The Ruka stadium is ready for the opening FIS Cross Country World Cup. (Ruka Nordic)
RUKA, Finland (Nov. 23, 2016) – The U.S. Cross Country Ski Team will open its 2016-17 World Cup season this weekend in the frozen north of Finland, with the traditional opening races in Ruka outside the Lapland city of Kuusamo. A dozen Americans are expected to start including World Champion Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, AK), who joins the tour with new baby Breck at her side.
The season will open Saturday with a classic sprint, followed by classic mid distances on Sunday. Given the classic openers, expectations are a bit tempered, but Head Coach Chris Grover is expecting a strong season.
Most of the team arrived Sunday, with serviceman and athletes spending a few days of light preparation and ski testing. Given the season focus on World Championships, the team did not run a longer preparation camp in Europe to open the season.
“There are many things that contribute to skiing fast, and one of them is maintaining a good life balance for the athletes,” said Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, who is with the team in Finland. “We’re good travelers, but small tweaks to the schedule here and there to ease travel demands can help. This also serves as a test plan for the Olympic season. But don’t think we don’t intend to be skiing for the podium this weekend.”
The women’s squad is one of the deepest on the tour, led by World Champion Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN), World Cup classic sprint winner Sophie Caldwell (Peru, VT) and returning veteran and World Champion Randall. Veteran Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT) will remain in Norway for training by plan, and is expected to join the World Cup when it visits Lillehammer in early December.
“You never really know how your training has gone until you get on snow and start racing again,” said Diggins. “Every year my training plan has me working into the season to peak my fitness closer to the World Championships in February. So I plan to open on the conservative side with levels of training still fairly high, and work up from there!”
Kikkan Randall smiles on the podium with winner Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and third placed Denise Herrmann of Germany at the Ruka World Cup in 2013. (Getty Images/AFP-Markku Ulander)
Randall and husband Jeff Ellis packed the new family and hit the road last week for a new adventure. “It’s great to be back in Ruka after a year away!” she said. “The team is in good spirits and the conditions have been great so far.”
Little Breck had some challenges with the 11-hour time change but is on track now, with daddy-daycare Jeff helping out while Kikkan trains. “It’s going to be so fun to see this whole World Cup experience from a new perspective this year,” said Randall. Family members will tag team during the season while Kikkan races and Jeff manages the finish area for his role as a FIS media coordinator.
“I’ve been really satisfied with my return to training since Breck was born and am optimistic about my shape,” added Randall. “But you never know until you start racing! My biggest goals of the season will be finding my best performances in Lahti at the World Championships. I would also like to be strong in the Tour de Ski and get back to contending for podiums in sprints.
Randall and Ida Sargent warm up in Ruka. (Matt Whitcomb)
“But I’m mostly pumped to be back with the team and have the chance to go after more points for USA!”
Caldwell is bringing in the experience of winning a World Cup sprint – a classic one, nonetheless. “I'm going into the World Cup opener with an open mind,” she said. “Even though I have not had my best races here in the past, it is a course that suits some of my strengths and I'm happy to be feeling healthy and to get the season started! I feel stronger than I have in the past and I think my classic sprinting took a big jump last year, so I'm looking forward to building on that.”
Caldwell is also realistic about her chances. “I was recovering from a mild cold last week and also tend to build my way into the season a bit, so I don't have super high results-based expectations. We're trying a new technique of flying over right before the races, so this weekend will be a great opportunity to clear out the cobwebs and put our hard work to the test!”
One of America’s best sprinters for a decade, Andy Newell (Shaftsbury, VT) is setting aside sickness issues from last season and coming into the openers ready to race. “I know I've put in maybe the best off season of training I ever have and I'm just pumped to start racing,” said Newell. “Because of sickness last year I'm really not putting too much emphasis on performance goals for a lot of my World Cup starts and rather am just trying to focus on feeling strong and healthy and having a good time. I've always enjoyed racing at the opening sprint in Kuusamo because it's such an iconic course with its drag racing-style final climb, I know I can be among the best here.”
Hamilton is trying to shake off illness he picked up en route to Finland. He’ll be looking to improve on the two World Cup podiums he achieved a year ago.
“It’s great to be back in winter up here in northern Finland,” he said. “The excitement for the season is ratcheting up every day as more and more teams show up here in Ruka. The team is stoked for the beginning of a new season, and I think we’re going to see some pretty historical performances this year.”
The U.S. Ski Team has a history of some success on the Ruka course outside Kuusamo. Randall had a pair of podium, including second in the 5k in 2012 and second in the 2013 classic sprint behind Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk. Also in 2013, Noah Hoffman (Aspen, CO) won a freestyle 15k pursuit stage when the opener was a mini tour.
The athletes are excited to be back in Ruka's magic for the season kick off. (Timo Newton-Syms)
While final race assignments were pending, Whitcomb expected most of the dozen U.S. athletes in Ruka to compete in both events.