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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Noah Hoffman went into today’s Olympic 50 k with a very specific race plan: don’t lead, but be with the leaders and act like you belong there.
It’s not all that different than how Hoffman has approached long races on the World Cup in the past, although he did say that he did not intend to actually go first. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old American got a lot of face time at the front of the race.
“You saw Noah in second place a lot, but you never saw him in first,” U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover said.
Although Hoffman was unsatisfied with his end result of 26th place, a minute and 26 seconds behind gold medalist Alexander Legkov of Russia, he did admit that he had executed his race plan well. He sat in 12th place at 45 kilometers, still in with the lead pack, and was in 16th at 48 kilometers, again still with them.
At last year’s Holmenkollen 50 k, Hoffman was 24th but almost four minutes back. At World Championships he was 27th with an even larger margin.
“Certainly making it 45 or 47 k is better,” Hoffman said. “26th place is not what I’m looking for, but I think it’s moving in the right direction. I do feel more comfortable right up at the front.”
Hoffman’s insistence on skiing in second place led to some funny moments when other skiers wanted him to take over the lead. But Hoffman stuck to his plan.
“I don’t think Noah is intimidated by any of those guys,” Grover laughed.
In direct opposition to the U.S. women’s strategy in yesterday’s 30 k, Hoffman paid attention to what other skiers were doing when he chose whether to switch his skis. Lukas Bauer was the only man in the main pack to switch skis at 20 k; ten kilometers later, Hoffman followed the other leaders into the pen and switched with them.
“The plan the whole time was to do what the group did, and that seemed to be what a lot of guys did,” Hoffman said, trying to explain the dynamic of the group. “It was interesting out there. We learned from yesterday, for sure, and it’s definitely easier to go second on this that sort of thing. The way I did it today was the way it should have been done.”
As in the 30 k skiathlon, Hoffman had a bit of bad luck with equipment. This time, the broken pole came in the last kilometers of the race, and he lost about ten places before he could find a new one.
“I think the question then is how much energy do you expend, with one pole, stressing out,” Grover said.
But Hoffman said he wouldn’t have had the legs to fight for a medal today anyway.
“I was right where I wanted to be for 45 k, but I definitely started to suffer when we all went in for the ski exchange,” he said. “That’s when the pace seemed to heat up and things strung out… I just didn’t have it in that last 3 or 4 k especially up that last hill.”
Despite disappointment, he said that the result was encouraging for the future.
“I’m getting closer and I’m excited for my next opportunity,” he said. “[It was a] Really good experience. It definitely feels like I’m not that far away. It feels like I can come back in four years and can be taking some of the medals. But there are definitely some steps to be taken in there. I can build on this experience.”
“I’m excited for him,” he said. “He obviously left everything out on the track. He put himself in a position to, had he had a little bit more, to have an incredible race. Every year he gets a little bit better and a little bit better.”
Gregg and Freeman Hold Tough
Racing in just his second international 50 k, Hoffman’s teammate Brian Gregg skied to 51st place, eight minutes behind the leaders.
“Being with the lead pack for 25 k is pretty good,” Gregg said of his race. “I was on the back of that lead group, so I was kind of off, and then I’d come back in. But I’m happy to have been in there for 25 k. That was good. I’m pretty happy with the effort today.”
Gregg said that he had been aiming for a top 30, but wasn’t sure where his ski level fell against the field.
“It’s always hard to tell what your level four pace is compared to maybe someone else’s threshold,” he said. “So I tried to stay relaxed as much as I could and not get too caught up in that.”
Meanwhile, Kris Freeman had a sinking feeling almost as soon as he started the 50 k.
“I felt like I was skiing at high level two and if I ever went past that I was going to have to stop,” Freeman said after finishing 57th, nearly 13 minutes behind Legkov.
Freeman had not been planning to compete in the event. After disappointing races in the skiathlon, where he placed 54th, and the 15 k classic, where he was 57th. He and his coaches had decided that he would not compete for the rest of the Olympics, and would also finish his season early. But then teammates Torin Koos and Erik Bjornsen got sick, and a spot in the 50 k opened up.
“I was like, you know, this is 98% my last chance to race in the Olympics, and you never know what can happen,” Freeman said. “So I went out and I had an idea that something like this could happen. All week I was testing Noah and Brian’s skis, not my own. So I didn’t feel like I was taking anything away from anybody. I just went out to see what I could do and unfortunately I’m still where I was.”
Coming into the stadium before his final five kilometers, Freeman was on the verge of being caught by the leaders, who were coming into the finish. Bad shape or no, he still had all of the fight left in him and skied harder to avoid being caught.
“I was not going to get half-lapped,” Freeman said. “Not gonna happen.”
Now he’s back to being done for the season, with all of the accompanying feelings.
“Honestly I’m not very happy about it, but I don’t have much of a choice,” Freeman said. “Racing as a shell of myself is not fun and it’s not good for me. Somewhere along the lines, I just messed up. I fried myself. I don’t really know where, I’ve gone over it with my coaches.”
Grover was impressed with the persistence from both athletes. Gregg had to ski alone for a large portion of the race, and finished with a minute and a half of time to the competitors in front of and behind him, yet he kept pushing through no-man’s-land.
“I’m proud of those guys,” Grover said. “They skied solid… did a great job of skiing the whole thing, keeping their heads on, and making it to the finish line.”
—Alex Matthews contributed reporting.