Double ski cross gold for Sweden in Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada, SPA - The 2016/17 ski cross season came to a conclusion in storybook fashion on Saturday at the Sierra Nevada 2017 Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships, as a double gold medal-winning performance for Sweden's Sandra Naeslund and Victor Oehling Norberg capped off a rollercoaster season for the Swedish ski cross squad.
It was an incredibly entertaining competition from start to finish in Sierra Nevada, with the surprises coming early and often through the course of the day.
In the very first heat, three-peat crystal globe winner, 2013 world champion, and top qualifier Jean Frederic Chapuis (FRA) was bounced from competition after casing a landing in the middle section of the course and falling behind. Season third-overall on the World Cup Alex Fiva quickly followed suit on his way out of the competition, while top names like Chris Delbosco (CAN), Marc Bischofberger (SUI), and Jonas Devouassoux (FRA) all found themselves done for the day after the 1/4 finals.
Then, on the ladies’ side, 2016/17 crystal globe winner and reigning Olympic champion Marielle Thompson (CAN) failed to advance from her semi-final heat, and was forced to settle for fifth place with a small final win.
However, even without Thompson, the ladies’ big final came down four of the toughest competitors in the game, with Naeslund lined up alongside Fanny Smith (SUI), Heidi Zacher (GER) and Ophelie David (FRA) - the athletes who finished ranked second to fifth, respectively, on the 2016/17 Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup leaderboard.
Naeslund’s gold medal-winning performance was a dominating one, as she lead from top to bottom with only a brief period where Smith closed in hoping for an opening to pass. Naeslund wasn’t having it, and turned on the jets, crossing the line as the Sierra Nevada 2017 ski cross world champion at the age of 20 years, eight months, and 12 days to become the youngest-ever ski cross world champion.
“I’m really happy,” said the typically understated Naeslund following awards, “I didn’t get a full training run today because I got yellow flagged, and then in the 1/4 finals I had some mistakes, my starts weren’t so good, but I felt confident with my skiing once I got going and my skis were fast.
"It’s incredible for our team, today. For Victor, he’s had a tough season, and for him to win the gold now is amazing. For me, I’ve been skiing good all year, and now to take the gold medal is really good.”
Smith would cross in second for the silver medal, giving her the missing piece for a collection that already includes 2015 bronze and 2013 gold. Meanwhile, the incredible David would hold off Zacher to take bronze and the fifth world championships medal of her career, all at the age of 40 years old.
Oehling Norberg caps toughest season of his career with triumph
Victor Oehling Norberg’s gold medal performance at Sierra Nevada 2017 was an incredible triumph for the 26-year-old on a multitude of levels, and should go down as the most emotionally-charged story of the season.
First, there is the fact that that he just returned to competition at the World Championships after missing the final two events of the season due to nagging injuries, making for more than a month elapsed since his last taste of ski cross competition.
However, more important than that, is the burden he has carried throughout the season since his teammate and partner Anna Holmlund went down with a serious injury in December. Oehling Norberg excused himself from the tour to be by Holmlund’s side following her injury, attempting a late-season return to competition for events in Germany and his native Sweden that would lead to the re-aggravation of those nagging injuries mentioned above.
Oehling Norberg was slowest out of the gate in Saturday’s big final, but quickly passed Francois Place (FRA) to make his way into third behind 2015 world champion Filip Flisar (SLO) and Jamie Prebble (NZL). When a small mistake by Flisar in the middle of the course saw him drop out of the lead and into fourth, Oehling Norberg zipped by both him and Prebble and into a lead he would not relinquish, crossing the line first and capping off a season in which he has weathered the lowest-of-lows with the highest of titles - world champion.
“When I woke up today I didn’t even think I was going to make it through to finals,” Oehling Norberg said from the finish, weary but smiling, “Everything I was saying to the media before today was lies, actually, just to pretend I was fine and to try to keep up momentum, because I’ve been feeling not the best and my body has been not the best either.
“It was a very emotional win today. Even after the first heat I was exhausted. Sitting on the snowmobile going back up my legs were just thumping. It was so crazy. But I just took it one run at a time. Every time I was in the start gate I just thought, ‘Ok, this is the last time, let’s do this,’ and then I just kept making it through. And somehow, now, I’m world champion.”
Prebble would hold on to Oehling Norberg’s tails to take silver; an incredible result for the lone World Cup ski cross athlete from New Zealand, who travels without his own national coach or technician and relies instead on a partnership with the Australian team. While his best World Cup result was a fifth last season in Arosa, with the fastest starts and determined runs throughout the day he truly earned his Sierra Nevada 2017 result.
Finally, one more incredible turn of events in a men’s race that was full of them, was the bronze medal going to France’s Place after it was determined Flisar missed a gate in the first turn of the big final, disqualifying the Slovenian.
Place’s performance surely goes down in history as the quickest an athlete has ever joined the ski cross World Cup and gone on to win a world championship medal, as the recent Alpine transplant only had three World Cup competitions to his name before stepping on to the Sierra Nevada 2017 podium on Saturday.
GEPA Pictures photos (for editorial use)