LIBEREC, Czech Republic (Feb. 21) - Liz Stephen (East Montpelier, VT) led the way for U.S. women in Saturday's 15K pursuit race at the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships in Liberec. Stephen finished 1:57 minutes behind Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, who took the title. Kristen Stoermer Steira of Norway and Aino Kaisa Saarinen from Finland were second and third respectively.
In the pursuit event, athletes ski both a 7.5K classic and skate leg, swapping skis in the pits at the midway point. Stephen was especially impressive with the seventh fastest skate leg.
Stephen, who won her first national title in 2008 just four years after her first cross country race, has been making an impact on the U-23 and NorAm level this season. She was recently fourth in a 15K pursuit in France, where Morgan Arritola (Ketchum, ID) finished right with her teammate in fifth.
"It's been the experience of a lifetime. The more we get to race over here, the more normal it becomes and it's fun to know we can mix it up with the best," a bubbly Stephen said after her race.
Stephen said her best results have come in pursuit, but it's her skating that gets her there.
"I tend to try to hang with the masses in the classic portion, then really turn it on in the skate when people are starting to fade," Stephen said.
Stephen's skate leg was seventh fastest, putting her ahead of Italian Ariana Follis and Slovenian ski maven Petra Majdic, some of the sports biggest names.
"I had really good skis and spent most of my warmup testing out skis. It worked out well. I was able to ski really relaxed and came in mid pack. Then I worked my way through in the skate, trying to pick off people as I went," Stephen said.
Racing in her first World Championships, Stephen said it has been a thrill to feed off the excitement of the big Czech crowds.
"The crowds are awesome, really loud and people are just having a blast out here. They were chanting all the girls' names in the 10k classic and the stands are chocked full of people," she said.
"I'm so excited. Liz and Morgan skied well. I am proud of how they raced and couldn't be happier," U.S. Cross Country Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said. "It's been a great Championships so far."
Vordenberg said the two will race in the women's 4x5K skate relay, scheduled Feb. 26.
"They are really young and they're getting really good experience, it's exciting," Vordenberg said.
Sunday, the men will race a 30K pursuit. James Southam (Anchorage) and Leif Zimmerman (Bozeman, MT) will represent the U.S.
"It's going to be a really fun race, a lot like yesterday with huge crowds," Vordenberg said.
2009 NORDIC SKI WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
Liberec, Czech Republic - Feb. 21, 2009
Women's 15K Pursuit (7.5K classic/7.5K freestyle)
1. Justyna Kowalczyk, Poland, 40:55.3
2. Kristen Stoermer Steira, Norway, 40:57.0
3. Aino Kaisa Saarinen, Finland, 41:03.3
4. Mariana Longa, Italy, 41:16.8
5. Valentina Shevchenko, Ukraine, 41:39.5
15. Liz Stephen, East Montpelier, VT, 42.52.3
32. Morgan Arritola, Sun Valley, ID, 43:51.3
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