When Torin Koos lined up behind the starter’s wand in Drammen, Norway, on Wednesday, it had been over three years since his last appearance in a World Cup sprint heat. You all know his story: cut from the U.S. Ski Team in 2010, stripped of a national title in 2012, and passed over for a spot on the U.S. World Championships squad in 2013.
Lucky for Koos, the International Ski Federation periodically reward top domestic results with a few shots on the world stage throughout the year, which is how the 32-year-old from the Methow Valley found himself back on the starting line next to five of the world’s top sprinters, staring down 1.3 k of classic track. Despite the length of his hiatus, Koos was clear-headed as he waited for the gun to go off.
“No, I have the belief that when I’m in the sprint rounds I can take the turn of pace and ski at the same level as anyone,” he wrote in an email.
He followed through on that statement on Wednesday. Against a quarterfinal lineup that included Gianluca Cologna (SUI), Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) and Anssi Pentsinen (FIN), Koos matched pace with the leaders for a good portion of his heat and looked comfortable in second position in the early minutes, and only began to lose ground on the downhill when Pentsinen pulled away from him.
“Anssi’s skis… I have never, ever seen someone with such fast classic boards,” Koos said. “Randy Gibbs and the whole US service team did a great job today but I have never been passed so fast on a downhill as today.”
Cologna and Brandsdal also surged past Koos in the final meters, but the American hung on to finish fourth in his heat, 2.2 seconds behind them for an 18th-place overall placing. That result is something Koos hopes to improve upon in Stockholm, Sweden, next week.
“Today I definitely wanted to make it through the qualifying,” he said. “I knew if I did that I would be in the mix to race through to the later rounds. It’s always a good feeling to finally get a chance again to race the World Cup, and to come through and demonstrate that you are at a world-class level. I don’t think there is a more challenging day as a sprinter than to come to Norway and race Drammen. Eighteenth here is something I can build on. Next stop, Stockholm!”
As the Period 4 SuperTour leader, Koos has actually been on the World Cup since the circuit was in Davos, Switzerland, last month. He was 80th in the 15 k there, and 73rd in the freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, last weekend. Neither result was the kind Koos was looking for, so what made the difference for him in Drammen?
“Not sure exactly,” Koos said. “I definitely ran into some problems breathing-wise in Lahti. My lungs were just trashed from just the qualifier, and have been hurting me since. This actually was my biggest concern going into today. Maybe in Lahti it was the combination of cold air, high humidity, and some city pollution?”
It might also have something to do with the high variability in the top-30 week in and week out on the World Cup. Emil Joensson (SWE) won in Lahti last weekend to secure the 2013 sprint globe, for instance, but failed to make the rounds in Drammen a few days later. Conversely, World Champion Nikita Kriukov (RUS) was 70th in the Lahti sprint but challenged Petter Northug (NOR) in the finals on Wednesday to land on the podium.
“To get into the top 30 and score World Cup points is, I think, always an accomplishment,” Koos said. “Today, Emil Joensson went from winning in Lahti to not qualifying today, which I think just shows how many great skiers there are, and how deep the sprint field is worldwide.”
That variability, of course, is partly the nature of sprint racing: high speed, frantic tempo and frequent opportunity for collision. Andy Newell, the other American to make the men’s heats in Drammen, fell victim to sprinting’s bad luck on Wednesday with a crash in the quarterfinals.
The spill took place after the downhill, just after a sharp corner that bottlenecked the pack on top of one another. Sweden’s Johan Edin planted his pole on top of Newell’s ski and there was nothing the American could do to react before he lost balance.
“We were coming in with a lot of speed off the downhill and we were all starting to double pole, and he just poled on my ski basically, which shot my ski out from under me,” Newell explained. “So yeah, pretty unfortunate. And it happened so fast I couldn’t really react to it quickly. I was just taken out from that and was on the ground pretty quick, so that was kind of a bummer.”
The spill relegated him to last in his heat and 27th overall, and for the second sprint in a row Newell wasn’t able to produce the result he thinks he’s capable of. Up until the fall he had been skiing in contention behind Northug, and prior to that led the pack before the downhill. The race had been going exactly according to plan.
“It was my goal to go out and for sure be in the lead on the downhill and gap those guys a little bit, which I did, because I was on classic gear for the heats,” Newell said. “I tried to get a little gap on Northug and I knew they would catch me, that the guys with skate gear would catch me at the bottom, but I thought that by striding up the first hill I’d have more strength in my arms for the finishing stretch. It’s too bad I didn’t get the chance to execute that at all, I just kind of got taken out of the race in a hurry.”
Newell has been in this position before, where he’s been skiing well and somehow winds up on the losing end of the laws of physics and gravity. But this is actually Newell’s first big crash of the year, so most of his frustration stems from this particular incident.
“Everyone when it happens to them is like, ‘Oh my god, this happens to me all the time,’ but realistically I think it happens to everybody — it’s sprint racing,” he said. “You’re always going to have one or two races a year where luck doesn’t go your way. So it’s easy to get frustrated because last weekend I was feeling great and again, I should have had a much better result, I just wasn’t able to pass some people. I felt like I definitely had the legs to make it to the final today and just got taken out from bad luck. Any time you have two bad results without feeling bad, that’s frustrating as a sprinter, for sure.”
Before the classic sprints at World Cup Finals in Stockholm Newell will compete in the Bislett sprints, an invitation-only exhibition race in the Oslo stadium, on Monday.
Simi Hamilton and Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess also competed for the U.S. in Drammen, placing 59th and 65th, respectively.