DAVOS, Switzerland – Dario Cologna is doubtful about the fresh snow coating the mountains.
“It’s always nice when the first snow comes, but it’s too early to ski,” he tells me at the end of his workout, glancing up at the Mittaghorn and Piz Ducan. The ridges are blanketed not just in snow, for the first time this season, but also in clouds. The wind blows the snow from cliff to cliff and with the sun coming out, the trees begin to shake off their first batch of winter.
“It’s nice to see it in the mountains, but I hope we have some nice days now,” Cologna decides. “Not too cold. For training I hope it will be warmer the next two months.”
If it wasn’t already clear, now is the time for training. The new snow so picturesquely draped down to 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) is a reminder that winter is coming, and with it the race season. But Cologna already knows that. When it comes to skiing, there’s only one thing on his mind.
He pauses before he says it, just like he pauses to formulate every response: clear, well-spoken, to the point. Nothing extraneous.
“It’s just the Olympics next year,” he says. “It’s the big goal.”
* * *
And so the 27-year-old Swiss star, owner of an Olympic gold medal from Vancouver, a World Championships gold from Val di Fiemme, three overall World Cup titles, and three Tour de Ski victories to match, sets off on the first of two long threshold pieces starting outside the village of Frauenkirch and continuing up the Sertig valley.
I hop into the Swiss team van with Guri Hetland, Cologna’s coach and the head of the Swiss distance squad. We watch as for the first kilometer, teammate Roman Furger is pinned to the back of Cologna’s rollerskis. The younger skier matches Cologna: his technique, his cadence, his strides. Dressed all in black, the two are in near-perfect synchrony.
“Roman is a promising guy,” Hetland tells me as we drive past them. “When he’s good he’s really good. But it’s not at all stable. He can do really good races and then he can be number 80. Not like him.”
She points to Cologna. And indeed, the next time I see them, Furger is popped off the back and Cologna is powering ahead, a fluid machine, on his own.
Hetland tells me that the training goes something like this: for short sprints, the entire Swiss squad works together. But the sprinters couldn’t keep up with the distance skiers on long days, or in a workout like this with so much time spent at threshold. So they train separately. And within the distance team, things often break apart with Cologna at the front.
“Two of the guys can keep up really well in the training,” Hetland explains. “Curdin Perl, he’s his equal, in training at least. Also some of the other guys, in some sessions they keep up with him. But he’s for sure the best. Over time, it’s clear he’s the best. But it’s good for the others. Then they know what is the highest level, a world-class athlete.”
By the time we reach Sertig Sand at the top of the valley, Cologna has put a significant chunk of time on Furger. And the men, together, have left a huge gap to Seraina Boner, probably the world’s best female marathon skier.
The athletes hop in the van and Hetland drives them down the narrow, twisty road. They talk and joke in German, quietly; Hetland, the only female head coach on the World Cup, joins in. She calmly maneuvers the van past tourists, cyclists, and farm vehicles. Even though the road is only really a lane and a half wide, she rarely slows down as she squeezes past the obstacles. The clock is ticking.
Back in Frauenkirch, the skiers start their next long interval. At the first checkpoint, Furger is a few seconds slower than the first time.
At the second checkpoint, Cologna is faster.
“He is starting to power now,” Hetland says, pulling out her video camera to record his technique up a moderate climb. She does this while still driving the van.
Hetland almost certainly faces a lot of pressure in her job. She’s a female, foreign coach in a very traditional nation (Hetland is originally from Trondheim, Norway). She’s in charge of making sure the country’s best skier, ever, stays on top, and of developing a high-performance team in a tiny country with a limited number of skiers. And she has to make sure that none of these best ones, who have been entrusted to her, get hit by cars while rollerskiing on the narrow Swiss mountain roads.
Through it all, Hetland is unflappable, poised, and polite. She speaks softly. When she smiles, like the time she tells me how amazing the mountains here are for backcountry powder skiing in the winter, her eyes begin to twinkle. She’s gracious. She knows what she’s doing and she’s confident that she’s right.
Just like her top skier, who is sprinting towards the finish line of his second interval.
* * *
Is there more pressure on Cologna this year, with the Olympics and all?
“Not really,” he shrugs as we wait for Boner to finish her last interval. “It’s always a little bit of pressure. Also last year with the World Championships, everybody in Switzerland said that it was the only thing that I don’t have. So it was a little bit of pressure last year. And of course for the Olympics it is a little bit bigger and more exciting. But I like that, and I’m just looking forward for the winter.”
2012 was tough for Cologna in one important way: he lost the Tour de Ski to Alexander Legkov of Russia. Cologna has won a handful of Tours already, and has said that it’s his favorite event.
But he didn’t have a bad year, either. He finally won that World Championships gold, in the 30 k pursuit – perfectly showing that he’s still the most versatile skier in the world, good at everything. Classic? Skate? Sprint? Marathons? Cologna finished third in the overall World Cup standings at the end of the season. Not his best year, but nothing to cry about either.
As we wait for Boner to finish her interval, I ask Cologna what he’s working on this season. Thinking of, but not mentioning, that loss in the Tour de Ski, I wonder if there’s anything he picked up on over the course of the season that might give him an extra edge.
“I try always to improve, but there’s no particular thing that I changed,” he replies. “I think it’s not the right time to change things. Maybe next year, but I had a good season last year. Still, you’re always trying to improve and get better, otherwise you make a step backwards.”
Luckily, he has teammates like Furger to push him. He might be the best, but as Hetland said, that doesn’t mean he’s alone all the time.
“We have a good training group,” Cologna says. “It’s also different in the summer. Some athletes are better in the summer and they can push me. One is good in running, another is good in double-poling, so I have a good group and they can push me in some ways. That’s not a problem.”
He’s also lucky to benefit from the fact that Davos is a pretty nice place to take a vacation or a training camp. Not so rarely, other top skiers come through in the summer. Despite being in the fortress of the Alps, Cologna is not completely isolated from the rest of the skiing world. He mentions Emil Jönsson, the Swede who has captured two Sprint Cup titles, and Russians Legkov and Ilia Chernousov as men who can sometimes join him for a training session in Davos.
“Unfortunately Emil was here for only a week or something this summer,” Cologna frowns. “So it had been mostly training with our team. But I like to train with the other athletes. It’s for sure good to have some athletes to push you.”
It might seem like he’s already collected every honor in skiing, but from his viewpoint there’s still plenty on the horizon. For instance, when asked which events he is focusing on for the Olympics, Cologna replies, “many of them.”
One Olympic gold is not enough. He’ll focus on all of the individual races. The relays, he’s not so sure. Although the Swiss won a World Cup relay in 2010, Cologna isn’t confident that they can do it again – although it would certainly be a boon to this country, where despite the snowy Alps cross country skiing is not so popular. Although Dario’s face is everywhere – there’s even a train engine on the Rhaetian Railway named after him – that hasn’t translated to a huge jump in the quality of Swiss skiing.
“What counts are the medals, and I don’t know if we are good enough for that,” Cologna reasons. “So I will focus on the other races. But let’s see. There’s a relay in Lillehammer at the start of the season, and if everybody is in good shape then we can do a good relay. Still I think it’s a bit tough to be in the top five.”
That’s not as much the case in the individual races.
“The Olympics are always special,” Cologna says. “Also, I won in Vancouver, so it would be nice to do that again.”
For the first time since we began talking, he had laughed.
“I think I’m still hungry,” he continues. “I like to ski and I like to win races, so that’s no problem. I’m still motivated and that’s the most important thing.”