FasterSkier’s coverage is made possible through the generous support of Rudy Project.
SOCHI, Russia — In the wrong place at the wrong time three months ago when he slipped on ice while running with his coach, Guri Hetland, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna made sure he was in position to do something stellar on Sunday.
The possibility of whether Cologna, who tore three ligaments in his ankle in mid-November, could win his second Olympic gold at these Winter Games was never a question. He had already proven himself in his first World Cup race this season a week ago, where he nearly won the 15-kilometer classic individual start in Toblach, Italy — finishing second behind Russia’s Alexander Legkov by 2.9 seconds.
Cologna, 27, had done a total of five races this winter before that. On Sunday in the 30 k skiathlon, the first men’s race of the 2014 Olympics, Cologna had to tape his foot — and he was visibly limping at the venue — off his skis.
“The foot isn’t still 100 percent, but when I’m racing and with the tape it’s okay,” Cologna said in a post-race press conference. “Maybe when I’m sprinting, I still feel a little bit. … I’m in very good shape besides my foot.”
On the course, he was right in the mix throughout the seven-lap race, with four 3.75-k classic loops and three 5-k skate loops. Closer to the front of the pack for the first 7.5 k with guys like Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Sweden’s defending Olympic skiathlon champion Marcus Hellner, Kazakstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, and Germany’s Hannes Dotzler, Cologna generally hung in the middle of the lead group, which started to break up by the transition.
Changing to his skate skis, Cologna came through the halfway point in 13th, 5.7 seconds after Sundby up front. Sundby took charge for most of the race, setting the pace and taking turns leading with Poltoranin, Dotzler, Hellner, Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, and Austria’s Johannes Duerr. Another Swiss skier, Curdin Perl led early in the first lap, falling off the pace by about 30 seconds by the 15 k changeover.
With the fourth-fastest transition time, Richardsson was first out of the pits, and toward the end of the first skate loop, the top 12 had slowed with Hellner up front, followed by France’s Jean Marc Gaillard and Sweden’s Lars Nelson.
The lead group more or less stayed the same for the second-to-last lap, with Duerr leading into the last major climb before the stadium. With less than 5 k remaining, Richardsson went first down the screaming-fast descent before the long grind back up, followed by Duerr, Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin, Hellner, and Russia’s Alexander Legkov, respectively.
Minutes later, Sundby led them back toward the stadium and Hellner and Cologna got in position behind him. Heading into a slight rise before the final grueling climb, Cologna accelerated to second, ahead of Hellner, and Vylegzhanin led the chase to catch the lead three.
Making his way to first before the last leg-burner, Cologna put about eight meters into Hellner up the hill as Hellner chased him over the top. Sundby, Richardsson, and Vylegzhanin followed respectively down the curving descent toward the finishing straight — but by the time Cologna got there, the race was essentially his.
Cologna slightly glanced over his shoulder before crossing the line, just enough to see that he had secured gold in 1:08:15.4, four-tenths of a second ahead of Hellner in second.
Meanwhile, Sundby on the right and Vylegzhanin several meters to his left battled for third, with Sundby fading over into Vylegzhanin’s space just before the line. A second behind Hellner, Sundby edged Vylegzhanin by 0.1 seconds, causing some commotion and a jury meeting to determine whether Sundby obstructed him at the finish. He was given a written warning and kept his bronze.
After collapsing at the finish, Cologna rolled onto his back and sprawled out to catch his breath, then absorb the reality of what he had just done. In his first Olympic skiathlon at his second Olympics, he had won his second Olympic gold in the middle of a season he nearly had to write off to injury.
He never did — and that’s why he won.
“I did a lot to be ready here; it was not an easy season,” Cologna said in a post-race press conference. “I was very well prepared before the season, maybe the best shape ever. It was hard after this injury to lie in my bed and start training in the water and cycling and this boring stuff, but I did everything to be ready today and it was a very big day and very emotional for me to come back and win a gold medal. It’s my biggest thing I have won so far.”
Cologna cried at the finish, bringing his hands to his face while on the ground, then standing up with arms spread wide to embrace the moment and Olympic crowd. His coach cried, too.
“I did my utmost, I did my best,” Cologna said. “My coach told me to be prepared and of course the last several weeks were not as simple. It was not as easy to practice and train. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to start this race. I was really struggling, therefore I do believe I am just overfilled with emotions right now.”
Beyond tired at the finish, he said he struggled to stay on his feet, but focused on pressing forward. It would’ve been difficult for anyone to pass him at that point, and Cologna knew that; it was part of his strategy and final attack.
“I did everything so that nobody would overtake me at the finish line,” he said.
Hellner, who gave Sweden its second-straight silver of the Games after Charlotte Kalla placed second in the women’s skiathlon on Saturday, told Aftonbladet that he was also primed to attack on the last lap — he just wasn’t sure where.
“I waited until the last hill and did what I could there,” Hellner said, according to a translation. “But Dario was stronger and I was completely out of the legs at the top. … When I got to the last corner, I realized that I could do the medal, it was cruelly beautiful, it’s amazing.”
Perl, who placed 27th, 2:07 behind Cologna, said he was sure his teammate would medal in Sunday’s race.
“In yesterday’s interval, he was crazy,” Perl said.
Cologna’s gold medal was a gold for Switzerland, and his impact on the team far-reaching.
“I think that what Dario has done, he pushed cross-country so much in Switzerland,” Perl said. “It’s a bit easier to find good sponsors, and it’s also now big in the media. It’s getting cooler and cooler to be a cross-country skier in Switzerland.”
At the press conference, Sundby said he was most concerned about obstructing Vylegzhanin.
“I was so tired the last hundred meters, I didn’t even see the corridors; I had really big problems staying on my skis,” he said. “I would never ever do anything to obstruct any other skiers. I lost my balance the last 10 meters and as a result I probably changed lanes. I saw the pictures. I don’t think I obstructed or touched the skis of Maxim so hopefully he doesn’t feel like I destroyed his finish. For sure, from me it was not the purpose.”
Sundby, who was slightly in front of Vylegzhanin when he started to falter, got to keep his bronze.
“He did not feel that he was obstructed and he didn’t notice when he came to the finish line,” Sundby said. “I would feel really bad if he thought I was obstructing him from the bronze medal. I am sad that this happened. I’m really upset about it, and I never hoped for this kind of event.”
After Vylegzhanin in fourth, another Russian Ilia Chernousov placed fifth, 13.6 seconds behind Cologna. Gaillard was sixth (+14.4), Richardsson seventh (+16.3), Duerr eighth (+16.6), France’s Maurice Manificat ninth (+18.2) and the 28-year-old Nelson 10th (+22.3) in his first Olympics.
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.