Junior World/U23 Championships: Relay Day and Classic Distance Recap

by Michaela Keller-Miller
February 14, 2021

This weekend led to the conclusion of this year’s U23 and Junior World Championships with relay day on Saturday and classic distance races for the Juniors on Sunday. Relay day consisted of a 4x3.3 kilometer relay for the Junior women, a 4x5 kilometer relay for the Junior men, and a 4x5 kilometer mixed gender relay for the U23s.

First up, the Junior women skied a 4x3.3 kilometer relay, starting off with two classic legs and ending with two skate legs. The American women were unable to start the relay, as they could not field a full team. As mentioned in a Skinnyski Junior World preview earlier this week, one positive Covid-19 test left half of the US Junior women in quarantine and unable to race. Of the teams able to compete in the relay, the finish came down to the wire, as Sweden held off the Russian relay by just three-tenths of a second for the win. The Swedish relay finished in a time of 37:50.5. Norway rounded out the podium for the Junior women in third place, 26.4 seconds back.

The Junior men then took to the course to ski a 4x5 kilometer relay. Racing for the American team was Michael Earnhart (Alaska Nordic Racing), Zanden McMullen (Montana State University), Will Koch (Stratton Mountain School), and Johnny Hagenbuch (Sun Valley SEF). Earnhart and McMullen skied the first and second legs, respectively, which were both in the classical technique. Koch and Hagenbuch were the final two legs, both skiing skate. Norway made it clear that they were the best team of the day, finishing first in 49:45.3 by a margin of 20 seconds over second-place Finland. The race for third was extremely tight, as Italy edged out Russia by one-tenth of a second for the final spot atop the podium. For much of the race, the American men were skiing in the chase pack and at one point, Koch skied the team into fourth place before dropping back slightly prior to tagging off to Hagenbuch. The American men finished the relay in 8th place.

Michael Earnhart leads off the American Junior men’s relay. (Credit: Tomi Mäkipää)

The U23 mixed relay was a nailbiter, with Hailey Swirbul (APU), Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars), Hunter Wonders (APU), and Sophia Laukli (Middlebury College) representing the USA. The first two legs of the relay were classic and the last two legs were skate. Swirbul led off for the Americans by controlling the race from the front. After leading the race for much of her classic relay leg, Swirbul tagged off to Schumacher about dead even with Norway in first. Schumacher did what he could to hang onto Norway’s second leg, Jon Rolf Skamo Hope, finishing his portion of the relay 5.1 seconds back of Norway and 25 seconds ahead of Russia. At this point in the race, the third through sixth place teams were separated by just three seconds. Wonders then took over, switching to the skate leg. He put up a strong fight, skiing the entire leg alone. Although he was not able to close the gap on Norway, he held off the pack of third through sixth place who were able to work together to close in on the lead. Laukli anchored the final skate leg for the American relay, fighting her way to the finish with the chase pack and ultimately finishing in fifth place, 16.7 seconds out from the win.

Norway was able to maintain their lead, winning with a time of 52:52.9. A mere 3.9 seconds back was the Russian team in second place. Sweden ended the relay 7.7 seconds back in third place. France was the other player in the chase pack, finishing 4th and 9.7 seconds back. The U23 relay proved to be extremely close from start to finish and although the Americans posed a threat, they came up just short of a podium finish in fifth place.

Hailey Swirbul skiing the American U23 relay to an early lead. (Credit Tomi Mäkipää)

Saturday Relay Results:

Sunday brought the final day of racing at the U23 and Junior World Championships, as the Juniors wrapped up the week with a classic distance race. The Junior women raced a 15 kilometer race, whereas the men raced 30 kilometers.

In the women’s race, Norwegian Margrethe Bergane took the win in 45:37.7, a margin of 24.4 seconds over second place finisher Lisa Eriksson of Sweden. Rounding out the podium was Helen Hoffmann of Germany. Skiing for the USA, Ava Thurston (Mansfield Nordic Club) finished in 40th place. Nina Seemann (Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club) and Waverly Gebhardt (University of Vermont) worked together for most of the race, finishing in 52nd and 53rd places, respectively, separated by just 0.2 seconds.

Seemann spent the beginning of her season in Vermont, navigating strict Covid-19 regulations and hopping in races as they were made available. She says, “It has been a very challenging year with the impacts of Covid-19, but I am very happy that World Juniors was still able to happen and bring us together to celebrate cross country skiing. It has been incredible to race against the best Junior skiers in the world and to become friends with athletes from many different countries. I have learned so much from my racing experiences here and am motivated to continue to train hard for this great sport.”

Nina Seemann and Waverly Gebhardt starting off the 15 kilometer classic. (Credit: Tomi Mäkipää)

The final race at this year’s U23 and Junior World Championships was the Junior men’s 30 kilometer classic. The podium in this race proved to be very close, as Alexander Ivshin of Russia came out on top in 1:21:22.2. Jan-Friedrich Doerks of Germany finished 2.6 seconds back in second place and Alexander Stahlberg of Finland was third, just 5.6 seconds back from Ivshin. The Americans finished well, placing three men in the top 30. McMullen continued his strong skiing this week, placing 14th. McMullen reports, “The 30k classic mass start was crazy hard. My skis started losing kick halfway through the race, which made it very hard to stay with the front pack in the long uphills. But overall I was pleased to get another top result!” Also skiing for the USA, Hagenbuch finished in 23rd place, Earnhart placed 27th, and Wally Magill (Steamboat Springs WSC) finished 59th.

After an impressive week of racing, McMullen reflects on this year’s Championships-

“Going into JWSC this year was a little bizarre with all the uncertainty around it, and there were a lot of hoops to jump through to travel internationally this year. I had really high hopes this year because my last two years at JWSC went very poorly. I took each race one at a time- I never really had a specific race that I wanted to do the best in because I figured that would drag my attention away from doing the best I could in every race. The sprint race qualifier went really well, but I had a very aggressive heat. I didn’t have a great start, so I was bummed to not move into the semis. The skate 10k was my best result, but also by far the hardest race. The combination of the massive hills and a very little recovery course destroyed my legs. Overall it was a good day, just not my best ever.”

Zanden McMullen racing to 14th place in the men’s 30 kilometer classic. (Credit: Tomi Mäkipää)

Sunday Results:

This year’s U23 and Junior World Championships helped to provide a sense of normalcy in an otherwise uncertain season of racing. Numerous added precautions and safety measures were in place for the event to run smoothly, allowing American skiers the chance to gain international racing experience and to shine on the world stage. Now that the Championships have ended, most American athletes will return home to finish their seasons locally and a select few will remain in Europe to represent the USA at World Championships.

About the author...

Michaela Keller-Miller, a graduate of Wayzata High School and the University of Alaska Anchorage, skis for the Green Racing Project based out of Craftsbury, Vermont. She’s currently enjoying getting to know the East Coast and ski training full-time. Her ideal day would probably involve a long trail run followed by a stack of pancakes with maple syrup and a chai latte.