World Junior & Under 23 Championships, Erzurum

Turkey Take Two:

Australia’s all-boys team competed in February at the World Junior and Under 23 World Championships in Erzurum, Turkey. For several athletes this marked a return trip to the relatively new venue in Erzurum, and one that proved no less eventful.

Erzurum hosted the biennial World Winter Universiade in 2011. The cross-country venue is located at Kandilli, approximately 35km from the city of Erzurum. The venue lies at a reasonable altitude of 1760m, with the Australian team arriving prepared from an altitude training block in Livigno, Italy.

First off the block for the races was Alasdair Tutt with his WJC debut in the junior men’s freestyle sprint. Tutt placed 85th in the qualification time trial, feeling a little disappointed with his performance but determined to learn from the experience and use this to improve. The under 23 men’s sprint was a good day for Aussie Phil Belligham, who posted a FIS point personal best of 107, finishing 45th in the qualification time trial. Paul Kovacs came through in 60th position. Team mate Callum Watson had an unfortunate start to the events, contracting a form of gastro illness and was unable to leave his room for several days, let alone start in the first event. Thanks to the German team doctor, who was able to give Watson IV fluids, he did manage to start in the second event, though didn’t make it through to the finish.

For the second lot of events, the team’s youngest competitor, Hamish Roberts, took to the track for his first World Junior Championship hit-out. Racing in the junior 10km classic event, Roberts finished in 92nd place in the large field. While three of Australia’s men lined up for the Under 23 15km classic event, Watson unfortunately found he was not yet recovered sufficiently to complete the race. Phil Bellingham was Australia’s first man home in 55th place, 4:58 minutes off the race winner. This earned him a solid FIS point result of 115. Paul Kovacs finished in 62nd place, with a FIS point result of 160.

The final individual event of the championships was the skiathlon, in which the athletes start en mass in classical technique, coming in to a changeover area mid-race to change to skating technique (swapping skis and poles). Four Australian athletes contested the skiathlon events. Mark Pollock finished the junior men’s 20km skiathlon event in 79th place- also his World Junior Championship debut.

All three of the Under 23 athletes started in the men’s 30km skiathlon. With several laps to be completed, these mass start events at a high standard of competition often come with a chance of athletes being “lapped”, or in practicality pulled from the course at a point at which an official decides their being lapped by the race leaders is imminent. While the implementation of the “lapping rule” has been somewhat controversial in recent years, for a portion of the field in longer races involving multiple laps of the same course, it is not an uncommon occurrence.

In the men’s 30km, five athletes were “lapped” during the race (while a further eight athletes did not finish), including Australia’s Phil Bellingham and Paul Kovacs, who were pulled in 54th and 58th positions respectively. Callum Watson was the lucky last skier to avoid being lapped, managing to make it through the stadium in time, though having to stop to alleviate sever muscle cramping soon after. Despite feeling significantly sub-par off the back of his illness, Watson finished the race in 53rd place.

While the majority of the Australian team returned home after the championships, Watson and Bellingham travelled to race their final World Cup events in Lahti, Finland and Drammen, Norway.

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