RYBINSK, Russia (Jan. 23, 2015) – Liz Stephen (East Montpelier, VT) finished second on Friday in the 10k freestyle race in Rybinsk, Russia—the top World Cup distance result by an American woman. Stephen took advantage of perfect conditions for her light frame, colder temperatures and newly fallen snow, to ski into an emotional first World Cup podium finish and a landmark result for the U.S.
“I started harder than I typically do,” Stephen explained after the podium ceremony. “Typically, I can get into a bit of a hole early, but today I went out with the plan of skiing absolutely every part of the course as hard as I possibly could.”
With perennial winners Therese Johaug and Marit Bjoergen, both of Norway, away for the Scandinavian championships, the top steps of the podium were more widely contested than typical.
“You take Marit and Therese off and I can see myself on that top step of the podium. I think that the changes I’ve made this year are largely due to sports psychology,” said Stephen. “I’ve taken that practice much more serious and there was an area that I hadn’t really explored. Before you can actually stand on the podium, you have to believe that you can be there. And that’s been something that I struggled through until today.”
Liz Stephen skied to second place in the 10k freestyle race in Rybinsk, Russia. (Getty Images/AFP-Alexander Nemenov)
The psychological work within her skiing translated to a different type of racing from Stephen. A perennial threat in a hard climb, today’s course was rolling and Stephen took advantage of more powerful and consistent technical skiing on the flats.
“She was much more focused on keeping a forward body position,” explained coach Matt Whitcomb. “This summer her core routine hit a new level of focus and she has this funky mix of strength exercise that’s connected her feet with her hands. The focus has been to really connect her hands to the snow. When she gets tired she gets closer and closer to the snow and that didn’t happen today.”
The breakthrough nearly didn’t happen for Stephen, who considered retiring last year following the Olympics in Sochi, but was brought back into the year by a wildly supportive team and the possibility of better results.
“I’m incredibly grateful for my team,” an emotional Stephen explained. “I told the team that after the Olympics last year, I took a long hard look at (continuing in) skiing and decided that the team was too special to leave. There was still more here for me that I wanted to be a part of. I’m so grateful to them.”
Elevated by the results of Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, AK) over the last three seasons, the U.S. women’s team has supported a varied collection of racers to historic finishes.
“Kikkan paved so many of these ways and gave us the confidence to believe we can also be the pavers. She believes so hard in our team and has taught us how to do it ourselves,” Stephen explained of her teammate who is resting in Alaska in advance of the World Championships. “Just to be on those history steps with her is pretty special. She’s definitely somebody I’m really proud to follow and to emulate. This podium is in large part hers and the whole team’s.” Randall captured the first U.S. women’s podium finish also in Rybinsk in 2007.
“This is very special,” Whitcomb described. “I feel connected to all of the athletes, but to have coached Liz through high school, this this is really special. We’re really proud of Liz; we’re really proud of the team. That podium is a win for the team.”
The remaining U.S. women celebrated a strong day in Rybinsk. Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN) finished 12th and Rosie Brennan (Park City, UT) finished 13th, her first World Cup distance points, a significant marker as it pushes the U.S. distance athlete quote (the number of athletes allowed to start the event) up to five in total.
When I was out there today, I was going for the actual win and that’s a different frame of mind that I’ve ever been in.
You take Marit (Bjoergen) and Therese (Johaug) off and I can see myself on that top step of the podium. I think that the changes I’ve made this year are largely due to sports psychology. I’ve taken that practice much more serious and there was an area that I hadn’t really explored. Before you can actually stand on the podium, you have to believe that you can be there. And that’s been something that I struggled through until today.
Standing on the podium with Astrid and Stefi, that was really special. It was a special podium as I’ve trained with both of them.
I tend to start too slow. I focused on skiing over-the-top, standing up and using all the glide I could on the flats. I wanted to ski each part the best that I possibly could and to not leave anything out there.
I spent a lot of time looking at video of Therese because she’s built a bit like. Over the years, she has slowed it down and she’s just much more powerful. She’s a mature and calm skier. It isn’t just about going the hardest; it’s about winning the races and that’s what I’ve worked on a lot.
Kikkan paved so many of these ways and gave us the confidence to believe we can also be the pavers. She believes so hard in our team and has taught us how to do it ourselves. Just to be on those history steps with her is pretty special. She’s definitely somebody I’m really proud to follow and to emulate and this podium is in large part hers and the whole teams.
What else is really special to me is that Matt (Whitcomb) is here. He taught me how to ski years ago in West Yellowstone and it’s so crazy that he’s still here and still believing in me. I’m very emotional thinking about it and I’m very grateful.
You get to have your first podium. We’re really proud of Liz; we’re really proud of the team. That podium is a win for the team. For people back home wondering if it is possible, this is reassurance that it is. To get that first podium off your back is a big deal.
It snowed this morning and it isn’t ungodly slow, but it is a little slower which plays in her favor. The temperatures were probably around -15° C—just above zero. You see people getting crazy cold and the body just doesn’t respond.
It reaffirms that the goals for the World Championships are set appropriately. Liz has a goal of getting a medal at the World Championships. This is a point along the way to meet that goal with reality.
To see psychological improvements coming out of a skier like Liz is evidence that many people can make this step forward.
Rosie’s race is the first time for her scoring World Cup points. That earns us another quota spot this—we’re up to five distance athletes. That’s a great race for her, a great effort and a great thing for this team.