I was fresh and ready to rock. I skied controlled over the first half of the course and then let it rip up the big climb. On the downhill section and into the finish I used a low free-skate to hold momentum and then kicked it in the final 100m. I was pleased to see myself in 2nd position upon crossing the line. Wow, okay, I guess I am skiing fast now!
While many elements of Russian organization were untimely, the heats were schedule to go off at 11:30am, a little over an hour after qualifying was finished. I was glad for the short time in between (less time to be nervous). I changed into a complete set of dry gear and listened to my iPod for a little bit. I was too anxious to eat part of a honey sandwich I had brought from breakfast. With about 30 minutes to go until the start of my quarter, I took a few laps around the warm-up track to get the body back going. Sami Jahojarvi, a Finnish skier, asked me how it was going. "Off to a a good start so far," I replied. My body again felt heavy, but I knew it was just the nerves trying to fool me.
When I lined up for my quarterfinal, I realized I was in a tough heat. Last year's Rybinsk sprint winner, Arianna Follis was there, along with last year's overall World Cup champion Virpi Kuitinen, as well as a few other strong contenders. Being the fastest qualifier I got first lane choice and chose the far left lane with the best line to the first corner. The starter called us to the line after a quick introduction and then paused for several seconds before firing the gun.
The start was smooth and heading around the first bend I settled into 2nd behind Follis. Virpi surged on the outside but I held my position and tried to stay relaxed. Coming into the climb, I stayed behind Follis up the left side, while Virpi took the right. Midway up the hill it seemed Virpi was going faster and I stared to move right. But then Follis surged and I jumped back behind her. Over the top of the hill, Follis was still in front and Virpi and I were side by side. As we descended down the other side, Virpi had more momentum and she passed Follis. I jumped in behind her and followed until the finish stretch. The draft effect was strong and all the racers from my heat began to fan out into the finishing lanes. I free-skated aggressively and got to the inside lane ahead of Virpi. I poured on a burst of speed and got ahead of the other racers to win the heat and move on to the semi's.
My quarterfinal had felt a little restrictive and so I watched the other heats to look for a new strategy. In the first women's semi-final ( I was in the 2nd), I watched Norway's Astrid Jacobsen (last year's World Sprint Champion) lead into the climb and breakaway over the top to win. So I decided I would try a similar move.
Once again I chose the inside lane and had a good start. I was counting on one of the Russian girls to take the lead and break the wind, and just as expected one of them did, #6 Natalia Korostoleva. I followed her until we hit the hill and then I made my move. I pushed hard over the top of the hill. Just as I dropped into my tuck, my right ski flung sideways and I barely pulled it back without falling. What a scare! My move worked and I skied in the rest of the way unchallenged to advance to the A-final.
Maybe it was the relief of making into the final, but I finally tuned in to my surroundings as I jogged around to stay loose. The 35,000+ fans, many packed into grandstands along the homestretch, were at full volume, cheering and waving flags attached to long poles. There was only a short break before the final, just 15 minutes. I jogged around and psyched myself up. Finally we lined up, for the final effort of the day.
The Salomon rep helped me clean out my boots and click into my skis. I double-checked my poles straps and then picked my lane. I decided to go with the far left as it had been so good to me so far. The camera man moved in and did quick introductions for each of us. Then we crouched for the start and listened intently for the gun.
My start was quick and I reached the first corner shoulder to shoulder with Jacobson. There was a headwind on the back part of the course and I didn't want to lead, so I backed off slightly. She didn't seem to want to lead either, but after a few strides she reluctantly took the lead and then picked up the pace. While the pace was fast, it was perfect, stringing out the field. I followed closely behind holding my position in second place, until we hit the big climb. As we headed up the climb I pulled right and skied side by side up the first pitch, ready for her to make a move. But when she didn't speed up, I decided to go for it. I accelerated and hammered up and over the top of the hill as hard as I could.
It was a big gamble. Oleg, one of our US wax techs, was yelling, "Go, go, she's coming." I knew it was risky leading down the hill because of the draft effect. I dropped into the lowest tuck I could and hoped not to feel any skiers come up from behind. Coming over the bridge I held a tight line and then free-skated hard into the finish lanes. No one had come up yet and I sprinted as hard as I could. In the last few meters I finally realized I was going to win the race and raised my hands across the line. That's when it hit me, "Oh my gosh, what did I just do!"
As I slid to a halt, the mass engulfed me. First all the other racers came over to congratulate me. Astrid was very complimentary. The Fischer rep was there with skis for the camera, the Swix guy was there to wrap my poles together. Justin was the first to give me a big hug and the cameras were in my face. My legs were burning like crazy from the effort, but all I could do was smile. The men's B Final was about to start and I watched anxiously to see how my teammate, Andy Newell would do. It was icing on the cake when he came in leading and won the B Final as well. He gave me a big hug, lifting my feet off the ground, and it made me realize what a great team surge we have going on in the US right now.
Once the men's A-final had concluded, with another first-time winner, it was time for the prize ceremony. I got to go and stand a top the podium to the roar of the Russian crowd. It was incredible! After several pictures were snapped I walked over to the grandstand and tossed my flowers into the crowd. Then I signed a few autographs before being whisked away to the press conference.
The press conference was pretty short, just a few general questions about how I felt and what my future goals are. No political questions this time. I grabbed a souvenir poster on the way out and headed back to our cabin. On the way, I called my fiancé and woke him up. He was super excited and sharing the news was making it all sink in. Next I called my parents. It was 2am in Alaska. But they had already seen the results and were screaming ecstatically in the background. I had to make my calls quick (airtime in Russia is really expensive) but it was great to be able to speak with them.
Once I got back to the cabin the guys were all there and I got big hugs and high fives. Then I changed into dry clothes, stuffed all my race gear in my duffle and loaded the bus. Three hours later we arrived at the military base and another hour or two after that we headed back to Munich. Many of the athletes, coaches and service men from the other teams congratulated me as well.
It was a crazy evening once we were back in Munich. Unpacking, repacking, celebrating, checking photos, calling home. I finally made it to bed at 2am and hardly slept. The adrenaline was still surging through my body. The only downside of the day was that in my second phone call to my fiancé I was informed that he had been in a crash during his ski race and he had fractured his shoulder. Bummer!
It has been so much fun the last couple days to receive messages from everyone, celebrating such a great breakthrough both for myself and for the US. I knew in the back of my mind that a win would be possible and it's so great to finally make it happen. I feel like this is just the beginning. With a full season still ahead, I am confident the US Nordic team is on track for it's best season ever!
For right now however, I am looking forward to enjoying a Christmas break in Toronto with my fiancé and his family, and then I will head to US Nationals in Houghton, Michigan starting in the new year. My next World Cup race will be in Canmore, Alberta on January 23rd, one of two sprints, and I can't wait to get the Europeans on our turf!
A Big Big Big Thanks to my family, my coaches, my teammates, my sponsors and to everyone who helped me get to where I am today!!
Happy Holidays everyone and I'll see ya in 2008!