2021 was an odd year for international orienteering competition. With no World Championships in 2020 due to the pandemic, the organizers for 2021 scrambled to incorporate additional sprint disciplines into what was originally scheduled to be a ‘Forest’ program. With the pandemic still raging around the globe, many countries outside Europe elected not to send teams to WOC at all this year.
Due to issues related to family and coronavirus concerns, many of the standing US Team members elected to sit this year out as well. Veteran member Eric Bone (COC) is no stranger to WOC, making his 19th WOC appearance this year but teammates Sydney Fisher (WPOC) and Will Enger (COC) have each been to WOC once before this year. Three of the six WOC novices on this years team are currently members of the Orienteering USA Junior National Team as well (AJ, Diana & Alexis with Thomas Laraia from MNOC having recently aged out). So this year was looking to be a great experience building year and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Leading up to WOC2021, team member AJ Riley (DVOA) got a head start by competing at the WOC Selection races and training in Europe beginning in early June. Joe Barrett (QOC) arrived in the Czech Republic a few weeks later and put in some solid training time well in advance of WOC. Diana Aleksieva (QOC) and Alexis Merka (QOC) did some training at Kost and the mother/son duo of Angelica Riley (DVOA) and AJ did a final tuneup race at Bukovel in Ukraine.
TeamUSA officially came together July 1st for their official COVID tests, registration and check-in followed by some easy explorations of the surrounding areas and sprint venue. AJ was selected by the IOF to take over their Instagram feed for the day – detailing some of his training, taking questions and more. You can catch most of the 40+ posts over on our Facebook page – Part A & Part B.
July 3rd – Sprint at Terezín
First up in the competition schedule was the individual sprint at Terezín, a former military fortress composed of citadel and adjacent walled garrison town. Organized as a series of 6 qualification heats in the morning and a final in the afternoon, the racing was fast and furious. Unfortunately none of our TeamUSA athletes qualified for the finals, but AJ did give a nice post-race interview for the IOF.
|Men A||26th – Will Enger||17:19 (+4:15)|
|Men B||26th – Thomas Laraia||15:35 (+2:41)|
|Men C||25th – AJ Riley||15:46 (+2:48)|
|Women A||24th – Diana Aleksieva||22:31 (+10:01)|
|Women B||– Angelica Riley||msp|
|Women C||22nd – Alexis Merka||25:01 (+11:11)|
Alexis – “Everyone seemed so fast I felt like I had to push that fast too, slightly forgetting that I’m nowhere near being in such good shape as them… But running down the finish chute was an amazing feeling..“
Thomas – “Annoyed about losing focus to 9 and missing where I was exiting the track and generally not taking enough time to look at all the options. Too many legs where that hurt.”
July 4th – Sprint Relay at Doksy
Day 2 took us to the town centre of Doksy with its irregular street network. The terrain consisted of urban areas with paved streets and parkland with grass surfaces. Artificial barriers added navigational challenges to the course. The US Team for the sprint relay was composed entirely of WOC novices with Angelica taking the leadoff leg.
She started into town on the heels of some of the fastest women in the orienteering world including the likes of Tove Alexandersson(SWE) and Simona Aebersold (SUI). A clean run, but well behind the leaders, she handed off to son AJ for the second leg. Though largely running a solo race at this point, AJ ran strong and clean and was caught up by some of the 3rd leg leaders, being pulled through the spectator control hot on the heels of race leader Gustav Bergman from Sweden. AJ handed off to Joe Barrett who admitted sprints weren’t his strong suit, but he had a clean run nonetheless handing off to anchor leg Alexis Merka to round out the race. Unfortunately the team was over the official time limit, but all indicated that they enjoyed the racing regardless.
AJ – “Apparently I was on TV with my homie Gustav so that’s cool.”
Joe – “Mostly running solo, just a few of the leg 4 women at the very end of the course. No major misses. Just hesitant in some circles, and felt I was reading really slow around all the fake fences at 9 and 10… It was a good low pressure way to start.”
Alexis – “It was a super fun race, I enjoyed the course and I’m definitely satisfied with it… So we got pretty much completely lapped, but that’s okay. I think that definitely helped me focus a lot more on my own race and on pacing myself better than I did yesterday. It was really fun.”
July 6th – Middle Distance at Smržovka
After a Rest Day, the action moved on to the Middle Distance races which took place in some challenging mountain terrain. Physically demanding steep slopes with granite boulders, cliffs with broken ground and some marshy areas were prominent features on this map. Morning qualification heats – top 15 in each heat plus additional spots for under-represented countries advancing to the final.
|Men’s A||29 – Eric Bone||43:31 (+12:45)|
|Men’s B||21 – Thomas Laraia||38:26 (+10:14)|
|Men’s C||29 – Joe Barrett||44:06 (+15:22)|
|Women’s A||26 – Diana Aleksieva||1:15:38 (+45:43)|
|Women’s B||– Angelica Riley||msp|
|Women’s C||27 – Sydney Fisher||44:11 (+13:39)|
Thomas started out with a great run in his heat, pretty much matching pace with the eventual heat winners through the first 4 controls, then hit a patch of green which slowed him down more than the stronger Euro runners who moved right through it. He finished only 10 minutes back which earned him a spot in the final. Team mate Eric Bone filmed a nice interview with Thomas after his run. Sydney was also happy with her race, losing a little time to small bobbles, but otherwise running cleanly to secure her spot in the women’s final.
Thomas: “Felt a bit of pressure and heart racing but it calmed down a lot through warming up and didn’t feel it anymore on the start, so good to see.… Strength lacking, will prioritize being faster and stronger next time. Goals for future are qualifying for the final on merit alone”
Sydney: “Pretty satisfied with this race. Small bobble on 1. A lot of hesitation to 5. Overall pretty clean though. Legs didn’t feel too energetic, but no one (around me anyway) was moving that quickly up the hills.”
Moving on to the afternoon’s Middle Final:
Sydney: “Disappointed in this race. I had no flow – lots of time lost in the circle and a couple of big mistakes. I started too fast and was tired from running earlier. Good experience though! So many cameramen/drones out in the woods.“
Thomas: “Mostly a pretty good race. Things I remember, fat mistake to 22 being too high and seeing some random crags…. Big pack going to 15, absolutely running on fumes there, wish I could’ve passed and kept attempting to catch people but I was pretty ruined. Nice to work as a group on 15-18 with Paul and somewhat Tomas.”
|Men’s Final||49 – Thomas Laraia||1:02:54 (+23:23)|
|Women’s Final||52 – Sydney Fisher||1:18:21 (+40:09)|
July 8th – Forest Relay at Kokořínsko
After another rest day that saw much of the team getting more training done, the competition then moved to the continental sandstone terrain of Kokořínsko with its intricate morphology consisting of valleys and reentrants crowned by massive sandstone rock formations. This venue would host both the relay and Friday’s long competition. Running the women’s race were Sydney > Angelica > Alexis. Sydney got in a clean run before the rains began, but the day would only get darker and damper as it progressed.
Sydney – “In a normal year I would not run first, but I was excited for the experience. Goal was to stay with the pack through the arena, plan a route to 1, and then run my own race.… The terrain was amazing and I felt good physically…Hopefully next time I’ll have the speed to stay with a pack.”
Alexis – “…worst race of my life. Not because of the rain or the dark, i liked that. Just the hills were seriously way over my ability and I was completely dying. The cameras gave me a few anxiety attacks, which really didn’t help… I’m still glad I have this experience. Everyone has to have their worst race someday, and frankly I’m kind of honored mine is a WOC race.”
By the time the Men’s Relay started the rain was coming down pretty good, but AJ navigated well and hung with the pack for quite a while, making an appearance on the first couple TV controls. Eric, concerned about increasingly dark conditions, switched places with Will and ran second wearing a headlamp in order to read the map in the dark woods with the intention of handing it off to Will at the exchange. Things didn’t exactly go to plan though…. The photo of Eric below isn’t a poorly exposed shot – it was just that dark out there…
AJ – “I love relays and honestly had a great time. Good to see that I can be competitive with the top guys if I was a bit more fit.”
Will – “This was enjoyable and the terrain was awesome – but the experience was clouded somewhat by me not being able to orienteer normally due to the impending darkness. … [Eric] ran the second leg with a headlamp, and was going to pass it to me, but then they made us mass start just after Eric passed through the arena, so I never got it… Still a fun experience, but would’ve been a lot better under reasonable circumstances.“
July 9th – Long Distance at Kokořínsko
Back at Kokořínsko on Friday for the Long Distance race utilizing the same arena as Thursday’s relay, and used a larger version of the long narrow relay map with the latter portion of each course coming back through the terrain used on Thursday. Long legs frequently offered up long trail runs to avoid the steep, intricate cliff areas and many runners took full advantage of them but some options were clearly better than others.
|Men’s Long||56 – Joe Barrett||2:17:32 (+41:37)|
|Women’s Long||54 – Sydney Fisher||2:15:24 (+58:13)|
|Women’s Long||55 – Diana Aleksieva||3:07:10 (+1:49:59)|
Joe – “Definitely the best race of the week for me. Read the cliffs in the circle pretty well. Only going down the wrong gap to #4, and then left #5 in the wrong direction without map aligned, and got blocked by an unexpected cliff... the cliffs did create route options to gain/lose time“
Sydney – “Time wasn’t great, but the course was a lot of fun. I just didn’t have the speed on the trails around, or the endurance… the course used a lot of rock passages, which was really neat… I like longs”
Summary of WOC ’21
Sydney – “It was a great experience and I am glad I got to race. The sandstone terrain was fantastic. I haven’t (yet) traveled many places to orienteer, but it was definitely one of my favorites… I had a couple of good races and a couple not so good. I was a lot closer (% time wise) to the leaders than I was in Norway so I’m moving in the right direction… Goals for next time are to be more fit (I have 2 years to get faster…seems like plenty of time) and to hopefully spend some time in relevant terrain more than a few days in advance.“
Will – “I never thought I’d get a second opportunity to finally run a forest race at WOC, and it took a funky, unique year with a lot of our best guys injured or declining, so I’m thankful for the memorable experience in any case.“
Joe – “Super fun time for my first WOC… Sprint Relay was alright, not a whole lot of expectations going in, clean race, no major misses… Long definitely my best race of the week, felt strong, good pace (for me) through most of it… could have looked ahead more on short legs, not just the long ones“
Kevin Fisher (TeamUSA Official) – “I think things went pretty well considering my complete lack of training or expertise in this area. Everyone got to their races on time and to and from the airport, which was honestly my main goal… it was inspiring to spend time with all of these athletes, and really fun to watch them compete, hear their experiences in the woods, and talk about routes… I would highly recommend the WOC experience to anyone (wait for a normal year though!)”
So that wraps it up for this year. 2022 will feature a Sprint WOC on June 26-30 in Denmark and sprinting will also feature prominently when the world’s best come to Alabama two weeks later on July 7-17 for The World Games 2022. Mark your calendars and plan to come to Birmingham to be a part of the action as the US hosts the world’s best orienteers for what is sure to be some great competition!
Photos courtesy: Kevin Fisher, Dasa Merkova, Angelica Riley, Tomáš Bubela, Lukáš Budínský, Jiří Čech, Petr Kadeřávek & Petr Háp plus screenshots from official IOF & WOC2021 video feeds.