With a gold medal for their team already in the bag on Wednesday, Erik Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton put their heads down for the start of their own race at the 2018 Olympics. The men’s 6 x 1.4-kilometer freestyle team sprint final was scheduled to start just minutes after the women’s team sprint final ended, a race which saw Americans Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins capture the first Olympic gold for the U.S. in cross-country skiing.
It was motivating and inspiring, even confidence-boosting, Bjornsen reflected after his race in an in-person interview with FasterSkier. But he and Hamilton had their own medal hopes to tend to.
Like most of the men’s finalists, they weren’t able to watch the women’s race beforehand and came out onto the course shortly before the start of their final.
“I was warming up and kind of focusing on my own race, but I saw that they took the win when I was running to the start,” Bjornsen explained. “ … We were ready to match them.”
“I did not even see a second and I’m really bummed out that I didn’t,” Canada’s first-leg skier Len Valjas told FasterSkier after. “But so happy for the U.S., that’s amazing, like it actually gave us some positive energy before the race hearing who won. Our techs and coaches ran into our room, like, ‘Did you hear about the girls’ race?’ So it’s a win for North America. It just makes today even sweeter.”
Both the American and Canadian men’s teams qualified for the 10-team final on Wednesday evening in PyeongChang, South Korea. Bjornsen and Hamilton had advanced with a fast-enough time after placing third in the second semifinal, while Valjas and his teammate Alex Harvey moved on as well (also as “lucky losers”) after finishing fifth in that semifinal.
The U.S. had some confidence going into the final after a semifinal performance that saw Bjornsen take the lead on the second-to-last lap, ahead of Norway. Hamilton held onto first for most of the the final lap until Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo passed him shortly before the finish, and France’s Richard Jouve passed Hamilton in the finishing straight as well, putting the Americans in third.
For the final, it was all about the medal hunt for Bjornsen and Hamilton, who placed fifth in last year’s World Championships classic team sprint in Lahti, Finland, just ahead of Canada in sixth, for the best U.S. men’s result in a team event.
Russia had won that 2017 world-champs team sprint with two athletes who were banned from competing at these Olympics, Nikita Kriukov and Sergey Ustiugov, and Italy placed second with Dietmar Nöckler and Federico Pellegrino. After an infamous tangle coming out of the final downhill, Finland ended up third with Sami Jauhojärvi (who retired after last season) and Iivo Niskanen, and Norway finished fourth with Klæbo and Emil Iversen. Norway opted for Klæbo and Sundby for its Olympic team-sprint squad on Wednesday, and Sundby later proved that he was worthy of the pick.
Ever since World Championships, it’s safe to say this is the race that had been primarily on Bjornsen’s and Hamilton’s minds for the better part of the last year.
They came out with a mission on Wednesday, putting themselves in the mix early in the final, alongside Canada.
Sweden set the pace for the first two laps, with Marcus Hellner starting them off and Calle Halfvarsson holding their lead on the second leg. They tagged off in first through the first two exchanges, just ahead of Norway and the Olympic Athletes from Russia after the first lap, then ahead of France, Norway and Russia after Lap 2. By the end of Hellner’s second lap, Sweden was still in first, tagging off in front of Norway, France and Russia, all within 1.3 seconds of first. Germany followed in fourth, 2.9 seconds back, and Bjornsen tagged the U.S. in fifth (+3.2).
The Americans had been hanging in fifth and sixth throughout the first half of the race, even after Bjornsen crashed at the beginning of his second leg. Heading into the first uphill after the exchange, Bjornsen skated over the tails of Nöckler’s skis ahead of him. He fell down and by the time he got back up, was in 10th — last place — starting back up the hill. Bjornsen recovered to put the U.S. in sixth, 3.2 seconds out of first, with three laps to go.
“It was super disappointing when I went down, but I mean, it was only halfway through the race and I just got up, and that’s for sure not going to be the end of it for us today,” Bjornsen said. “Unfortunately, I kind felt like I let the team down there a bit. I think that was one mistake that may have made a huge impact on our race today, but you know, that’s ski racing, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Unfortunately it’s at the Olympics.”
Hamilton was quick to respond to his teammate’s comments.
“In absolutely no way did Erik let any of us down, especially me,” Hamilton said. “I watched that on the big screen, I have been at a lot of team sprints on the World Cup, World Champs, Olympics, that always happens to someone, and 99 percent of the time, that person, especially if it’s in the finals, just gives up, whether it’s the first leg, second leg, third leg, they just give up. And Erik, he never does that, no matter what happens to him, what happens to us, he just fights ’til the absolute very end.
“It’s cliché to say that, but that’s what he does,” he continued. “That’s the only way he knows how to operate. … I am incredibly proud to be always be racing with Erik, to be training with him, to be rooming with him.”
The two Americans, who are rooming together in the Olympic Village, went on to lose a few more seconds and two places during Hamilton’s second leg, after which he tagged Bjornsen in eighth, 8.3 seconds out of first.
At the front of the pack, Klæbo had made a game-changing attack on the final climb of that leg, following Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov up it then making a few swift strides to get around him several meters from the top. As Klæbo jump-skated up and over and away from them, Bolshunov, Halfvarsson and France’s Jouve almost looked as if they were standing still, leaving them several seconds behind as they chased him toward the exchange.
Klæbo tagged Sundby 1.7 seconds ahead of Russia in second, 2.2 seconds clear of Sweden in third, 3 seconds ahead of Italy in fourth, and 3.3 seconds ahead of France in fifth. A couple more seconds back, Germany followed in sixth (+5.7), Finland in seventh (+6.0), the U.S. in eighth (+8.3), and Canada in ninth (+11.0), ahead of the Czech Republic in 10th (+12.8).
Sundby dug deep for his final 1.4 k lap to extend Norway’s lead to 5.1 seconds at the last exchange. For the first time all race, Klæbo took his hat off and prepared for his last time around the PyeongChang sprint course with Sweden, France and Russia about six seconds behind him.
Bjornsen had skied the Americans back into sixth, 11.7 seconds back at the last exchange. Valjas tagged Harvey in eighth, 26.6 seconds out of first.
While Hamilton chased Pellegrino, who started 0.3 seconds ahead of him out of the exchange, over the next lap, the two kept Halfvarsson, Jouve and Bolshunov in their sights. Ultimately, however, they were unable to close the gap to fight for the medals.
The three-man chase group, led by Bolshunov, didn’t let off as they pursued Klæbo, who appeared untouchable as he rounded the course. As they sped down the final descent toward the finish, Klæbo pushed over the last little rise, looked back and appeared to exhale as he relaxed his shoulders. But it wasn’t over. Bolshunov was charging hard and Klæbo couldn’t let off just yet. The 21-year-old Norwegian took another breath then about a dozen or so more V2 pushes in the finishing straight. A full four seconds before the line, he let off and secured his third gold of his first Olympics in 15:56.26 minutes, 1.71 seconds ahead of Bolshunov (and Denis Spitsov of the Olympic Athletes of Russia) in second. Jouve outsprinted Halfvarsson to give France (with teammate Maurice Manificat) its second-straight bronze (+2.02), after France placed third in the men’s 4 x 10 k relay, and Sweden finished the race in fourth (+3.07).
About 15 1/2 seconds later, Pellegrino crossed the line in fifth (+18.55) for Italy, 2.17 seconds ahead of Hamilton in sixth (+20.72). The Czech Republic came through in seventh (+28.57) with Martin Jaks and Ales Razym, Harvey anchored Canada to eighth (+35.6), Finland finished ninth (+36.04) with Martti Jylhä and Ristomatti Hakola, and Germany placed 10th (+45.94) with Sebastian Eisenlauer and Thomas Bing.
“For our race tonight, we’re proud of what we accomplished,” Hamilton reflected. “Obviously, it’s always our goal to be on that podium. I think we both know that we can be up there and maybe someday we will. … If we are going to do that someday, there’s no way were going to do it without trying, so tonight was another one of those attempts, and it was a super-fun race, did everything we could, came up short, but we fought hard.”
“I guess we will have keep skiing and fight for it,” Bjornsen said, later adding, “We’re coming back for a gold.”
For Valjas, who had slipped to 10th on his second leg but brought his team back to eighth after Harvey put them in ninth with two laps to go, a top 10 at the Olympics on any day was a good one. He previously raced on Canada’s 4 x 10 k relay that finished ninth.
“I actually got a chest cold two days ago so it was kind of a game-time decision,” Valjas said after of Canada’s decision to start him with Harvey. “The team really wanted me to start this even if I’m not 100 percent, and honestly it felt pretty good. I think it was my legs that gave out before my lungs so I’m glad I did start because I felt horrible coming on the bus here. I was like, ‘How am I gonna race against these guys? Like, even healthy I’m gonna suffer.’
He explained that the course didn’t exactly suit his strengths with its long climbs.
“The first work section is a minute with no break,” Valjas said. “I was just trying to use the flats and the downhills like what I’m good at and the rest I was just surviving…
“Honestly for me on this course, at the World Cup last year, I had a terrible team sprint,” he added, reflecting on his 13th-place result last year with teammate Jess Cockney at the pre-Olympic World Cup in PyeongChang. “And I was good shape then. Jess raced great, I was just getting dropped. For me, another top 10 in the Olympics and I’m thrilled how it went and so happy that Alex had some punch in the end there. The 50 k [on Saturday], I’ll be out here cheering. It’s looking great for [Alex] and I’m glad I could help him in his race prep.”
For Norway, the gold medal was its fourth in five men’s races so far at these Olympics. Klæbo has won three of them (individual classic sprint, relay and team sprint) and Sundby two (relay and team sprint).
In a post-race press conference, Sundby, 33, had nothing but praise for his young teammate.
“I think the whole cross-country world at this point is looking on what Johannes does, how he does it, and why he is so fast,” Sundby said. “… We are close and are able to learn so much from this guy. He’s 21 years old. Today we were both extremely nervous for the competition. … Anything can happen, and these tracks are so tough, this sprint track. It’s a lot of uphill and a really tough downhill, and you don’t get any rest at any point, so we were not looking forward to it, but its really good to finish it.”
While Russia’s Spitsov said they had been going for gold, he explained through a translator that they were “not very lucky.”
“We had a small tactical mistake and we lost a few seconds through that when he was basically being blocked, lagging behind the French guy,” he said at the press conference. “We tried to catch up but we couldn’t. Johannes was stronger and faster.”
For France, the bronze medal was a big deal. It was the first for the 23-year-old Jouve in his first Olympics. Manificat previously raced in France’s bronze-medal relay.
“Second medal and also with Richard, it’s unbelievable,” Manificat said at the press conference. “Three days ago a medal in distance with my teammates on the distance team, and it was a hard choice the last day with our sprinter Lucas Chanavat; he was really sad to not be part of this relay, but I think with this medal, it was for all for the team … and we are so happy together as you could see in the [finish] and to share it with Richard. [He was] unbelievable in the final [lap], it was so crazy, so thanks to him and thanks to all team’s waxers, we had such good skis, so it was perfect.”
— Jason Albert, Gabby Naranja, Ian Tovell, and Harald Zimmer contributed