SOCHI, Russia – Here at the Olympics, several of the best-known athletes have had to contend with disappointment.
Kikkan Randall didn’t make the semifinals of the women’s sprint.
Marit Bjørgen blew up in the final kilometer of the 10 k classic and lost hold of a medal.
Petter Northug is feeling so out of shape that he isn’t even starting some of the races.
Heck, the whole Russian team has been shut out of the medals at their home Olympics.
But what about the flip side – the athletes who have amazing, unexpected performances on skiing’s biggest stage?
That happened to Iivo Niskanen, a 22-year-old Finn, in the 15 k classic race today. Starting unheralded in bib 13 – the seeded group didn’t start until bib 36, and the World Cup leader was in bib 53 – Niskanen quietly put together an amazing race. As soon he finished, Niskanen moved into the leader’s chair.
“If it was a very good race, I was hoping top 15, that could be possible,” Finnish coach Magnar Dalen told FasterSkier.
Niskanen is hardly a no-name skiing. Just take his last name: it’s already familiar to ski fans since his siter, Kerttu, is a staple on the Finnish team. Earlier this season she won a stage of the Tour de Ski.
And the younger Niskanen himself has been winning recently too. He considers himself a classic specialist and took top honors in this same format at U23 World Championships a few weeks ago.
But that kind of winning doesn’t usually translate so easily to the Olympics. Niskanen wasn’t kicked out of that chair until Dario Cologna of Switzerland, already a gold medalist in the 30 k skiathlon, crossed the line and moved into the lead. Cologna had caught Johan Olsson of Sweden, who moved into second place. But this was still before any of the top seeded group of skiers had started.
Niskanen’s times, though, were holding up. After all the best skiers had passed through the intermediate checkpoints, the young Finn was still ranked second at eight kilometers and third at 12.5 kilometers.
In the end, with a little more information to go on, Daniel Richardsson of Sweden made a mad charge over the last few kilometers and moved from fourth, behind Niskanen, into third, bumping the Finn out of bronze by 0.2 seconds.
“I was happy when I crossed the finish line, but now I’m just annoyed,” Niskanen told Ilta-Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper.
So it wasn’t a medal – the Finns are yet to win one at these Games after Aino-Kaisa Saarinen missed bronze by two seconds in the 10 k classic – but according to Dalen, that might not matter.
“That is like the most exciting thing you can have,” he said. “Of course it’s a little disappointing that you are 0.2 from the medal, but always in my 26-year career in coaching the best thing is to see a star be born. And the medal was not there today, but there will come a lot of them in the future. I’m very sure about it.”
While Dalen said that there were no morale problems within his team – Matti Heikkinen, “usually a good Championship skier”, got sick ten days ago and so could not expect to pull any heroics, and Saarinen quickly got over her disappointment – a surprising run by a young skier will definitely be good for team spirit.
“That’s helping,” Dalen said. “It’s good and especially to have a little bit of an unknown athlete making their breakthrough during the Olympics when it’s more difficult to do the top races. It’s lifting up the future.”
What was unique about Niskanen’s result? So early in his career, he is a very different athlete than his older teammates, who have already earned medals in international competition. Having no pressure, Dalen suggested, maybe even helped the 22-year-old turn in a good performance by just thinking of the Olympics as a normal race.
And his preparation was certainly much simpler than that of his more famous teammates.
“He came and tested two pairs of skis and he just took two minutes to test his skis,” Dalen laughed. “Then he said, this is my race pair. He is a little bit different: he is not testing ten pairs of skis and measuring things. He’s doing fast decisions, and then it was full focus for his race.”
That quick decision-making turned out to work just fine, as Niskanen not only skied strong and aggressively, but also happened to have one excellent pair of skis between the two he was chosing from.
“That Finnish guy came by me really fast,” U.S. skier Erik Bjornsen marveled, remembering when Niskanen flew by him from 30 seconds back. “I tried to stay with him but he had really fast skis and he was also just killing it.”
For Finland, a team facing retirement in the next few years from 35-year-old Saarinen, 30-year-old Heikkinen, 32-year-old Sami Jauhojärvi, and 35-year-old Riita-Liisa Roponen, Niskanen’s result is particularly meaningful.
“It’s giving our sponsors hope for the future,” Dalen said. “And we have World Championships coming up in 2017 in Lahti again. This is three years ahead so the interest in World Championships will increase a lot. So maybe the fourth place was more important than people think.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.