The day before Wednesday’s World Cup city sprint in Stockholm, Swedish sprinter Emil Jönsson took a phone call from one Carl XVI Gustav—his king.
“It was a strange thing—it does not happen every day,” Jönsson told SVT, the Swedish television channel. “He called and told me that I should ski for king and country.”
When the king tells you to go fast, you do it—especially when you’re racing around, of all places, the Royal Palace. While Gustav couldn’t make it to the sprint, he was clearly paying attention—perhaps due to Petter Northug’s heckling after the Norwegians beat Sweden in the men’s relay at the World Ski Championships.
And the monarch must have been pleased with the outcome of the race: Jönsson striding away from Northug up the homestretch to win in front of his home crowd.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jönsson said. “They carried me up the hill.”
In four previous attempts at the Stockholm sprint, Jönsson had been on the podium three times—but never on the top step. In fact, in the decade-long history of the race, a Swedish male had never won it.
With the overall Sprint Cup already in his pocket heading into Wednesday, Jönsson’s win was no surprise. But there wasn’t any lack of excitement in the rounds in Stockholm, which made for one of the most entertaining spectacles of the whole season.
Last year, Northug was the only skier who attempted to double-pole the one-kilometer loop around the palace, which contains just two short climbs, and a long downhill out of the start.
But this year, in qualifying, Hattestad joined his Norwegian teammate on skate skis, and the pair took the top two spots, with Hattestad winning by a jaw-dropping margin of nearly four seconds.
According to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, klister wasn’t a whole lot slower. But the Norwegian strategy in the qualifier still opened the floodgates for a whole horde to forgo kick wax in the ensuing rounds—most of whom did so successfully—with the notable exception of Jönsson.
The Swede is among the best diagonal striders in the world, and as he put it earlier this year, when he stubbornly stuck to classic skis in another flat sprint in Estonia, “you do what you are good at.”
While both Hattestad and Northug won their quarterfinal heats on skate gear, Jönsson stayed on his classic skis and won his own. Then, in the semis, he held on as Hattestad charged out of the gate and down the initial
descent, then strode past the Norwegian on the uphill homestretch like he was standing still.
In the finals, both Jönsson and Northug stuck to their guns, while Hattestad, perhaps cowed by Jönsson’s strength in his semifinal, switched back to classic skis. But it was Jesper Modin, Jönsson’s 6’7” teammate, who led a tightly-packed group into the homestretch.
Briefly, it appeared that Modin might be able to break his string of eight straight World Cup sprint finals without a podium. But he had neither the kick wax to hold off Jönsson up the climb to the finish, nor the energy to stay ahead of Northug. By the time he reached the line, Hattestad had come by, too, relegating Modin to fourth.
Jönsson, meanwhile, turned it on as Modin began fading. Northug was just behind at the beginning of the uphill, but his double-pole was no match for Jönsson’s kick—much to the delight of the Swedish crowd.
“He is the world’s best classic sprinter,” Northug told SVT. “I’ve said it before, and he showed it again today.”
Jönsson went down as he crossed the finish line, and he celebrated on his back, oblivious to Hattestad’s attempts to congratulate him. Finally, he got up and skied backwards down the homestretch, saluting the crowd and soaking it in under a cloudless sky.
“My whole home town is here,” Jönsson said. “So I had to send a big thank you to them.”
While the skate-classic dilemma was surely on the tips of the tongues of television announcers worldwide, in the end, the skis didn’t end up being any kind of a magic bullet. The top three men were all among the top four finishers in the sprint at the World Ski Championships in Oslo last month.
“People went with their strengths—Emil Joensson stayed on classic gear all day, and Northug double-poled all day,” Grover said. “The guys that ended up on the podium were the strongest guys in the race.”
With the win, Jönsson now leads the overall classification of the season-ending four-stage mini-tour known as the World Cup Finals. With a short prologue and two distance races remaining, he likely won’t be able to hold on—in second place, Northug is best-positioned among the overall contenders. But taking the sprint, Jönsson said, was his main objective.
“I’ve always wanted to win in front of the castle, on my own home turf and in front of my home audience,” Jönsson told NTB, a Norwegian news agency. “This was like a dream for me.”
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.