SOCHI, Russia – U.S. skier Andy Newell collapsed at the finish of the scramble leg of today’s 4 x 10 k relay at the Olympics, after losing roughly a minute and 10 seconds in the final 1.7 kilometers of racing. U.S. Ski Team doctor Larry Gaul took Newell down to the team’s housing in the Olympic village before coaches had a chance to talk to him, so his status is unclear.
Newell had skied a strong opening to his relay leg, sticking with the leaders through their second of three laps; skiing through the stadium for the second time, he was in seventh place but just 2.5 seconds back. At 8.3 kilometers, he was in a pack of racers fighting for fourth place, less than ten seconds behind the leading Finns, Swedes, and French.
Up the course’s final hills, though, Newell was walking on his classic skis. By the time he tagged off to Erik Bjornsen, he was a minute and 17 seconds behind Lars Nelson of Sweden. The U.S. was in 15th place, the second-to-last team in the field.
“I don’t know how he’s doing,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “I don’t know if he overheated, or what happened.”
(UPDATE: in a comment below, Newell’s brother Pete Newell writes: “We talked to Andy on the phone. He says that his lungs just stopped working on the climb, and he was left gasping for air and staggering. He’s ‘not sure’ if he blacked out or not, but doesn’t really remember. He lost his lunch and then some after the tag, and subsequently couldn’t keep liquids down. I think we would have gotten more info if we’d spoken directly with the doctor, but we can report that he’s in his room and the doc is keeping an eye on him.”)
(UPDATE #2: reached by phone in the athlete village, Grover gave an update on Newell’s condition around 7:15 p.m. Sochi time. “He’s doing much better – he’s recovering well and hydrating and eating and resting a little bit,” Grover said, adding that they still weren’t sure what had happened. “I don’t think he really knows. He’s scratching his head trying to figure it out. Because he felt like he was digging deep, but not any deeper than he usually does. I think [he’ll be okay for the team sprint]. We’ll obviously check in with him tomorrow and make sure he’s coming around okay.”)
Grover was not on the course, but said that he could tell from the video screens that Newell was fading in the last kilometer. Fading, though, is different from the complete collapse that followed. Without any details from Dr. Gaul, Grover could only speculate about the cause of Newell’s collapse, but mentioned that it might be an issue with heat.
“Obviously, we’re in black suits,” he said. “We’re in a situation here where we have average temperatures which are way above what we expected. You can see that these guys have been modifying these suits, some of these teams in dark suits. We have been cautioning these guys to stay cool before they go out on course. We’re keeping them in the shade as long as we can, until right before it’s time to go out to the start. But I think overheating and dehydration could be an issue when you’re going this hard in conditions like this.”
Grover pointed out that some of the other team members (and other teams) had great races. Heat affects every athlete differently, and even the same athlete differently on different days.
Other sources suggested that Newell had simply “bonked”, run out of juice in a particularly severe way which was perhaps exacerbated by the altitude of the venue. Several athletes over the course of the last few days have seemed to completely lack their normal energy, including Norwegians Marit Bjørgen and Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
Whether driven by heat or simply “bonking”, it’s unclear how quickly Newell will be able to recover from his collapse. The team sprint is on Wednesday, and he is planned to start with teammate Simi Hamilton.
“I definitely need to see how he’s doing, for sure,” Grover said. “The great news is that we have two days off in between. But I definitely need to talk to the doctor and see how Andy’s doing, for sure.”
The U.S. team went on to place 11th after strong legs from Erik Bjornsen, who gained two spots, and Noah Hoffman, who skied the 8th-fastest time of all third-leg skiers and brought the team into the top ten. Simi Hamilton anchored the team, losing one spot to Estonia.
Stay tuned for full coverage of today’s race.
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.