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.