Caitlin Gregg led a contingent of American cross-country skiers in Seefeld, Austria, last Friday through Sunday, starting OPA Cup Finals with a freestyle prologue win, then placing seventh in the 10-kilometer classic, and finally second in the 10 k freestyle pursuit.
The Europa Cup, or OPA Cup for short, is Central Europe’s International Ski Federation (FIS) Continental Cup series, similar to the U.S. SuperTour and Canadian NorAm circuits. The overall male and female winners of the OPA Cup circuit earn World Cup starts for next season.
This year’s OPA Cup Finals were held in Seefeld in the form of a three-day mini tour. It was Seefeld’s first test event leading up to the 2019 Nordic World Championships. The next test event will be the 2018 Cross-Country World Cup scheduled for next Jan. 26-28 in Seefeld. Athletes competing in OPA Cups are selected by their respective national teams, which creates a field of the best athletes not competing on the World Cup.
While most Canada’s top talent was racing in North America, either at World Cup Finals or Canadian Ski Nationals, several Americans made the trip, led by U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish and assisted by Justin Beckwith and Jon Fillardo. Four U.S. senior skiers competed, Gregg, Anne Hart, Logan Hanneman, and Ben Saxton, along with 16 juniors in the under-20 junior age category. These included athletes from the Dartmouth Ski Team, Stratton Mountain School (SMS), Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC).
Coming off a third-place finish in the Engadin Ski Marathon a week earlier, Gregg (Team Gregg/Loppet Nordic Racing) won the OPA Cup Finals women’s 2.5 k skate prologue on Friday, March 17, finishing 1.5 seconds ahead of German runner-up Elisabeth Schicho in 6:23.7 minutes. Germany had two on the podium with Sofie Krehl in third (+2.8). Hart (SMS Elite Team) finished 14th (+11.8) out of 46 competitors.
In the men’s 3.3 k skate prologue that same day, France took first and second with Jean Tiberghien finishing first in 7:30.1 and Paul Goalabre placing second, 1.9 seconds back. Italy’s Maicol Rastelli finished third (+4.9). For the U.S., Hanneman, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), placed 15th (+15.2) and Saxton (SMS Elite) finished 38th (+28.3) out of 79.
Also on Friday, Hannah Halvorsen, of Sugar Bowl Academy and the U.S. Ski Team Development Team, placed second in the junior women’s 2.5 k skate prologue. She finished 4.8 seconds off the winning time of Germany’s 2017 Junior World Championships silver medalist Antonia Fräbel (6:38.5), and ahead of France’s Laura Chamiot-Maitral in third (+6.4).
Seven U.S. women competed in the junior women’s prologue, with Lauren Jortberg (Dartmouth Ski Team) placing 20th, Maddie Donovan (SSCV) 33rd, Katja Freeburn (Ski Club Vail) 38th, Waverly Gebhardt (SSWSC) 39th, Gracelynn Shanley (SSCV) 40th, and Lyle Shipp (SSCV) 42nd.
Nine American men competed in the junior men’s 3.3 k skate prologue, with Ben Ogden (SMS) leading them in 25th, 28.4 seconds off the winning time set by Germany’s 2017 Junior World Champion Janosch Brugger in 7:37.0. Italy’s Luca Del Fabbro finished 0.8 seconds back in second and France’s Martin Collet was 1.7 seconds behind in third.
For the U.S., Nolan Herzog (SSCV) placed 40th, Conor Munns (SMS) 47th, Wyatt Gebhardt (SSWSC) 48th, William Haig 51st (SMS), Adam Witkowski (SMS) 53rd, Eli Eppolito (SMS) 55th, Ty Willoughby (SSCV) 56th, and Christopher Seabury (SSCV) 57th.
In the classic individual-start races on Saturday, athletes of all levels were literally competing side-by-side. Event organizers wanted to run the races early, before rain in the forecast began to fall to prevent the courses from deteriorating before Sunday’s pursuit. Despite classic skiing for only the third time this season due to injury, Gregg was able to finish seventh in the women’s 10 k classic, 1:48.5 behind German winner Theresa Eichhorn, and stay in the running for Sunday’s pursuit final.
Led by Eichhorn, who won by almost a minute and a half in 31:38.2, Germany swept the top five in that race, with Julia Belger and Pia Fink reaching the podium in second (+1:24.6) and third (+1:29.5), respectively. Hart finished 22nd (+3:20.3).
The men’s 15 k classic was considerably closer, with Rastelli pulling out a 3.1-second victory over Germany’s Hannes Dotzler in 42:07.5. Switzerland’s Jason Rueesch rounded out the podium in third (+31.4), while Hanneman placed 40th (+3:43.9) and Saxton 63rd (+5:45.7).
Halvorsen again led the U.S. women in the junior 5 k classic on Saturday, finishing 18th, 1:39.8 behind Italy’s Anna Comarella, who won in 15:47.2. Fräbel took second (+10.5), and Chamiot-Maitral third (+18.4).
Four other Americans placed in the top 40 in that race, with Jortberg in 34th, Gebhardt in 37th, Shanley in 38th, and Shipp in 39th. Freeborn and Donovan were disqualified for skiing on a wrong section of leaving the marked course.
Ogden led the Americans again in the junior men’s 10 k classic, placing 21st and 2:16.4 behind France’s Hugo Lapalus, who won in 28:31.1. France went 1-2 with Collet reaching the podium again, this time in second (+13.4), and Italy’s Simone Dapra placed third (+31.2), just 3 seconds ahead of Brugger in fourth.
Herzog finished 37th, Gebhardt 40th, Munns 42nd, Eppolito 48th, Willoughby 49th, and Seabury 50th. Haig did not start.
On Sunday, Gregg jetted from fourth at the start to second at the finish in the women’s 10 k skate pursuit with the fastest course time (28:32.6). She finished 8.9 seconds behind Germany’s Eichhorn, who started first and held on for the overall win in 29:50.7. Germany had two on the pursuit podium with Fink in third (+27.8). Hart placed 16th in the mini tour (+3:43.2), moving up from 19th at the start.
In the men’s 15 k skate pursuit, Rastelli defended his lead to finish first in 40:26.4, just 1.6 seconds ahead of Dotzler in second. Ruessch placed third overall (+32.2) and the top three all held their starting positions. Hanneman finished the mini tour in 37th (+6:51.1) and Saxton 41st (+7:07).
Halvorsen notched 10th place in the junior women’s 10 k skate pursuit, finishing 2:42.1 out of first with the ninth-fastest course time. Fräbel started first and won it by 13.2 seconds over Comarella, who started second, in 30:13.6. Chamiot-Maitral held onto third place (+33.9), and two other Americans completed the mini tour, with Jortberg in 25th (+6:13.5) and Shanley in 33rd (+15:13.3).
In the junior men’s 15 k skate pursuit, Ogden repeated in 21st, finishing 4:01.8 behind the winner, Brugger, who started third and raced to first in 42:56.3. Del Frabbro skied the fastest course time to race from sixth at the start to second at the finish (+9.4), just 0.2 seconds ahead of another Italian, Dapra, in third (+9.6).
Six U.S. junior men completed the weekend, with Munns placing 33rd overall, Herzog 36th, Gebhardt 38th, Eppolito 39th, and Willoughby 40th.
Gregg, who was second overall in the mini tour, told FasterSkier contributor and founder of Lumi Experiences Garrott Kuzzy that competing at OPA Cup Finals was almost an afterthought. When she realized she would be in the region for the Engadin, she decided to compete and said she was excited to join the trip with athletes of various experience levels.
Gregg mentioned how the enthusiasm of young athletes like Wyatt Gebhardt, competing in his first European ski races, is infectious and helps inspire her skiing. Likewise, younger athletes are able to experience how athletes like Gregg prepare for and handle themselves at European races. Gregg thanked the National Nordic Foundation (NNF) for its support in making trips like the OPA Cup Finals possible for all the athletes and coaches involved.
Seeing Gregg on top of the podium and Halvorsen in second place on the junior podium on the first day showed their teammates what is possible — taking away some of the mystique around competing in Europe.
— Garrott Kuzzy contributed reporting