PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Zooming in on the leaders of Sunday’s nordic race, the Olympic broadcast stream focused on a red Norwegian suit set against the backdrop of Russian maroon. The televised showdown presented for the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay final leg was shaping up to be between the Olympic Athletes from Russia and Norway: Denis Spitsov verses Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. As the two skiers struck out for Lap 2 of 3 of the final 10 k leg, both spectators and screen apprehensively followed.
Had the camera panned 250 meters ahead, it might have caught the flurrying ski tails of American Noah Hoffman, dashing the top of the 3.3 k lap’s initial climb. Around 45 seconds earlier, Hoffman had been tagged into the race as the anchor leg for the U.S. men. His hot start was not just for show or a final push to the front. If he wanted to prevent the U.S. team from an eliminatory pull, he would need to stay ahead of Spitsov and Klæbo.
A cat-and-mouse game between the leaders certainly could buy the U.S. skier a little more time to pad the time gap. But until then, he sifted a reductionist race: Stay in the game. Don’t get caught by Klæbo.
“The highlight for me was watching these guys stick with their guys,” Canada’s Len Valjas said of his relay teammates in a post-race interview with FasterSkier. “And another one was watching Noah stay away from Klæbo. We were all yelling, cheering for him. That was amazing.”
The relay had more than one race in the works. Hoffman staying in front of Klæbo was one. Canada’s Graeme Killick catching Sweden was another.
After Valjas scrambled the first classic leg, he came through the exchange in 10th, handing off to Killick for the second classic leg. As Killick headed out for his first lap, Sweden was four places and 38.3 seconds ahead.
The 28-year-old Canadian, in his second Olympics, was by no means deterred. Working kilometer by kilometer, Killick strode past the Czech Republic’s Martin Jaks, Germany’s Thomas Bing and eventually Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson.
After moving up three places, Killick went through the second exchange in seventh with the seventh-fastest time, passing off the race to Russell Kennedy. Going into Leg 3, 2.6 seconds separated the Canadians from the tag between Sweden’s Rickardsson and Marcus Hellner. All said and done, Killick had made up 40.9 seconds to catch and pass Sweden.
“Everyone, I think, skied to a higher level today,” Killick told FasterSkier after. “We were all able to dig deep for our teammates and make sure we pass off in good position.”
“Anything can happen in a relay and that’s one of the reasons it’s always exciting to get on the start line and do your best,” Killick continued. “When I tagged off Russell, he was with Hellner … It was cool to see everyone dig so deep and just fight for the team.”
Racing Canada’s third relay leg, Kennedy, a 26-year-old Olympic rookie, held tight to Hellner through the first lap. And again through the second. And through the first half of the third. It was not until around the final major climb, that Hellner broke away from Kennedy’s red maple-leaf suit.
“I was psyched when I saw GKill killed it, and gave me an amazing position,” Kennedy said after. “But I was also a bit nervous because … I was walking to the line with Hellner and I was like, he’s an Olympic champ. I got to stick with him and hold on, and that’s what I did. I just locked on, the wax techs gave me amazing skis today, and I held on as hard as I could. He threw in a sprint at the top of the hill, blew me up, but I was psyched to have made it almost three laps with him.”
Hellner has two relay gold medals from the Olympics, one from 2014 and another from 2010, as well as two 30 k skiathlon golds from the 2010 and 2014 Games. The 32-year-old Swede is also a multiple-time World Championships medalist with several top-10 World Cup 15 k freestyle results. While Kennedy considers himself more of a sprinter, Sunday’s performance may perhaps change his perspective.
“I was just thinking, don’t blow. Do it for the team,” Kennedy said. “I knew that if I could hand off to Knute in a good position, were were in a really good position for us. Can’t ask for much more than that. I gave it everything for sure. I was just happy we caught the Slovakian guy so Knute had someone to ski with. But yeah, amazing day for me, for sure. I felt really good.”
After skiing the seventh-fastest third leg, Kennedy came through the exchange in eighth and handed off to teammate Knute Johnsgaard, also in his first Olympics, for the final freestyle leg. Johnsgaard kept the Canadians ahead of the Czech Republic, staving off Kazakhstan until the final kilometer and a half.
“It was pretty tough for me, especially the sprint hill,” Johnsgaard, 25, said. “We knew it was going to be hard. We did the best we could.”
Canada finished in ninth, 3:41 seconds off first, which was taken by Norway’s lineup of Didrik Tønseth, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Simen Hegstad Krüger, and Klæbo in a time of 1:33:04.9. The ninth place ties the country’s second-best Olympic relay result, which was set at the Calgary Games in 1988. Canada’s best relay finish was in 2010 when the team placed seventh with Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov, and George Grey.
Harvey opted not to race Sunday’s relay, and Johnsgaard started in his place.
In last year’s World Championships team relay in Lahti, Finland, with Harvey on the team, the Canadians were lapped out of the race.
“We’ve had some terrible luck with relays. I think we did great today,” said Valjas, a 29-year-old two-time Olympian. “It’s not our A-team; we knew that coming in. I think we performed amazing and I’m super happy with how it went. Especially all these guys staying with some serious big names in cross-country skiing. I’m impressed, these guys were fighting hard and I’m proud of all of them.”
Alongside the Canadian’s solid team performance, the U.S. had several personal highlights. Scrambling in the first leg was American Andy Newell in his second race of the week (after placing 37th in the individual classic sprint) and potentially, the 32 year old’s last Olympic race.
“The sprint day was really disappointing, because I knew I had a lot more to give in the qualification. To be just out was frustrating, I know I had a much better result than that in me, and my body is feeling better than that result,” Newell told FasterSkier on Sunday. “To be able to come back and get another start, it was great.”
Having scrambled in Olympic relay races before, Newell explained that allowing the pace to burn off the front was part of his plan. Through the first lap he was 2.3 seconds off the lead pace. Around 5 k, he was racing with Canada, Estonia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Germany around 6 seconds back. With around one lap to go, Kazakstan’s Alexey Poltoranin bulldozed to the front and began pushing pace. Newell stuck to his racing plan.
“It’s a high-pressure event. Somebody who has raced first legs for their country before, talk about being nervous the night before, when you know you’re going to go off and the rest of the team’s counting on you,” Newell said. “Relays … there’s so much national pride, no matter what team you come from. Whether it is a Norway/Sweden rivalry or and Canada/U.S. rivalry, they all go back and have their history.”
“I probably haven’t raced a 10 k in probably over a month, talk about nerve racking,” Newell continued. “To step to the line with Poltoranin, some of these guys, when you know they are much better 10 k classic skiers than I am.”
Poltoranin has reached the World Cup podium numerous times in distance classic races. On Sunday, Newell came through the exchange in 12th, 1:28.8 minutes behind Poltoranin in first.
“I just have to go and be like, ‘A minute twenty back, it feels like a bad race, but these guys are the best in the world. … It sounds bad, but we have to do what we call damage control a little bit, try to ski with the guys we can ski with, and put our team in the best position we can,” Newell explained.
He passed off to American Reese Hanneman for the second classic leg. The event was Hanneman’s debut Olympic race. The 28-year-old Alaska native was called on to the team as the first alternate.
“Skiing with the top 13 classic skiers in the world … for me, it became apparent that I was going to have to really focus and make it hurt to minimize the time I was going to lose to them,” Hanneman said. “I could barely see or stand up by the end of it. I’m not happy with how I performed, but I’m happy with how deep I was able to dig.”
Hanneman tagged off to Scott Patterson in 14th, who then took the American’s first freestyle leg. Creeping up on Patterson were the race leaders. He geared up through all three of his laps, holding off both Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger and Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin.
“All the coaches were out there going, ‘You’ve got two minutes. You’ve got 1:39,’ just the whole way,” Patterson said, referring to his time back to the leaders. “It’s not the direction you want to be getting splits, but that’s where we were.”
“Also, we knew with Erik [Bjornsen] sitting out, with Simi [Hamilton] sitting out, with Paddy [Caldwell] sick, we knew were in a little bit of a tough shape for today, so not getting lapped was a bit of goal going in,” Patterson added.
With Hoffman anchoring the final three laps, the Americans achieved their goal. Don’t get caught by Klæbo became ‘Klæbo can’t catch me.’
“They weren’t charging their second lap — my first lap — but I knew they would be charging on the last lap and I knew I needed every second I possibly could, so I went out hard,” Hoffman said. “I was just viewing it as a 6.6 k race. Like the last lap doesn’t matter at that point, just got to get there. I did everything I could and it was close but I am pretty psyched that we as a team made it.”
The Americans finished the relay in 14th (+9:24.2) out of 14 teams.
“You never know how its going to go down,” Hoffman said of relays. “Unless you are scrambling you don’t know what the start is going to be like, where you’re going to be, if you’re going to be alone, if you’re going to be with people, you got to be adaptable, you got to be able to make your own plan out there.
“This was my first time ever anchoring a relay so that’s pretty cool experience,” Hoffman added. “I had a lot of support finishing. … Even though we were a long ways back the crowd seemed to stick around for me, which was pretty fun.”
— Jason Albert, Harald Zimmer, Gerry Fersuth, and Ian Tovell contributed