This has been the most incredibly fun week! I am still on cloud 9 and can hardly believe that there is a World Champs silver medal sitting on our hotel room desk! Before I get into the race day “blood and guts” as my Dad likes to call it, I want to take a moment to thank all of you. All the support, congrats emails, Facebook messages and cheers mean so much to me and the outpouring of support from back home has been the foundation for success at these races. The medal is the icing on the cake, but the best feeling is knowing what this means to everyone back home. It has taken so many people working together and supporting Cross Country skiing for this to be possible, and this medal belongs to about 10,000 people. I think it’s a shame that the podium step only holds one person, because if I could I would put everyone who has been inspiring me and believing in me and pushing me to be my best up on that stage! So thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for believing in this team, because fantasy leagues aside, this US Cross Country team is YOUR team and our successes don’t mean anything without people back home to share them with!
The morning of the race, I went through my usual pre-race routine, just like always. I got up, went for a jog, headed to breakfast and proceeded to drink an insane amount of coffee with my oatmeal and yogurt and cereal. I watched some old race footage to get inspired and fired up, I laid down in my bed and visualized skiing the entire 10km loop perfectly, and then I braided my hair, put on some glitter, and glittered up my teammates. The night before I had also come up with my pacing plan while memorizing the course, and I knew exactly what I had to do at each point of the race to be able to race my fastest and lay it all out there.
Once I got to the venue, it was time to start testing skis. Jason Cork has been my tech and coach since 2010, and I trust him completely. When I get too nervous before races and I can’t even pick my skis, he does it for me. We were in agreement about which skis were going to be fastest for the race, but I had to make him make the last call because I was getting way too nervous. And he totally nailed it! See? That’s why he’s so good at his job.
I finished my warmup and jogged to the start. If you weren’t fired up to race before, the jog to the start REALLY gets you going because they created a tunnel that goes underneath the spectator stand. Running underneath a couple thousand people all screaming, stamping their feet ready to watch you race with the speakers blaring pump up music totally gets my heart hammering against my ribs. Running around the warmup pen, I saw Caitlin and Kikkan ski through the stadium on their way to the second 5km loop, and I cheered for them although I seriously doubt they could hear me over the roar from the fans!
At the starting gate, I remembered to smile because when I am having fun, that’s when I can push my hardest and race my best. Then I took a deep breath and started on the course. It started snowing shortly before I started racing, and for the first few kilometers it was lighter snow but in the second half of the race I could barely see and I kept wiping it out of my eyes on the downhills, afraid that I was going to crash! I knew that the snow would slow the course down, and it would be crazy to say that starting near the back of the seeded group wasn’t a disadvantage. My bib, #37, was right in the middle, so during my race I kept convincing myself that the snow wasn’t slowing me down, that the snow didn’t matter at all and that I was right on track no matter the weather. Because I knew that the biggest disadvantage would be to start believing that I had a problem to begin with!
That said, because of the snow I started to take some risks on the downhills to make up speed and time. I knew my skis were running super fast, and Cork had the idea the day before to turn my skis on their edges on straight parts of the downhills. I was taking risky lines on the corners to avoid the deeper, churned up snow and I almost crashed coming into the stadium for the last time, but it was totally worth it!
My pacing plan was to break the course up into 8 parts, and to really attack each section individually. I was only thinking about the section that I was on while I was skiing it, which allowed me to really focus and also not feel overwhelmed when I was in a lot of pain because I wasn’t worried about how much course I still had left to ski.
Once I got to the last 1.5 km, which goes over the sprint course, I convinced myself that I was skiing the last leg of the team sprint and I just hammered up the hills with everything that I had left. When I crossed the finish line I was nearly blacked out and although Caitlin ran out to congratulate me I didn’t know it was her at first! Once I had a chance to start breathing normally again I was able to sit up and hug her, and I hadn’t realized until just then that we had had such great races, and that it was my turn to sit in the leader’s chair!
I think, sitting in that chair and looking at the split board where you can see exactly what’s happening out on the course, that’s when it dawned on me that Caitlin and I might actually be able to keep our medals. When Charlotte Kalla crossed the line I was so happy for her and of course totally impressed with her gutsy racing. I have looked up to her as a really inspiring skier, and actually, my “pump up race footage” before the race was watching her and Astrid Jacobsen duke it out at the end of the skiathlon because I really loved how both of them were totally unwilling to give up, and pushed themselves to the limit.
Then, of course, once all the skiers crossed the line and I realized what this would mean for everyone back home – the first ever distance medals for US Women in World Champs and then 2 in one day?!? – I started freaking out. I think more than anything else what I’m going to remember about that day was the feeling I had hugging my teammates, hugging the techs who were totally over the moon, seeing my coach cry for the first time (although he insists it was a huge snowflake that hit him in the eye), and celebrating that feeling of “holy crap we just did it!” with the whole team. I’m probably going to forget some details about the flower ceremony and the interviews I did later in the media storm, but I’m definitely never going to forget those moments with the team when we found out it was actually, truly happening and that we’d gotten to the medals stand as a Nation.
To have all 4 women racing place in the top 15 really speaks to how far we have come as a country, and I am so proud of all my teammates for racing so fast! More importantly, I feel so honored to be a small part of a team that is SO. DARN. INSPIRING. Being the youngest on the US team I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I have so many older sisters, role models, and team leaders that have paved the way and continue to push this team forward. The team chemistry that we have created is really something special because we really truly care about and believe in each other, and that creates this positive energy that just lifts you right through the periods of homesickness on the road or the bad races and keeps you excited to ski and believing that you can do it.
Let’s talk about the amazing work our techs and coaches have done this week in making skis, please. Those guys have been skiing at least 50km a day, testing glide, all kinds of different waxes and kick, and they never once complain that they’re tired or not getting enough sleep, although I’m sure that both of those things are true. They come to the team pre-race meeting with tired shadows under their eyes, but you barely notice because they have huge smiles on and hugs and high fives for everyone. We have the hardest working service team in the world, and on Tuesday they really showed it to the world because we had the best skis of the day and it was obvious. They opened the window of opportunity for Caitlin and I to get onto that podium, because waxing is part of the game, and they played it just right. We are so incredibly lucky to have them, and I am so proud to work with them!
Our coaches also deserve so much credit for the good races we have been having at the Championships, because early in the year the media was coming down so hard on them for our rough start to the World Cup season. Even when I was having trouble believing that my racing would come back around, they believed in me and never looked discouraged. They knew that the championships came late in the season and planned accordingly, and the peaking plans worked out! It took a lot of guts for them to actually plan on us racing sub-par at the start of the year and be ok with taking the blast from the media for it, so if you haven’t toasted Chris Grover, Matt Whitcomb and Jason Cork yet, please do.
So…after the race! The flower ceremony was so fun, and Charlotte was so nice in congratulating Caitlin and I and celebrating with us. I still was in shock and could hardly believe what was happening, and I was so happy that I think I smiled for hours on end! I must have looked like a small child finding out they just received the best Christmas present ever. Here’s a link to watch it if you’d like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC8zi6QN4bQ
After going through the mix zone (where I kept hopping up and down because I was soaked and wet and cold!) I was taken in a car to another building where we took photos with the medals that we would be given that night. Then I had a 10 minute break, and the first thing I did was call my parents to talk to them. They had been watching the whole thing, of course, but I had to laugh when my Dad asked “so, how did it go?” because he always wants to know the strategy and pacing and details of the race, even when he knows how it ended. Then we went to a press conference, which was super exciting for me and also incredibly professionally run. Through all of that, a chaperone from Anti-Doping Control stayed with me, and once the media was done I went to the anti-doping room. Which I’m totally happy to do, to prove that I compete clean! Also to apparently prove how dehydrated I was because it was literally 2.5 hours after the race when I finally got to pee.
When I got back to the hotel, I took a second to lie down on the floor in all my dirty smelly clothes and just breathe and think about what happened. But only for a second, because then it was time for a cool-down run and a shower and a 10-minute-shovel-that-food-in-you-mouth-quick-dinner before the best part: the champagne toast with the team! Kikkan literally had to give me a “how to pop a bottle of champagne without looking like a dummy” tutorial a few years ago, so I hope I did her proud when, with only a few awkward seconds, I finally got the cork. I mentioned that the support and congrats from home was amazing, and we also got so much love from our fans and friends here in Europe! The hotel sent us the champagne and set it all up for the team, and a French baker hired by the Norwegian team to bake bread had made us a congratulatory cake!
Then Caitlin and I went to the awards ceremony, and the crowd was just amazing. It was a solid wall of sound, flags, and lights, and I’m just feeling lucky that I didn’t trip over the podium steps because I was so overwhelmed with it all! Then we did another media mix zone as well as live spots on Norwegian and Swedish television, and then it was all over! I was so worried about recovering in time for the relay during all of that so I kept drinking so much water and sitting down whenever I could, because I was already so psyched up and ready for the next thing! I’m so glad that my teammates told me to finally take a second to just soak it up and enjoy it, because this kind of thing doesn’t, like, happen every day, you know? Here’s the link to the ceremony footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MpIzHINLLY&feature=youtu.be
This is a highlight reel from the whole day, put together by the US Ski Team: http://youtu.be/AsNLoEjodt4
I’ll be writing more soon about the relay, 30km day and the rest of the week! Thanks again for all the cheering!