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SOCHI, Russia – At various points during today’s 30 k skiathlon, U.S. athletes Brian Gregg, Erik Bjornsen, and Kris Freeman all felt a little under the weather.
For Gregg, it was the opening 15 k of classic skiing that was the hardest. He was in 53rd place after the classic portion, but managed to pick a few skiers off in the skate portion and moved up to 47th.
“I struggled a little bit in the classic although I had great skis,” the Winthrop, Washington, native said at the finish. “I tried to just sort of ski my own race and not worry too much about what positioning I was, and make sure I was just comfortable and right in there. I knew I could pick up a little ground in the skate, so just try to stay as relaxed as I could in the classic, and not lose too much time.”
For Erik Bjornsen, it was just the opposite. The APU skier is focusing on the 15 k classic later this week, and wanted to use the opening laps of the skiathlon as practice for that effort.
“At least for the first 15 k I felt like [I was competing with the best in the world],” said Bjornsen, who finished just a few spots ahead of Gregg in 42nd. That was a bit of a drop from the 33rd place split he had after the classic leg was completed.
“I got done with the classic, and the first time going up this big hill my legs were kind of cramping a little bit,” Bjornsen said. “But I was like, let’s keep going with it. By the last lap I was thinking maybe I should have pushed a little bit harder. I was feeling good, so I was able to outsprint the two guys I was skiing with, so it was fun.”
Both Gregg and Bjornsen are first-time Olympians, a fact that was not lost on either as the seven-lap race drew to a close.
“Once I got down to that last lap, it hit me, like, I’m going to be an Olympian after this next lap!” Bjornsen said. “It was a lot of fun, it was sweet.”
Although he’s never been to an Olympics before, Gregg said that he got plenty of good advice from his friends and teammates.
“I’m rooming with Torin Koos and Kris Freeman, and the guys are really great and helpful,” Gregg said.
He has also been checking in with his wife, Caitlin Gregg, who competed for the U.S. at the previous Olympic Games in Vancouver.
“We were in the opposite roles in 2010 in Vancouver,” Gregg said. “It’s just a blast to call back home and give a race report and find out how she’s doing in the SuperTour, and this and that. We’re really both excited for each other.”
That helped him be able to shake some pre-Olympic nerves.
“In my mind I try to just prepare as if it’s any other race,” Gregg explained. “I kind of got the rundown of how it would go from my wife Caitlin, so it worked out really well.”
While Bjornsen’s biggest goal is Friday’s classic race, Gregg has his hopes pinned on the 50 k skate at the end of the Games. He hopes to gain a few more starts in the meantime.
“I just keep things pretty relaxed now,” Gregg said. “My training plan has me, the main focus race for me is the 50 k but I backed it down for this race as well, but the 50 k is something I’ve been looking forward to the last eight years, so, yeah.”
Freeman Looking For Answers
Freeman was one of the veterans helping Gregg and the other rookies set an Olympic game plan, but Freeman’s own race didn’t exactly go as hoped.
“It hasn’t been a particularly good season and today was not a particularly good race,” he said. “It was actually – my fitness hasn’t come around. I was suffering out there. It’s tough. In this type of sport, you need that endurance to be there all the time.”
Freeman finished the classic portion in 41st place, then slipped to 54th in the skate. He wasn’t quite sure what went wrong, whether it was his blood sugar levels (Freeman has type I diabetes) or his training.
“It is always hard to say,” Freeman admitted. “I’m always trying to separate training from the diabetes and it’s a hard thing to do. It’s all connected. I never really know if I made a medical mistake, or a training mistake.”
His personal coach, Zach Caldwell, confirmed the analysis. Even after more extensive analysis after the race, the pair weren’t quite sure where to focus to improve in the next few days.
“Kris had some odd sugar values today, but nothing that either of us feel accounts for the result,” Caldwell explained in an e-mail. “He told me that he had really good skis in both classic and skate. So we’re both looking at bigger issues. Kris has had several disappointing seasons in a row, and we’ve been active making adjustments to the preparation. Because we changed a number of different things this season, it’s not really clear what has contributed to his bad form. I can tell you that he’s still incredibly professional and dedicated in his training, and his capacity in training remains really high.”
Freeman said he felt “pretty comfortable for a couple of classic laps,” and is hoping that his form can improve before the end of his fourth Olympic Games.
“My goal is to have a representative effort, and I don’t think I did that today,” he said. “Hopefully in the 15 k classic I can have a better body and start attacking.”
That seems possible, according to his coach.
“We were both really happy with Kris’s preparation for this season,” Caldwell said. “We’ve worked together for a long, long time, and we know what good training looks like. It’s not obvious to either of us where things have gone wrong… This isn’t Kris’s first rodeo. He’d come back from disappointment before, and I’m not prepared to give up on him.”
Caldwell said that Freeman is trying to work through some tough questions that the last two seasons have presented. After years of being the top distance skier in the U.S., Freeman has been struggling to maintain that level of performance.
“I wish I could say that we were both shocked by how badly today went, but while it was a new low, it comes in a season of lows,” Caldwell wrote. “One possibility that is difficult to face, but which is on both our minds, is that twelve years of full time racing with type-1 diabetes may be taking a toll on his body. Neither one of us likes that conversation, but it’s something we’ve been talking about. We’d both be happier if we could just say we screwed up badly.”
Killick Adjusting to Olympic Scene
Canada’s Graeme Killick, a rookie like Gregg and Bjornsen, the Olympic 30 k represented a completely opposite experience than at Olympic trials, where he won the skiathlon by almost a minute.
“It’s a totally different race,” Killick said. “At trials I was trying to push the pace to split the group. But here, it’s just hanging on for dear life. I just didn’t quite have the body for it today. I’m maybe a little bit tired right now.”
Like the other Canadians, Killick said that his skis got a little slippy by the end of the classic portion, and it contributed to his struggles even in skating.
“The classic for the last lap it was pretty tough,” Killick said. “That hill coming up into the stadium was really, really washed out and glazed. It was pretty wet in there. So it was tough to get grip, and I think that kind of popped my legs. I couldn’t really get going after that.”
But all in all? Like Bjornsen, he was just thrilled to be in Sochi and to have completed his first race.
“I’m officially an Olympian now, so that’s pretty awesome!” Killick said. “I’m super pumped to be here right now. The venue is pretty awesome. People are so nice. I’m just happy to be enjoying my experience here.”
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.