2018 Winter Paralympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): Cross-country sprints
Hold onto your hats, this was a major day for both the American and Canadian teams at the 2018 Paralympics.
In the cross-country sprints on Wednesday in PyeongChang, Andy Soule and Oksana Masters of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Program both captured their first-career Paralympic golds in the women’s and men’s sitting events, while Dan Cnossen skied to his fourth medal in as many races with a bronze to add to his collection.
Brian McKeever of the Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team raced to his second-straight gold of the week in the men’s visually impaired sprint, with guide Russell Kennedy, and two of their teammates claimed bronze: Mark Arendz, in the men’s standing sprint for the first Paralympic cross-country medal of his career (following four biathlon medals) and Natalie Wilkie, the youngest member of the team at age 17, in the women’s standing sprint.
In the men’s 1.1-kilometer sitting sprint final, Soule won a photo finish with Dzmitry Loban of Belarus, after both crossed the line in 3:31.4 minutes. Cnossen finished 0.4 seconds back in third and Canada’s Collin Cameron was just 0.3 seconds off the podium in fourth (+0.7).
After skiing the pack throughout the final, Soule took the lead as the four racers entered the stadium together. In the finishing stretch, Loban, Cnossen and Cameron challenged him for the gold, but with a powerful surge and lean at the line, Soule, 38, notched the first gold medal after nearly 13 years in the sport. The U.S. Army veteran had previously earned bronze at the 2010 Paralympics and bronze in Tuesday’s 12.5 k sitting biathlon race.
In a U.S. Paralympics press release, Soule described the race as “interesting” and “tactical”.
“I chased the whole way,” he said. “I don’t think it necessarily hurt me to chase that much, it actually helped with a little bit of wind break. I think a good, tight tuck coming down the final hill put me in a natural line, and I knew I had a shot at a good sprint out. This is an incredible group to compete with. That kind of a finish … that’s what sprinting is all about.”
“I definitely lost a little gas in the final stretch,” Cnossen reflected, according to the press release. “My strategy was to tuck in behind the Belarus athlete in the beginning and then sprint over the bridge and try to hang on. Andy had such an awesome race. This is the second day in a row we’ve had two U.S. men on the podium which is just phenomenal.”
For Soule, the gold was his first in his third Paralympics, and his first Paralympic medal in a cross-country race (rather than biathlon).
“It means so much. It feels so incredible,” Soule said. “I couldn’t do it without incredible teammates pushing me all the time, and without incredible coaching and technical staff. I think it speaks to a great team effort that has really paid off for us.”
Cameron came within fractions of a second of achieving his second medal in his first Paralympics.
“I raced as hard as I could … it is what it is. I just came up a little short,” he said, according to a Cross Country Canada press release. “It is amazing that I got a medal this week in biathlon, I wasn’t expecting it, but that was behind me. I really wanted something here. This was the race I wanted a medal in. It was a close one.”
Also for Canada, Chris Klebl and Derek Zaplotinsky missed advancing to the final after both finished sixth in their respective semifinals.
Masters, 28, won the women’s 1.1 k sitting sprint final by 2.1 seconds over Germany’s Andrea Eskau, crossing the line first in 4:06.7. The gold was Masters’s first in her third Paralympics, after she had previously collected five medals — two silver and three bronze — between the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London (where she placed third in a doubles rowing event), 2014 Winter Paralympic in Sochi, Russia (where she tallied one silver and two bronze in cross-country events), and PyeongChang (silver in the biathlon 6 k sprint).
Masters has notably been racing with an injured elbow throughout these Games. On Tuesday, she did not finish the 10 k biathlon race.
“I can’t believe it. I literally was starting to think this day would never happen,” she said of her win on Wednesday, according to the U.S. press release. “I knew that I wasn’t going to let yesterday be my last race. I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, I knew I had it in me to dig deep a couple more times. I could not have done this without the USOC medical staff.”
In the sitting semifinals, her teammates Kendall Gretsch, who won the first two races of the 2018 Paralympics, and Aaron Pike, were eliminated after both placed fourth in their respective heats.
A five-time Paralympian, McKeever, 38, racked up his 12th Paralympic gold medal (15th total medal) in the men’s 1.5 k visually impaired classic sprint. He finished 2.5 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Zebastien Modin (with guide Robin Bryntesson) in second place, with a time of 4:03.2. Behind them in the final, Norway’s Eirik Bye (with guide Arvid Nelson) finished third (+29.5) and Jake Adicoff (with guide Sawyer Kesselheim) was relegated to last (fourth place) for a technique violation.
McKeever has won all three Paralympic sprints since they were introduced in 2010. On Wednesday, he double poled the entire race.
“These sprint races are miserable,” McKeever said, according to a team press release. “They are so hard. The young guys are fast, and have natural snap. There is so much stress in sprint racing, and it goes all day long. I’m much more comfortable with the longer distances, but it was a great day for us. Russell carried the load for us today, and just thrilled we were able to cross the line first.”
Kennedy, 26, who competed at his first Olympics last month in PyeongChang, said it was tough battling it out in Wednesday’s soft conditions.
“We played things a bit more strategic in the semis because we knew the final was going to be a tough fight, and it was,” Kennedy reflected. “That first hill hurt a lot. Once I got to the top I was able to settle down and said to myself ‘OK, you got this.’ ”
While Kennedy guided McKeever to gold in the second half of Monday’s 20 k cross-country race, McKeever’s other guide, Graham Nishikawa (who skied the first half with him), joined McKeever on the podium. Wednesday was Kennedy’s turn at the medals ceremony.
“This is a new experience for me — especially coming from the Olympics where the focus is all on yourself,” Kennedy said. “Brian is such a strong athlete and guiding him requires a lot more communication. Competing here at the Paralympics is really rewarding because you do this as a team. It is hard at times to know if I’m going too hard or if he needs me to go faster, but it has been a lot of fun for me.”
In the men’s 1.5 k standing sprint final, Arendz tied Finland’s Ilkka Tuomisto for third place, and both were awarded bronze. They finished just 0.3 seconds behind Japan’s Yoshihiro Nitta in second, and 1.1 seconds behind Kazakhstan’s Alexandr Kolyadin, who won in 4:19.7.
“Sitting there in the finish waiting for the results of the photo finish, I was just hoping for a tie,” Arendz said, according to the team press release. “It was a really good race but I made a mistake down the finishing stretch switching to try and find a faster track and that may have cost me the whole race.”
The Paralympic medal was the first in a cross-country race for the 28-year-old Arendz, who has two silver and two bronze in biathlon races between these Paralympics and the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I came here for medals in biathlon and was hoping to get my first one in cross-country,” he said. “To come away with my first bronze in cross-country skiing means a lot. I couldn’t be happier.”
In the women’s 1.5 k standing sprint final, Wilkie raced to third for her first medal in her first Paralympics. She finished just a tenth of a second behind Norway’s Vilde Nilsen, who took silver, and 3.2 seconds out of first, which went to Anna Milenina of the Neutral Paralympic Athletes (NPA) in 5:11.1.
“It feels so awesome,” Wilkie said of her bronze medal. “This is my first Paralympics and I am just so happy to have won a medal.”
Four seconds behind Wilkie, her teammate Emily Young placed fourth (+7.2). Canada made up half of the six-woman final with Brittany Hudak placing sixth (+49.2)
“We are competing against each other, but we are also helping each other,” Wilkie said. “It was calming for me to have them there with me. We talked about strategy as a team before the final because the goal was for us to win a medal for Canada.”
Paralympic nordic skiers and biathletes have a day off on Thursday before races resume Friday with men’s and women’s long-distance biathlon races, starting at 10 a.m. Korea time Friday (9 p.m. EDT Thursday).