Aside from a few small clusters in New England and New Zealand, millions of people glued to TV screens around the world were all asking the same question at the beginning of Saturday’s 30k pursuit: “Who is that guy?”
That guy was Ben Koons, a former Dartmouth College skier and Maine resident competing for the Kiwis at the Games. Not even one kilometer from the start, Koons had slid into the track in the lead, ahead of such favorites as Norway’s Petter Northug and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna. The story of his race is undoubtedly one of the strangest—and the most painful—of the first week of the Olympics.
Koons’s pursuit came on the heels of a week-long suspension for high hemoglobin levels, which had derailed plans for his first two events, the 15 k freestyle and the classic sprint. He admitted to being “pretty fired up” to finally get racing.
As an Olympic rookie competing amidst a field of seasoned pros, Koons started at the far back, in bib 62 of 64. He was on the right in the last row, which put him on the outside for the first turn, an uphill lefthander.
When a crash up ahead took out Sweden’s Anders Soedergren and Kazakhstan’s Sergey Cherepanov, Koons and a few others hopped out of the track and continued cruising up the climb. With nobody making any space for him to hop back in, Koons just put his head down and kept on skiing up the side of the trail until he found some room—which just so happened to be at the front of the race.
While Koons may have been a little amped up at the start, he has been skiing for long enough to know that he didn’t belong in the front of an Olympic field in a 30k.
“This was basically not the game plan—it just kind of happened,” he said. “Most of it was just…being super-excited, tons of adrenaline, and going out of the gate flying.”
The pace, Koons said, was surprisingly manageable.
“I was like, ‘man, these guys are doggin’ it,’” he said.
But that didn’t last long: with his high bib number and New Zealand suit, Koons’ position was a sign for the top men that it was time to turn up the heat.
The pace increased, and after flying up the first few hills, Koons quickly realized that his grip on the lead was tenuous. Skiing with the likes of Lukas Bauer, Cologna, and Northug had taken its toll, and the wheels came off.
“About the two k mark, I’m like ‘oh no—I’m in trouble. This is bad news,’” he said. “I’ve never hit the wall so hard, so early in a race.”
In the space of a kilometer, Koons went from the head of the pack to “survival mode”— far off the back, flooded with lactate, and struggling just to stay on his feet.
“I suffered pretty bad,” he said. “Most of the rest of the race, my hands were numb.”
Koons also wasn’t aided by the illness floating around the New Zealand team at the Athletes’ Village. For the latter part of the pursuit, Koons was vomiting, which “certainly didn’t help.”
The misery finally ended near the halfway point, when he was pulled from the race as the leaders threatened to lap him.
On top of the hemoglobin suspension, it has been a tough start to the Games for Koons.
“At the Olympics you hope to have the best race of your season [or] life, not one of the worst,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “On a good day, I could hope to stay with the back end of the pack, with a mediocre day I’d get my a– beat, and on a bad day like [Saturday], I’m s— off the back.”
He still has one more chance, though, in the 50 k classic on the final day of the Games. You probably won’t see him at the front again.
“I think I’ve learned my lesson, and I kind of paid the price,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll lead the 50 k out.”
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.