U.S. nordic skiers talk season, Olympics
Falling on his face wasn’t quite how Aspen native Simi Hamilton wanted to begin the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, held late last month in Lahti, Finland. It did, however, make the rest of the competition that much sweeter.
“I just got my tip in some powder and face planted and that was the end of my day,” Hamilton told The Aspen Times in a phone interview. “It started kind of disappointing with me for the skate sprint. That’s kind of my strongest event and I was really hoping for a really good race that first day.”
Hamilton, a veteran member of the U.S. Ski Team who trains out of Vermont, took 28th in the skate sprint at worlds. Three days later, he and teammate Erik Bjornsen (Winthrop, Washington) made history by pairing to take fifth in the team sprint, the best U.S. men’s team sprint finish in World Championships history.
The last time the duo had competed together was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where they took sixth in another classic team sprint.
“It was just a solid day for both of us and it kind of helped me mentally come out of a little bit of a funk,” Hamilton said of the historic race in Lahti. “It was not all highs, but that’s ski racing and life in general.”
The World Cup cross-country ski season wrapped up last week with the finals in Quebec City, Canada. Hamilton, 29, finished 30th overall in the World Cup standings for the season, and ninth in the sprint, both bests for an American man this season.
U.S. teammate Noah Hoffman, also an Aspen native, was the second best American male, taking 51st overall on the season. Hoffman finished 33rd in distance.
Hoffman’s time at worlds wasn’t nearly as fun as Hamilton’s. Hoffman was diagnosed with the flu after returning from an Olympic test event in South Korea only three weeks before World Championships. The flu later developed into pneumonia, and it kept him bed ridden for more than a week.
Hoffman, 28, only competed in two races in Lahti, his best finish being 50th in a 50-kilometer freestyle mass start.
“I tried to race the first event at worlds, and it was just clear I had nothing in my tank,” Hoffman said. “Really, my form wasn’t there. It was definitely disappointing, but like Simi said, it was really cool to be a part of the team with three medals.”
While Hamilton and Hoffman had their share of difficulties at worlds, they got to witness history as well. The women’s team finished with three medals in Lahti, the most for the U.S. in World Championships history. Afton, Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins was the catalyst for the women, taking silver in an individual sprint race and bronze in a team sprint, alongside Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen’s sister.
“We are not just here to compete on the World Cup; we are here to play and we are here to try and get on that podium,” Diggins said. “It’s really cool to see where skiing, especially on the women’s side, has gone in recent years.”
Diggins, 25, finished a career-best sixth overall on the World Cup this season to lead the American women. She was seventh in distance and 10th in sprint. Sadie Bjornsen was 16th overall and Elizabeth Stephen 28th, giving the U.S. women three in the top 30 overall.
With the World Cup season now finished, both the U.S. men and women — and unusually close group — can look toward next season, which includes the 2018 Olympic Games in Korea. The U.S. women have never medaled in nordic skiing at the Olympics, but there is a strong belief this could change next winter.
“I am absolutely determined to change that, and I think we have a lot of really good chances,” Diggins said. “We have an incredibly strong team. We are going into the Olympics with probably our best team we’ve had yet.”
Diggins opted to skip the Olympic test event in Korea last month to focus on training for worlds. Both Hamilton and Hoffman did get an early glimpse at what Korea has to offer, and liked what they saw. Hamilton already is a two-time Olympian (2010, 2014), while Hoffman is hoping to make his second Olympic appearance in 2018.
“It got us really psyched about next year and motivated to train really hard this summer and hopefully show up in Korea next winter and put together some good races,” Hamilton said. “We pretty much never get the opportunity to travel or race in Asia, so it’s for sure going to be a foreign experience for all of us. It’s a very different part of the world, but it’s super cool. I’d say it was an invaluable opportunity to be able to see the courses there.”
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There might be part of Hailey Swirbul that is finally beginning to believe she belongs. The 22-year-old cross-country skier is coming off quite a stretch with the U.S. ski team, one that includes her first career World Cup podium and a successful go in the notorious Tour de Ski stage race.