ERZURUM, Turkey — It takes quite a bit to detract from what was nearly a clean dual podium sweep in the men’s and women’s classic distance races at World Juniors on Wednesday. Natalia Zhukova (RUS) won the women’s 5 k ahead of compatriots Elena Soboleva and Elena Serokhvostava.
On the men’s side Sergey Ustiugov (RUS) took his second victory of these championships, with teammate Ermil Vokuev behind in second. Norway’s Sindre Bjoernestad Skar was the lone athlete to break through the Russian ranks, placing third in the 10 k.
Russian coaches barely let on about the death of one of their own, Sergei Zorin, throughout competition on Wednesday. The Erzurum organizing committee held a moment of silence for him at the coaches meeting Wednesday evening, which was how many coaches found out what had happened earlier that morning.
U.S. trip leader and US Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish said he was told the news earlier in the day, but details were kept quiet by team staff—even from the Russian athletes themselves, who not informed that Zorin had passed away until after the women’s flower ceremony. The top three girls were seen crying shortly after stepping off the podium.
According to Russian broadcaster RIA Novosti, 43-year-old Zorin was found dead in his hotel room at 6:30 am local time Wednesday morning after he failed to respond to his hotel wake-up call. Turkish news sources mentioned that alcohol was found in his room, but an official cause of death is not currently known.
Despite the unfortunate news, Russia’s collective performance cannot be overlooked. They posted two gold medals, two silvers, a bronze, and four in the top nine in both the men’s and women’s races.
Competitors started in reverse seed order for the 5 and 10 k, and when the top skiers came through coaches’ corner at the high point of the course, it was clear that the Russians were in complete control. None made strides up the hill with as much power as Zhukova and Ustiugov—the challenging, long climbs demanded efficient and powerful classic technique.
Ustiugov, who dominated the junior sprint competition on Monday, was somehow surprised with his victory on Wednesday.
“I’m in heaven!” he said after the flower ceremony through a translator. “It’s a complete surprise for me. I am extremely happy today. I tried to do my best and I was fighting till the end.”
Ustiugov was not the last competitor out on the course, but after he began his descent down the long hill back to the stadium for the second time, most of the remaining spectators on the course called it a day and headed back to watch results come in on the jumbotron.
Zhukova was similarly taken aback by her own performance.
“I can hardly believe I have just become the World Champion. I did not expect to be on the podium, it is a complete surprise for me. I hoped to be top 10 today,” said Zhukova.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.