Marcus Hellner (SWE) left the Vancouver Olympics with the same number of gold medals as Petter Northug (NOR), but entering the 2011 World Championships all the hype has been focused on the Norwegian star.
Admittedly, it was Northug who captured the bronze in the sprint event at those Games, and has more than his share of World Cup sprint victories. Hellner, on the other hand, despite his many successes, has yet to top the podium in cross-country skiing’s shortest event.
All that changed today when Hellner blew away the competition on a relentless course at the Holmenkollen ski stadium in Oslo, Norway.
“He was the world’s best sprinter today,” said Northug of his rival, who edged out another Swede, Emil Joensson, for the silver.
Much has been made of the Holmenkollen sprint course, with its two large climbs, and nearly complete lack of rest after the descent out of the stadium. With qualifying times clocking in at over three minutes, this was no speed track.
Joensson, the pre-race favorite, described the loop as simply “a hard track,” adding “this is a course where you can go hard for a longer time…you don’t need as high acceleration speed.”
If anyone would know it is Joensson. The only man to win multiple World Cup sprints this year, he is known for just that type of acceleration. “Marcus showed how it should be done today,” Joensson said.
In each heat, Hellner exited the stadium toward the back of the six-man field, before exploding on the long steep climb at the far end of the course. While narrow sections of the trail resulted in numerous crashes and stumbles ver the course of the day, there always seemed to be plenty of space for the Swede to work. In his quarterfinal Hellner jumped from last to first in a matter of seconds, and never looked back.
His semifinal was not much different. He attacked in the same spot, blew by American Andy Newell, and Canadian Alex Harvey to move in to second behind Joensson, before taking the lead on the last hill.
At this point, the competition had to know what to expect from Hellner, but in the final there was nothing anyone could do about it.
“I just went for it,” Hellner said. “I took the chance and I am very happy that I could hold it.”
Once again, on the back climb, Hellner dropped the hammer on Northug, Joensson, and defending World Champion Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR). The chasers fought valiantly, but when Hellner did not fade on the final climb, the race for gold was over.
“I wanted to follow him,” Northug said, “but he was so strong today.” Northug was hoping that Hattestad would maintain contact, and the two Norwegians would be in position for the final run, but Hellner held the gap.
“I saw that I had to concentrate on Emil and Ola for the medals,” Northug said.
Attacking on the first hill was a move that did not come without potential consequence. Several skiers tried to emulate Hellner’s tactics in earlier heats, only to blow up on the last climb and plummet back through the pack.
Hellner was confident, however, saying “I can do a very strong uphill and still be in pretty good shape in the last part of the tracks. It was a tactic and it was my weapon today and I had to use it.”
While Northug, Joensson and Hattestad battled to the line, Hellner had time to take a look over his shoulder and celebrate his first World Championship medal with a dancing stride and yell of joy.
Hellner had hoped to make it to the final and, he explained, “if I am in the final, anything can happen, and maybe I could get a medal…if I had a good race, but I never thought that the gold was a possibility for me.”
Northug was not expecting such strength from Hellner. “I am surprised that he is so strong that he can just go away from Ola Vigen [Hattestad]. Then you know he is really good.”
His teammate Joensson was welcomed at the finish by girlfriend Anna Haag, an Olympic medalist in her own right, who jumped into his arms. The defending Sprint Cup Champion who didn’t even make the final in Vancouver, was ecstatic with his bronze, showing no disappointment in not finishing higher.
“It is so good,” he said of his first medal.
Northug, always the professional at the post-race press conference, described himself as an underdog, and was nothing but complimentary of Hellner. But he was clearly disappointed at the finish, looking more like a man eliminated in the quarterfinals than a silver medalist.
He shook hands with every other skier, taking an extra moment with Hellner, but never cracked a smile. An hour later he said he was pleased with this start to the Championships, remembering his poor result in the first event – the 15km freestyle – in Vancouver.
“Now it is a little bit better so to start with a medal for me in the sprints,” Northug said. “It is good for me to be in good shape from the start.”
Northug will have a number of other shots for gold over the next week, and may race every event. When asked, he said he “always wants to compete,” but that “I don’t decide.”
Hattestad, who ended up a few meters back from Joensson in fourth, at most has one more opportunity – in the team sprint if he is selected to race for the deep Norwegian team.
Jesper Modin (SWE) finished fifth after qualifying in the top-spot. The towering Swede broke a string of four finals appearances placing sixth. He pointed to his teammate’s endurance as the reason for the Swedish victory.
“He is not so fast a sprinter, but he can keep the speed up for a long time,” Modin said of Hellner.
Hellner might disagree with that statement to some extent. He has worked hard on his finishing speed, and while he admits that a Northug or Joensson is still faster over the last 100 meters, saying “I have taken some steps in the finish and it feels good.”
With three in the top five, the Swedes equaled a performance that they had only ever accomplished once before at World Championships, in 2003 in Val di Fiemme.
No one bothered to tell Petter Kummel (EST) that the men’s final was a Scandinavian-only affair, though. The Estonian sprint-specialist crashed the party, but ended up on the edge of the dance floor, taking the final spot in the heat and finishing a still-impressive sixth on the day behind the mass of Swedes and Norwegians.
– Only one Russian advanced out of the quarterfinals – Nikolay Morilov, who was eliminated in the semifinals and placed eighth.
– Joensson jokingly said at the press-conference “I told Marcus to take it cool and do everything in the last 100 meters, but Marcus doesn’t listen to me.”
– Martin Jaeger (SUI) qualified a surprising third and ended up 11th.
– French biathlete Alexis Boeuf did not make the cut, finishing 35th.
– The beloved Oystein Pettersen (NOR) had a terrible day, skiing to 41st.
– 120 men started the race including Macedonian twins Toni and Toso Stanoeski. Toni took family bragging rights, finishing 115th to Toso’s 117th.
– The Koons brothers, Ben and Nils, racing for New Zealand, did not start.
Andrew Musgrave (GBR) qualified in 26th and ended the day in 28th, likely the first British skier to crack the heats at World Championships.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.