OBERHOF, Germany – Emil Jönsson is neither black nor 6’5”, but athletically, he’s cross-country skiing’s Usain Bolt—the sport’s fastest man in a drag race.
Since last March, though, the World Cup circuit has been suffering from an acute absence of the Swedish speed-demon, with a hamstring injury and a cold limiting Jönsson to a single sprint start before the 2012 Tour de Ski.
As evidenced by his podium finish in that race in Davos, Switzerland, and by his 16th place in Thursday’s Tour prologue here, Jönsson is back, and the rest of the World Cup field should pay attention: A quirk of his injury allowed him to bulk up on training throughout his recovery, and both Jönsson and his Swedish coach are expecting big things in the second half of the season.
“The summer training was until now,” Jönsson said after Thursday’s race. “I got a really good training period.”
Jönsson said he “snapped, a little bit,” his hamstring during a camp in Italy back in October, which prevented him from training or racing at top speed for two months.
But the problem didn’t stop him from working out at an easier pace, and as a result, Jönsson said, he was training all the way through his recovery.
Adding insult, or illness, to injury, he caught a cold after racing in Davos, which kept him from entering the last World Cup sprint in Slovenia before the Christmas break.
The cold was another “little setback,” but Jönsson said it wasn’t too much of a problem, since it mostly affected him during the holiday.
“We were celebrating and having a good time anyways,” he said. “You always, in every season, get an illness, so that’s the life of a skier.”
While his start to the season has been halting, Jönsson was still looking on the bright side: he said that he’ll now be fresher for racing at the end of the year. With his leg healed, he’s looking at the Tour de Ski as a way to sharpen his body.
“I have to compete, compete, compete up to speed a little bit,” he said. “So the Tour is perfect for me.”
After Jönsson notched some breakout results in distance races last season, Swedish Head Coach Joakim Abrahamsson said that the 26-year-old could be a dark horse in Friday’s handicap-start classic race, and for the rest of the Tour, since all the extra training has taken his fitness to new heights.
On Friday, Jönsson will start in the middle of a huge pack chasing leaders Petter Northug (NOR), Dario Cologna (SUI), and Maurice Manificat (FRA). With fresh snow likely to force the men into a big pack, the Swede could be a threat if the race comes down to a sprint finish.
“It looks very interesting for him this weekend,” Abrahamsson said. “I think he’s in pretty good shape.”
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.