Soldier Hollow • After spending her summer rehabilitating foot and back injuries, Sadie Bjornsen is easing her way back into cross-country racing. While many of her fellow U.S. Ski Team members are in Europe, the 23-year-old is in Utah this week for the U.S. nationals.
But for Bjornsen, taking it slow still means going fast.
The 2014 Olympic hopeful finished as the fastest qualifier among 175 women in the 1.3-kilometer classic sprint Wednesday. Her time of 3:20.46 was more than 1.55 seconds faster than the next racer.
"I had a lot of injuries this summer, and I was trying to start the season a bit easier in the domestic circuit," Bjornsen said. "It's really nice to come here and have a little less nerves."
The Washington state native went on to blaze through the quarter- and semifinals.
"She's been killing it," U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen said, as he watched his sister come around the final turn of a quarterfinal race, 15 yards ahead of the rest of the pack. "We always try to beat each other in places, but today it looks like she'll do better for sure."
Sadie Bjornsen made the national team in 2011 and spent 2012 on the World Cup circuit.
In her first full year on the tour, she had one top-30 individual finish and made the podium when she and Kikkan Randall, one of the country's best hopes for a cross-country medal in 2014, took second in a team sprint.
"It makes me a bit more nervous than usual [racing with Randall] because you're racing with the best racer in the world," Bjornsen said. "So you want to be able to hold down your part. But to be able to share the podium with her and feel what that feels like, that's what keeps you training and motivated."
As a U.S. Ski Team member, Bjornsen often trains in Park City and has roller-skied at the Soldier Hollow course several times. But she had never raced it until Wednesday.
"There's good striding. There are good corners. There's good technical things, like the slingshot corner," she said.
That corner caused a little trouble for Bjornsen in the finals of the 1.3K sprint.
When the gun fired, Bjornsen jumped out to an early lead, and she paced the pack for the first half of the race, heading into the downhill portion.
"It's challenging," she said. "As the one leading down the hill, you wait for that shadow to come shooting by because of that slingshot."
One of those shadows did just that.
Bjornsen found herself neck and neck with racer Jennie Bender coming down the final stretch. As the two competitors pushed themselves to the finish line, Bender emerged victorious.
"The line came a little quicker than I expected, and I missed the lunge," Bjornsen said.
Bjornsen hopes to get back to the world circuit soon, but for now she's enjoying her time in the states.
Her back and tendinitis in her foot have healed after a summer running in a training pool in Alaska, where she is a student at Alaska Pacific University. And she's leading the U.S. SuperTour so far this year.
She said she said she cherished spending the holidays with her family in Washington, knowing full well that this time next year she'll likely be in Europe, preparing for a run at Sochi.
U.S. Cross-Country Championship
Free Individual start • Friday, 10 a.m.
Sitski Adaptive • Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
Classic Mass Start • Sunday, 10 a.m.
Sitski Sprint • Monday, 8:30 a.m.
Free Sprint • Jan. 8, 10 a.m.
Biathlon Sprint Adaptive • Jan. 9, 9:30 a.m.
Men's top finishers
1. Torin Koos, Bridger Ski Foundation
2. Michael Sinnott, Sun Valley SEF
3. Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, Bend Endurance Academy
Women's top finishers
1. Jennie Bender, Central Cross Country
2. Sadie Bjornsen, Alaska Pacific University
3. Rosie Brennan, Alaska Pacific University