With a few hours to go before the start of the men’s 15k freestyle this morning, what was Dario Cologna thinking about?
Not the pressure he was under. Not that the race was his Olympic debut. In fact, Cologna wasn’t thinking about cross country skiing at all: Instead, he was watching alpine skiing on TV, waiting to find out how his Swiss countrymen would fare in the men’s downhill race.
Cologna ended up five minutes late for ski testing because he wanted to see Didier Cuche’s run, according to his team doctor, Patrik Noack. But from then on it was all business. In the first-ever victory for his country in an Olympic cross country ski race, Cologna took gold in the Monday’s 15k with a strong, even effort, besting Italy’s Pietro Piller Cotrer and the Czech Republic’s Lukas Bauer.
After a third-place in the same event last weekend in Canmore, it was clear Cologna’s fitness was coming along. But without the Czechs, Norwegians, and Frenchmen at that race, there was no telling how the Swiss skier’s form would stack up in a full field.
It was a Swede, Marcus Hellner, who grabbed the lead early on, getting a few seconds on the pack by five k. He held it to the halfway point, but then faded fast, losing forty seconds to Cologna by the finish.
Hellner clearly went out a little hard—when he was done, he lay in the finish chute for minutes, motionless, despite repeated attempts by race officials to move him.
“I was going for the gold,” he said afterwards. “The tactic was not for medals—it was for gold.”
Cologna trailed only Hellner at those first two time checks, and opened his lead quickly after the Swede relinquished it. While Piller Cottrer was in striking distance at the halfway point, just five seconds back, Cologna had much more for his second 7.5k lap, putting twenty seconds into the Italian by the finish.
It was the second individual Olympic medal in Piller Cottrer’s long and distinguished career, after bronze in the 30k pursuit in Torino.
“I wanted the gold just to make everyone shut up,” he joked after the race. He didn’t seem that disappointed with silver, though.
The medal came despite Piller Cottrer’s criticism last year of the courses as too easy—although he said today that those words were meant to describe the trails used for last year’s pursuit—not those for Saturday’s skate race. Even when pressed, he still wouldn’t say exactly what he thought of the 15k course—just that his remarks last year were misconstrued.
Bauer made a late charge to wrest bronze from Hellner by just over a second. Bauer said that he had essentially given up on the race after struggling from four to 11k, but then found an extra gear after hearing he was closing in on the Swedish skier.
The goal for Bauer going into the Games was to bring home a single medal, and he said that winning a bronze today takes the pressure off for the rest of the races throughout the next two weeks.
Canada’s Ivan Babikov skied to eighth place, just 17 seconds from a bronze medal, in what was being touted as the country’s best-ever Olympic finish. He had a slow start, which left him in 14th place at 7.5k, but then “woke up” in time for the second lap.
He said he was satisfied with the result, but didn’t want to set any goals for the rest of the Games.
“There’s many races ahead…we’ll see,” he said.
Led by Babikov, the Canadian men showed that they really do know what they’re doing despite a lackluster weekend in Canmore. They put three in the top thirty, with Alex Harvey in 21st and George Grey in 29th. Harvey’s finish bodes well for his focus, the 30k pursuit, and he said that today’s race was just an icebreaker.
The spectators mustered a roar every time Harvey went by, and for each of his countrymen as well. He said he’d never seen a crowd of that size at a race in Canada—officials estimated it at over 5,000.
The Norwegians were conspicuously absent from the top of the results sheet—especially superstar Petter Northug. He never factored in the race, skiing in the high teens over the first lap before fading to 41st. Tor Asle Gjerdalen was the top finisher for the team, all the way back in 29th.
For Northug, the problems were simply a combination of bad ski selection and a bad day—not bad fitness, according to the team’s sprint coach, Ulf Morten Aune.
“He will be back on Wednesday—I promise,” he told FasterSkier, referring to the upcoming classic sprint.
Cologna’s gold—his first-ever in an individual start race—should give his competitors some anxiety about the rest of the distance races here. Over the past few years, he has typically been more of a threat in mass starts, and there’s no reason to believe that he has lost any of his speed after a third place in last weekend’s sprint in Canmore.
For the upcoming 30k pursuit, Cologna will be the new favorite—in the words of his teammate, Remo Fischer, “for Dario, it’s perfect.”
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.