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
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.
February 15, 2010 at 10:30 pm
Sorry – can’t leave this one alone, especially as it is repeated in the story. Hellner is Swedish, not Finnish.
February 15, 2010 at 11:55 pm
Fixed…Sorry for the error.
February 16, 2010 at 12:00 am
Piller Cottrer actually won a bronze at the Torino double pursuit in 2006. He also won the Oberstdorf 15 km world championships skate race in 2005, as well as a few world cups and major championships relay medals with Italy.
February 16, 2010 at 12:11 am
Also fixed. I guess Kris Freeman was not the only one with a bad day…
February 16, 2010 at 7:09 am
The Norwegians were a disgrace, bad skis or not. I can understand Northug, as soon as it was apparent that he couldn’t compete for the medals he saved energy for the rest of the Olympics instead. The level of the other Norwegians atm is scary.
Norwegian media is butchering the performance today, and rightfully so. That was the worst result form a Norwegian cross country team in the history of the winter olympics. I think Jönson grabs the sprint gold, and then the pressure will be intense come the 30k. Aspecially if the other non-xcountry athletes continue to fail.
I guess we’ll see what Northug is made of.
February 16, 2010 at 10:51 pm
Gotta say, the bad wax sounds pretty fishy to me. Hafsas had no problem with his skis, does Northug have a totally private wax staff? Its hard to blow the glide wax to the tune of 2+ minutes, even in a world cup field.
February 17, 2010 at 6:50 am
I agree that a bad wax job don’t fully explain those results at all. But before the race Northug said that he would consider his chances throughout the race and decide whether he’d go all out or not. Not the best mindset entering a race, but I believe he saved energy when he realized the podium was out of reach. Bad skis probably played a part, and who knows – perhaps they missed the peak in form for the Olympics? If so, heads will roll in Norwegian skiing.
The fact that the rest of the team flopped can partially be explained by the fact that they’re just not that good. Johnsen Sundby ended 27th (I believe) in the Norwegian nationals beaten by ol’ man Alsgaard by a minute!
Btw the wax-excuse was wideley commented in Norwegian media, and a lot of people felt that it far from explains the complete failure. Look out for Northug failing to qualify for the knock out stages of the sprint (It has happened now and then, although in stronger WC fields) for Norway to implode in collective outrage.