RacingWorld CupAn American Fan In Val Di Fiemme

FasterSkier FasterSkierMarch 3, 2003

World Cup report First, let me tell you a little about myself to give you some
perspective on this article. I've always been a big sports fan when it comes
to traditional American sports- basketball, football and hockey especially.
While I started x-c skiing over 15 years ago, much of it was in the Midwest
where I did a lot of “shuffleskiing in state parks mainly to get outside and
away. It's only been in the past 5 years since I moved to Reno that I've become
more focused on x-c skiing, started racing (solid middle of the pack usually)and
began following the national and international x-c racing scene.

When I saw the 2003 World Cup Nordic Championships
where going to be in Italy, I thought it might be a
great opportunity to check out what this aspect of
sport is all about. My wife's parents both grew up in
the Friuli region of Italy, which it turns out is
about a 2-3 hour drive from Val di Fiemme. I
proposed a trip to Italy to my wife (who luckily
speaks Italian). Since she is quite cool, she agreed,
and we made plans to watch the first week having no
idea what we were going to experience.

The Dolomites are spectacular- many more steep,
jagged, exposed rock faces than the Sierra that I'm
used to. After a few days visiting my wife's friends
and family, the drive to Val di Fiemme took us through
Cortina and over Passo Pordoi. With the number of
people coming in for the games, we could only find a
hotel in Vigo di Fassa, about a 25-kilometer drive to
the stadium in Lago di Tesero. All along the entire
drive, hotel balconies had flags flying from countries
all over the world. (As an aside, Polish ski jumping
fans won the award for most enthusiastic group during
the events. Norwegians won the gold medal for the
most number of fans- the local Italian newspapers
commented about how the local villages had more
Norwegians than Italians).

The stadium at Lago di Tesero has a grandstand area
for VIP ticket holders (not us) complete with TV
coverage and current standings. We usually positioned
ourselves somewhere on the slopes of the first hill
where we also had a distant view of the finish. On
the recommendation of my friend and coach Nathan
Schultz, we packed our USA flag. With all of the
political tensions in Europe, at the start of the
competition we were somewhat nervous about waving our
flag around. Thus, we had our flag neatly tucked away
in my jacket, where we could pull it out as the US
skiers went by. This was in drastic contrast to the
numerous Norwegian, Estonian, Germany, Swedish, Swiss
and of course Italian flags flags waving all over the
place.

For the women's 15K mass start, there really wasn't much tension with Bente
Skari controlling the race and pulling away for a convincing win. The next day,
during the mens' 30K mass start, once again, the Norwegian flags were flying
high. The lead group stayed pretty closely together until Thomas Alsgard pulled
away near the finish and lead the Norwegian sweep. It was on day 4 that our
US flag really started waving. Based on his recent under-23 win, we knew Kris
Freeman had been skiing well. Like many of the other tifosi in the stadium,
we were a little shocked how well he'd do in the men's' 10K classic. With an
interval start, the skiers did 3 laps of a 3.3K course. Kris started after the
red group skiers, so he'd be able to compare his splits to the top racers. Once
again, we found our place on the first hill along with some Canadian and Australian
fans. While there was a sound system in the stadium, with the fans and their
various noisemakers, it was difficult to hear exactly what was occurring in
the race. After Kris' second lap, however, we knew something special was happening,
hearing the announcer shout his name. As Kris came around on his third lap,
the US coaches on the hill were encouraging him on, practically running up half
the hill as he skied up In a few minutes, after he crossed the line, we weren't
sure what we had heard over the sound system. Second place? Fifth place? It
was only after going down and looking at the board did we see his 4th place
finish. The US flag didn't get put away that day. Unfortunately, we did forget
the flag at the 10K awards ceremony where Kris did pick up his 4th place trophy,
hand carved from the " harmonious" local wood cut in the region.

The next day, the women's skiathelon took place.
For the first time, the pursuit went directly from
classic into skating technique with a transition
similar to triathlons. While we were still cheering
on our US skiers, we also helped our North American
counterparts cheer Beckie Scott on to her top 10
finish. The lead group stayed together for most of
what we saw during the race (although we were stoked
to see Beckie get a small lead heading up the hill on
the start of the last lap) and it came down to a
sprint finish. The format with the quick change was
pretty exciting. I wonder, however, how many skiers
are going to go out hard on the classic portion to try
and build a lead in future races. For both the men's
and women's races, it seemed like the strategy was too
keep it close for the classic and then win it during
the skate. It was also obvious that the skiers had
practiced their transition from classic to skate.

On our final day at the games, the crowds and traffic had gotten considerably
larger, the flags and banners even bigger and the noisemakers, well, more obnoxious.
The event was the men's skiathelon, where they were to do 3 loops in classic,
transition, and follow it with 3 loops skating. Having not brought a flagpole,
I fashioned a flagpole from some downed tree branches, sticks and twigs. We
also brought along the small U.S. flag someone gave me on the street after the
9/11 attack. We found a great spot near the top of the first hill for the classic
portion as we watched Kris, Andrew Johnson, Justin Wadsworth and Carl Swenson
hang with the rest of the world's best skiers. After the transition, the course
changed slightly and we had to reposition ourselves. This fortunately put us
next to one of only 2 other Americans we met; a student from Wisconsin studying
in Italy who made his way up to watch the races. Our small but boisterous trio
had the perfect vantage point for the third lap. Heading up the hill with about
3K left, it was Carl in first and Kris in third place. I hoarsely shouted, “USA!!
USA!!" until I could shout no more. My wife's eyes rolled back in her skull
as she nearly fell through the twiggy underbrush supporting the dirty, thin
crust of manufactured snow. The excitement at that point was equal to what I
felt in 1980 when the US beat Russia in Olympic hockey. As they came back into
the stadium area, we could see that the Americans had been caught and passed,
but those few moments were worth the trip. (And I will never lose the video
coverage showing that)

As for our concerns about anti-American sentiments, if anyone had them, they
certainly didn't share them with us. In fact, a fair number of fans from various
countries congratulated us on our skiers. I'm never sure exactly why as we didn't
have anything to do with their success, but the thought was nice. One young
Italian girl even wanted our flag after the 10 K classic. While the results
of events were memorable (especially reflecting the state of North American
skiers), I'll also carry with me the images of the fans – The Swiss with their
melodic deep cowbells; the Norwegian fans cutting open some foul smelling fish
after the skiathelon; my wife talking with an Italian grandmother who was cheering
anyone wearing an azure blue racing suit; the Zorzi ski fan club members; fans
from every country cheering on the skiers in the back of the pack from non-traditional
Nordic countries like Turkey, Ireland and Israel who make the World Cup a world
event. It sounds trite, but it did reinforce for me that no matter what our
respective governments are doing, sport does have the ability to bring people
together.


Kris Freeman starting the last lap of the 15K


Kris being raised by his teammates after recieving his award


Kris during the presentation of his award


Kris duing the classic portion of the skiathelon


Carl Swenson during the classic portion of the skiathelon


Carl leading the pack, Kris in third as they start the final lap of the skiathelon


Beckie Scott in the lead group during the skiathelon


Frosty the snow tifosi with his free Fischer baseball hat cheering on the Italians

 

 

 

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