Thursday’s Sochi roundup: Weather affects combined schedule


U.S. skier Jared Goldberg gets his first Olympic start in Friday's super combined. (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

U.S. skier Jared Goldberg gets his first Olympic start in Friday’s super combined. (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia – The weather, which has been mostly benign in the mountains during the Games, is starting to affect the schedule. With temperatures in the mid-50s even at the mountain venues on Thursday, officials have decided to move up the downhill portion of Friday’s men’s super combined to 10 a.m., from 11, in hopes of finding consistent snow.

The slalom portion of the event will still start at 3:30 p.m.

The U.S. starters are Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Andrew Weibrecht and Jared Golberg, who is set to make his Olympic debut. Ligety starts 22nd, Weibrecht 23rd, Miller 24th and Goldberg 28th in the downhill portion of Friday’s combined. With conditions expected to get warmer as the morning wears on, earlier starts probably would have been preferable.

But Miller hopes that moving the race up to 10 will help minimize any disadvantage faced by later runners, creating “just a little bit more fair conditions.” He also pointed out that keeping intervals between racers as tight as possible would reduce the time between when the first skiers hit the course and the last.

Ligety is the current world champ in the event, winning at Schladming in 2013, and was the gold medalist at Torino in 2006. Miller is the defending Olympic gold medalist, having won at Vancouver in 2010, and was the 2003 combined world champion at St. Moritz. So they’re clearly among the favorites here in Sochi.

But slalom is always a wild card. “Obviously, I don’t have the same time into slalom this year, or the past five years, as the slalom guys,” said Miller, “which is the real disadvantage. You know, those guys train a ton of slalom and they know their setups and they’re able to come straight on to a pretty aggressive, gnarly hill, with marginal conditions, and ski 100 percent. I don’t know that I’m confident enough to do that. But I’m going to pretty much have to tomorrow.”

Andrew Weibrecht spent the first week of the Olympics training in Austria with Ted Ligety, working on super G, GS and slalom in anticipation of the events to come in the last week-plus of the Games. Weibrecht, bronze medalist in super G at Vancouver, is hoping to replicate that Olympic success in Sochi, and thinks training with Ligety has been great preparation. “He’s such a talented guy,” Weibrecht said. “He has a different way of skiing, and a different tactical approach than a lot of other guys. And after seeing it, after training with him one on one, I can really see what he does, and at least try to replicate it a little bit. It’s helped me a lot. I’m lucky to be able to have the opportunity to train with a guy who’s at that level.”

Ligety got his first exposure to the Olympic combined during the 2002 Salt Lake Games, in his hometown. “I was really lucky to be in town,” he said, “and I actually fore-ran the slalom, which was definitely a huge inspiration. I got to watch Bode competing, and I ran the course right before he did. To see what those guys did in the start, and to be involved in that whole huge show was definitely a lot of fun and a huge inspiration.”

His goals for tomorrow are pretty simple: “I want to be able to get on the podium or win,” he said. “That’s well within my grasp if I ski well. I think the downhill’s gotten better and better every run, so hopefully tomorrow I can piece together a good run and then have a good run of slalom as well, and hopefully that equals something metallic around my neck.”

 

Sadie Bjornsen models the latest in cross-country style, given the warm temps for Thursday's 10km classic race. (GEPA/Andreas Pranter)

Sadie Bjornsen models the latest in cross-country style, given the warm temps for Thursday’s 10km classic race. (GEPA/Andreas Pranter)

Gold for Poland in women’s 10km classic; Sadie Bjornsen best for U.S.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk has won lots of World Cups, and four Olympic medals, including gold in the women’s 30km mass start classic race in 2010 at Vancouver.

But she had never won a medal of any kind in the 10km classic, the event that has given her more World Cup wins than any other. Until Thursday, that is.

At the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, on a day better suited to sun-bathing or beach volleyball than cross-country skiing, Kowalczyk, 31, finished the course in 28 minutes, 17.8 seconds, 18.4 seconds ahead of silver medalist Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who also got a silver medal on February 8 in the women’s skiathlon, the first cross-country race of the Games. The bronze medalist, about 10 seconds behind Kalla, was Therese Johaug of Norway.

Kowalczyk, who has been fighting a foot injury for the past couple of weeks, thus picked up her second Olympic gold and her fifth Olympic medal overall, making her the most decorated Winter Olympic athlete in Poland’s history. (She had been tied, at four, with ski jumper Adam Malysz.) She pointed out that it was also just the fourth gold medal for Poland, “so I think this is something big.”

“This was very tough,” she said in the finish. “The last three or four kilometers were really tough on the body. I had to fight.” The physical toll that the race took also confirmed, for her, the wisdom of the decision to skip Tuesday’s sprint race. “It helped a lot,” she said. “It was good to focus on one race.”

Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, one of the pre-race favorites, started her Olympics with gold in the skiathlon, but just missed the podium in this race – she was fifth – and didn’t make it out of the semifinal of the sprint competition on Tuesday.

World Cup skiers had spent most of their pre-Olympic season on cold, hard snow in central Europe, which made the conditions particular tough. With klister, a wax generally used for spring skiing, on most of the skis, racers slogged their way around the two 5km loops. Snow conditions changed from very wet in the sunshine to cold and dry in some of the shadows, challenging for technicians and skiers alike.

The top American finisher was Sadie Bjornsen from Anchorage, who is making her Olympic debut in Sochi. She finished in 29:59.7, 1:41.9 behind the winner. Sophie Caldwell was 32nd, Ida Sargent 34th and Holly Brooks 35th in the field of 75 skiers. Caldwell and Bjornsen skied in sleeveless outfits rather than their regular race suits. Holly Brooks didn’t, and regretted it. “Of course I made the mistake of going in my suit,” she said. “I should have gone with the tank top like the other girls.”

In the difficult conditions, especially on the biggest hill, Bjornsen said, “I just tried to numb my brain, not listen to anything besides the rhythm of pole, pole, pole, pole. So, that’s what I just tried to tell myself going up the hill. … Just try to push all the way to the finish.”

Saying she was generally happy with her performance, she said that “to be top 10 today I would have had to have one more gear coming up that hill. That was that.” With the soft, relatively slow surface, even the downhills didn’t offer much in the way of recovery. “The way I was thinking about this race was that every climb has a recovery afterwards, but I quickly learned as I started the race that was not the case. It was going to be 10 kilometers of really pushing.”

 

A sibling rivalry on the cross-country trails

Sadie Bjornsen, who had the top American finish in Thursday’s 10km classic race, has a brother, Erik, who is also a member of the U.S. team in Sochi. Both are making their Olympic debuts.

“It’s definitely special,” Sophie said after her race. “Erik and I have a unique competitive nature with each other. We’re always trying to beat each other, but we encourage each other as well. When Erik can see me do well in races, he suddenly believes that he can as well, and you saw that last week in Toblach (Italy, in a 15km classic World Cup race just before the Olympics), where he was 18th. Erik’s starting to believe in himself, and that’s so important and it’s awesome that he can get it from having sibling encouragement.”

Of course, there’s an element of sibling rivalry, as well. “You know, I was beating Erik until probably (he was) 14 years old,” Sadie said. (Erik was unavailable to confirm or deny.) It’s always been a competition. I actually have an older sister as well, and just having close siblings, that’s the way it works. It’s awesome that we’re really close to each other. It really helps us.”

 

FIS officials involved in traffic accident

Atle Skaardal, the FIS race director for the women’s World Cup who is working at the Olympics as a referee, and two of his colleagues were reportedly involved in a minor traffic accident in Krasnaya Polyana on Thursday morning.

Skaardal, who won two world championship gold medals in super G as an athlete, told the Associated Press that the three were assessed at a hospital after the accident, and one is “still there for some checks.” Markus Mayr, the same official who set Wednesday’s downhill course, was one of the individuals taken to the hospital with Skaardal.

Skaardal said the accident happened at about 10 a.m. Sochi time, on an off day for race officials after the women’s downhill on Wednesday. Norwegian state broadcaster NRK reported that the officials’ car was waiting at a traffic light and was hit from behind by a bus.

 

Also coming up on Friday:

(all times for Sochi; add nine hours for EST)

Cross-country. The men’s 15km classic starts at 2 p.m. at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center.

Freestyle. At the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the women’s aerials begin with qualifying at 5:45 p.m. & 6:30 p.m., final one at 9:30 p.m., and final two at 9:55 p.m.

Ski jumping. Qualifying for the men’s large hill event starts at 9:30 p.m. at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center.

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