When Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth first got his hands on a start list for Wednesday’s World Championships team sprint, he liked what he saw.
His athletes Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey were going up against some of the biggest names in the sport: Sweden’s Emil Joensson, Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy and Nikita Kriukov, and Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad and Petter Northug.
But when he took a look at the running order, Wadsworth thought he saw a chink in the armor of the odds-on favorites: favorites Norway had chosen Hattestad as their anchor, not Northug, one of the best finishers in the history of the sport.
“I saw that, and I thought, ‘this is good,’” Wadsworth said. “I thought, ‘okay—maybe this is a bit of a chance here.’”
The race ended up coming down to a last-leg battle between Harvey and Hattestad on the homestretch, with the Canadians ultimately coming out ahead to capture the first World Championships gold in the nation’s history.
For Wadsworth and his athletes, the result set off a frenetic celebration in Oslo. The Norwegians, meanwhile, had to deal with a host of second-guessing journalists, and a skeptical public, who wanted to know why Northug hadn’t been given the opportunity to close out the race.
“Eighty percent of our readers would rather have you on the last leg,” one reporter told Northug in the post-race press conference. “What do you think about that?”
On paper, the Norwegian team’s decision certainly looked strange. But it was actually quite rational, as Hattestad possesses one of the best double-poles in the sport, and also has beaten Northug in the homestretch of a classic sprint on at least one occasion, in Trondheim two years ago.
“Ola is extremely strong in the sprint, always,” Age Skinstad, the Norwegian national team manager, told FasterSkier. “Classical double poling is his specialty. So there was no big doubt about that.”
Norway had actually engaged in a bit of deception, telling assembled journalists at a pre-race press conference that Northug would be the anchor. But no one seemed to notice—the Norwegian team staff hypothesized that the Swedes were paying too much to their poor results.
To be fair, in the fateful last leg of the final, Hattestad had his work cut out for him. After Finland’s Sami Jauhojaervi dropped Northug and the rest of the pack on the penultimate lap, Hattestad got the tag with just 1.6 kilometers to close the gap to Ville Nousiainen, Finland’s anchor.
“My only thought was to catch the Finn,” Hattestad said in the press conference afterwards.
With Norway leading the charge, all Harvey had to do was follow, stepping out on the climbs to ski his own rhythm.
“I knew Hattestad would be going really fast out of the stadium,” Harvey said. “I was better just following.”
Nousiainen came back as the group headed down the backstretch, and Hattestad led over the top of the last flat, down into the finishing straight, for what seemed like another inevitable Norwegian victory. But Harvey had other plans, even though he, unlike his coach, still thought that Hattestad was the Norwegians’ best choice for an anchor.
“For sure, Northug, at the end of a distance race,” Harvey said. “But high-speed like that, usually Hattestad is better—I thought it was a good choice for them.”
Still, Harvey said, “my finishing gear is really good these days.” He drafted Hattestad down the short hill into the 150-meter-long homestretch, then stepped out into an adjacent lane. Harvey drew alongside, Hattestad responded, and it looked like the Norwegian might be able to hold on for the win. But then, Hattestad said, he missed a stroke.
“Twenty meters before the finish line, I had one miss, and then he was suddenly inside of me, and I realized it would be tough to beat him,” he said. “I gave everything I had, and today, the Canadian was the best.”
The finish wasn’t all that close—while Hattestad lunged a little early, Harvey had already come past him, gliding through the finish line and into Kershaw’s arms.
The result certainly left plenty of people wondering about Norway’s decision. But in the press conference—with Hattestad sitting right next to him—Northug was still diplomatic.
“Everyone knows that Ola is one of the strongest double polers in the world, especially the last 200 meters,” Northug said. “I think the tactic is to have the best skiers on the last leg, and the best finisher, and that is Ola.”
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.