The World Championships in Lahti, Finland marked my 5th World Championships and my second time racing in Lahti, Finland. In 2014 I qualified as the Continental Cup leader which allowed me to compete on the World Cup courses that the Championships were held on.
This year was an amazing year to be a part of the World Championships Team as Team USA brought home our best medal haul yet. It’s hard to quantify the level of excitement, inspiration and all around motivation that comes from watching your teammates and fellow countrymen achieve the highest level of success! I arrived the night of the skate sprint and arrived at the venue just moment before we had 3 USA ladies in the final heat of six. Two podiums in the first race set the tone for the entire Team the rest of the week! I went into these championships feeling great, and after the first few days of medal winning performances, it was hard not to feel even better and more excited for my targeted goal event the 30 km freestyle.
I flew directly to Lahti from the USA with nine days before my event to adjust to the time change, re-familiarize myself with the courses and cheer on the other Team USA athletes. Although I wasn’t guaranteed a start in any event, I knew the 30 km Skate would be my best chance, and I prepared as though I was definitely going to race. I followed the same protocol and training plan as I did before the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden that had gone so well for me. In fact, the 2015 year was peppered with unfortunate events such as race cancelations, crazy weather and last minute travel which meant that my plans didn’t go perfectly. This year was the opposite, and I was able to follow my plan better than ever before.
Despite being in the best shape of my life, my flawless preparation didn’t work out on race day. That’s the finicky part of being a cross-country ski racer. There are so many variables in play each day and to navigate them to the best that you can doesn’t always mean that you are the best prepared on race day. Likewise, I have found that less than perfect preparation can yield incredible results.
Race day brought some very fast and fun conditions for the women’s 30K. My skis were incredibly fast. Brian and Erik helped me select the fastest of my fast skis, my feeds were dialed, and my start was smooth, and I quickly went from 32nd to 10th in 2K. I felt absolutely amazing and couldn’t go hard enough for the first 10K. I even questioned if I should lead and pick up the pace to drop some of the ladies in our large group. Then it hit, a prolonged drink to make sure I was getting in some sugars left me a little further back in the large lead group. I tried to move up but found myself stuck behind some skiers on a climb where the leaders started to pick up the pace. I went for it again and surged to try and regain contact with the lead only to find that not a single muscle in my body could respond.
I dropped back a few places and tried to remain calm. As I continued to ski things went from bad to worse. I wasn’t out of breath, my skis were good, my muscles weren’t filled with lactic acid, my energy was high, but I simply could not get my body to move any faster. One after another, skiers started passing me. I tried to hang on but couldn’t and instead focused on trying to ski myself back into the race. It never happened. I continued to lose places until I crossed the finished line in 36th place.
Although the place wasn’t where I had set my goals the race itself represented everything that I set out to achieve. How is that possible? Well, the bottom line is that I went for it. From May 1st last spring until race day March 4th I focused each and every day on doing my best. Along the way, I spent countless hours preparing and visualizing exactly how the race would play out and how I would ski. I executed my training fantastically this year and nailed the races I needed to so I could qualify for the team. I have a wonderful and enormous group of sponsors and supporters who believe in me and provided me with the best possible tools for success. My teammates are amazing and gave me the strength and confidence I needed to dream big and never give up.
So what went wrong? I may never know, but what I do know is that there was so much that went right. After the race, I hugged and congratulated my teammates and friends who had some of the best races of their careers. I changed my clothes, gathered my things, but I never cried or felt sorry for myself. I thanked the coaches, the wax techs and the volunteers for all of their hard work and I found my husband Brian waiting for me after the mixed zone. He asked if I was okay and I smiled and said yes I was totally fine. When a race doesn’t go as planned, it’s hard not to feel disappointed in the final result, but I have always analyzed my race based not on the results sheet but on the effort and determination.
I came up short on the results sheet but executed my preparation better than I ever have before. My heart was in it from the start, and I never gave up. I know there is a reason I had an off day, and perhaps it’s to show others that neither our best or worst days can define us but instead it’s the sum of each and every day we dedicate ourselves to be the best we can in whatever we do!
I know I am not the first athlete to have an off day and I will not be the last, but perhaps I can show great strength and fortitude by holding my head high and relishing in my journey and always having a smile on my face no matter what the results sheet says. In the end, I always remember that a day on skis is a good day.
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This is my first time out of the U.S. and competing at the U18 Scando Cup in Finland. This has been the best experience and I am so motivated to get to the next level. Kittos (Thanks in Finnish)- Mattie Watts