Thursday, February 28, 2013

VM Top 10

Ten reasons why Val di Fiemme 2013 is an awesome championships for team USA
1.)   Steep climbs and hard courses.  Gradual climbing does not exist on these courses and every hill is a steep wall.  Fitness reigns above all on these courses and it’s awesome to see the US skiers hang with the best in the world
2.)   Pasta galore!  In true Italian fashion we are served about four or five different pasta options each day and it’s all delicious.  The grocery store stocks rows of pasta options from almost neon colored noodles to the official Val di Fiemme 2013 pasta.  Even the FIS family room serves perfectly al dente pasta all through the day keeping athletes, coaches, and techs well fueled.
3.)   Espresso!  The wonderful hotel Touring employees have figured out our team’s routine and espresso machine is cranking nonstop.  The same FIS family room at the venue also has two espresso machines free for use so none of us are suffering from being under caffeinated.
4.)   Great recovery options.  The training done on the ski trails this week is only a small fraction of the equation behind fast racing.  With so many competitions in a short period, it is absolutely necessary to recover quickly.  To help in this process athletes go for afternoon jogs or spin on the two spin bikes which we have.  We contrast bath by alternating between sitting for a minute in the cold bath and a minute in the hot tub in the sauna room.  We also get massage work by Steph Caverhill who is volunteering her time to be part of the team this week.  Her work makes a huge difference in the team’s success
5.)   Retro spandex. The Marcialonga course runs though the valley and is a showcase for all the styles of spandex from the last couple decades.  I’m frequently itching to trade my own USA race suit for some of the attire I pass while skiing under the Italian sun.
6.)   Tricky waxing conditions.  There hasn’t been an easy day of extra blue skiing yet.  Every morning brings a new challenge with new snow or quickly warming temperatures.  Our coaches and wax techs have worked incredibly hard, leaving the hotel at dawn, and testing all day to provide some of the best skis in the field.  We may not have a tractor trailer wax truck like so many of the other teams but we have a staff which is putting their heart and soul into each race and I cannot thank them enough.
7.)   Team. We’re a happy family.  When you spend five months together travelling around foreign countries, you become very close.  We all know everyone’s quirks and we have each other’s backs.  While stuck in his hotel room with a chest cold, Simi put on a blonde wig and glitter and made a movie quite accurately portraying the women’s team.  We couldn’t stop laughing as he lovingly mocked each one of us.  Andy showed up at the first meeting dressed as an Italian with capris, a “Ciao” tank top, greased hair and techno beats.  Not to be outdone, Kikkan walked in upside down the next day.  The atmosphere is relaxed despite it being a championship week.
8.)   Personal best results.  While it hasn’t been a perfect championships, there have been many results which carry the team and we rally around these moments of success.  Sophie started us off with a 20th in the sprint, Liz was 5thin the 10km posting the best women’s distance result ever, the boys all had great 15km skate races.  I had my first World Champs top 30 finish in a somewhat unexpected and hard race with a 25th place in the 30km.  And...
9.)   Gold! Watching Kikkan and Jessie ski away from the field in the team sprint and climb onto the top step of the podium at the World Championships was unbelievable!  So much hard work went into that race and we are all so proud!
10.)Momentum- Our energy is high and there are more great races to come!  T
World Champs Finish Line

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

Onion filled biscuits for dessert, high speed snowmobile rides with security checkpoints before a race, 8 minute V1 uphills, handicapped ambulance vans rallying through a muddy construction zone, gondola rides, snowstorms then the hot sun, techno beats during breakfast, brand new cottages with incredibly spacious bedrooms, beautiful mountain views, construction, construction and more construction were just a sampling of what was waiting for us in Sochi, Russia last week.  None of us knew what to expect when the World Cup travelled to the Olympic venue for a test event.  We braced ourselves for the unknown, anticipating only surprises and assured adventure!  Even now as I reflect on the trip, I’m not sure quite what to think but the week was a great reminder to dream big, be ready for anything, and get psyched for the excitement ahead!  Traveling to Sochi involved long travel days, eating strange food, and training only on the incredibly hilly race courses.  It forced us all to step outside of our comfort zones and test new waters; both figuratively and literally as we were never quite sure if it was safe to be drinking the tap water.  But it was also an invaluable experience which has better prepared us for 2014.
To me personally, the Olympics still seem like a distant event.  It may be less than a year away but there are still many hours of preparation ahead until the team is named and the races begin.  It has of course been the top goal of mine for many years but until this last weekend, I struggled to draw a concrete picture of my dreams.  Travelling to Sochi and racing on the future Olympic course refocused my goals with a distinct image of what next year can bring.  I’m re-inspired for the months of hard work ahead as the 2014 Olympics now appear as races where I can compete with the best in the world, fighting for the podium as I represent the USA.  It’s no longer just a faraway childhood dream.
Our first race in Sochi was a skate sprint.  The US had an awesome showing in qualification with five women and two men in the top 17.  I was 17th and this was a personal best qualification result for me as this round is the spot where I usually struggle the most.  Seeing the team and individual improvements was inspiring and I prepared for the heats with a good feeling about the day to come.  In the quarterfinals, I started fast and led my heat which was something I have previously not had the confidence to do on the World Cup.  I decided to try it that day after gaining experience in other races.  The semifinal started well but I made some tactical errors going over the top of the climb on the course and lost a few places.  I finished 4th in the heat and was feeling quite disappointed in myself until I heard that I had gained a lucky loser spot and qualified for the finals.  A final?!!!  I would be racing against among the six best sprinters in the world that day?  I was ecstatic!  When the gun went off though I was just happy to be there rather than mentally prepared for the race and ready to put forth the same fight which I had in previous rounds.  I finished last in the heat and 6th on the day.  It was still a wonderful experience which boosted my confidence showing me that I too can race for the podium.  I have a new outlook as I prepare for upcoming World Cups.
Later on the weekend, I had the opportunity to team up with Sadie Bjornsen in a classic team sprint.  Last winter Sadie and I raced our first WC team sprint together and we finished 14th out of 16 teams as we struggled to maintain contact with anyone in our semifinal.  Sunday’s race in Sochi started out the same way.  Finding kick on the greasy snow was tricky and in the opening legs and were off the back of the pack.  But we kept fighting and the coaches touched up our skis after each lap.  By the final lap we had kick on our skis and were only building steam as other teams tired.  I caught the front pack on my final lap and tagged off with the leaders.  Sadie laid the hammer down in an impressive way and dropped everyone.  We won our semifinal with the fastest time of either heat.  In the final we raced at the front of the pack for the entire race and finished fifth in a tight race, just seconds from the podium!  It was an awesome race for both of us and a huge improvement over where we were last year.  That type of progression keeps us motivated for more.
A Final!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Sochi Adventure

Our team was lucky though and all of our stuff made it on the plane including in some of these seats.A year from now, the Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia.  Sochi, a city on the Black Sea only about 10 kilometers from Georgia, is the most southern site of the Winter Olympics.  Googling Sochi, one finds pictures of palm trees but we would be racing in the mountains above the city.  Last year's World Cups in Moscow and Rybinsk, Russia left us with some very memorable stories and the week in Sochi proved to be no less interesting or exciting.
Travelling to Sochi was an adventure in itself.  We first took a charter flight with lots of other athletes, coaches, and techs from Zurich to Sochi.  Skiers don't travel light and the plane was way overweight.  Even with ten or more rows of luggage in the cabin, lots of people didn't get their bags until several days later.

Our team was lucky though and all of our stuff made it on the plane including in some of these seats.

It was a bit of a sketchy flight.  One layer of Simi's window was open and I wasn't the only one who screamed on landing.  In Sochi, our bags were loaded into trucks and we boarded buses which would take us to Krasnaya Polyana, the town where all the outdoor venues would be hosted.  It was about an hour and a half bus ride because there was so much construction happening on the road.  It was dark outside but still obvious that there were roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, and buildings being built all along the length of our drive even after 11pm.  Before the Olympic bid was won, there was only one chairlift in the valley which was also the edge of a National park so everything is going to be brand new.

When we arrived at Krasnaya Polyana we had to wait for quite awhile for accreditation and this was my first glimpse at the high security of the region.  Just in the parking lot, there were cameras and armed guards everywhere.

A lot of the security guards and police were very serious but some were more eager to try out their broken English.  Here's one guy who wanted to get into this picture of Randy Gibbs, a US wax tech and I.
By the time we were done with accreditation it was getting very late but we still had a long ways to go before we reached our beds.  We went through some security checkpoints, where some of us had to turn on our laptops and phones to prove they were actually what we said they were and then we took a gondola up to the top of a mountain where the biathlon and Nordic venues were held.  For the games there will be 2 or 3 gondolas and a tram up to the ridge to accommodate the higher traffic but only one is finished so far.

It was dark during our first gondola ride but we took the trip later in the week during the day and were able to see some the mountains and area.

At the top of the gondola was a hotel where we checked in and got our room keys.  From there we boarded some modified ambulance looking vans and we rallied through some mudpits of a construction zone on our way to the cottages where we would be staying.

Newell in the back of the shuttle.

We were all a little dazed by this point and since it was about 2am by this point we were very ready to find our beds.  The cottages of the athlete were very spacious with rooms much bigger than we normally find in Europe.

This was our team's "cottage" in the athlete's village. Each one had a bunch of bedrooms off a large open common room area.  It was nice to feel like a home.  Also check out all the snow!

The next day we skied for the first time and this brought on more adventures finding the trails.  The cross country stadium is only temporary for the games and the biathlon stadium is permanent.  We accidentally took an ambulance van to the biathlon stadium on our first morning here and then walked around for awhile looking for the cross country stadium since we couldn't find anyone who spoke English and also knew where the stadium was.  In our wanderings, we came across the workers quarters.

Unfortunately they're not quite as nice as our lodgings
There was construction happening everywhere as the rest of the athlete's village was being finished as well as other hotels, restaurants and other infrastructure.  The plan is to have the area be a tourist destination after the Games.  There is lots of work to be done in the next year but the work was being done 24/7 through all types of weather.

Unfortunately they're not quite as nice as our lodgings

There was construction happening everywhere as the rest of the athlete's village was being finished as well as other hotels, restaurants and other infrastructure.  The plan is to have the area be a tourist destination after the Games.  There is lots of work to be done in the next year but the work was being done 24/7 through all types of weather.

Lots of cranes and workers on roofs. I was always a little worried as the men didn't seem very well secured on the snowy roofs.
Despite the construction, it's a very beautiful location with great mountain views
These snowmobile carriages were the actual mode of transportation between the cottages and the race venue. The drivers usually went very fast and it was always a bumpy and exciting ride

The courses here were hard with lots of hilly skiing.  We were all excited to test out the new courses though.  Friday was a skate sprint and a great day for the team.  In qualification we had five girls and two guys in the top 17 and after the finals all seven of us finished in the top 21!

Here I am racing in my first sprint final! I led my quarterfinal and then finished 4th in my semifinal after some tactically horrible skiing and was ecstatic to hear I grabbed a lucky loser spot into the final! This was a long term goal for me and above my season expectations. I was pretty tired by this point and didn't have much left so I finished 6th but it was still awesome. Now I have the confidence to know that I can fight for a podium position! Kikkan won the race which was especially impressive since she had been fighting a cold all week.
Saturday was a 15km skiathlon for the women.   The classic course was really fun with lots of ups and downs.  The skate course was incredibly hard.  It dropped down out of the skate course in a steep fast downhill and then climbed back out of the hole for a long time. I think it was a 7 or 8 minute V1 climb in the snowy slow conditions.  I had a tough day with some tired legs and a fall in a bad spot where I got spun around a couple times and lost all my momentum as well as the pack I was skiing in.  It was still a good experience to ski on the trails and a really good day for some of my teammates.  Liz and Sadie both had career bests in 8th and 24th!
Snowy conditions actually kept the pack together for longer than normal and led to some congestion during the classic leg (USSA photo)
The final day of racing was a classic team sprint.  Sadie and I teamed up together for a great day.  The sun was out after the snowstorm and it was hot racing!  It was also tricky waxing conditions and neither of us had kick for our opening legs.  Halfway through our semifinal heat we had been dropped off the back of the pack.  But the techs did an amazing job and got us great skis for the final legs.  I caught the leaders on my last leg and then Sadie dropped them for a big win!  Last year we raced our first team sprint together and didn't come close to making the final so to win our semifinal with the fastest time of either heats was a HUGE improvement.  In the final we were in contention the entire time and ended up 5th just seconds off the podium.  This was an improvement over our 7th place finish together a couple weeks ago in Liberec so we're moving up!
Getting interviewed together after our race
Happy teammates after an awesome race!
Russian bathroom signs are very descriptive