LAHTI, Finland — The breath taken out of a nation.
Throughout the lifetime of a sporting fan, high-stakes races or games offer the chance for seared-into-the-neurons moments, things you remember for an eternity with the distinct recollection of where you were and what you were doing when the news came down.
But those are exceptionally rare moments. And depending on what side of the equation you’re on, they can be mile high or a mile deep. It’s rendered down to the win or the loss.
For much of Sunday’s men’s 6 x 1.3-kilometer classic team sprint at the 2017 Nordic World Championships, it appeared to be a cruiser for team Norway, featuring Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Emil Iversen. The ending to their gold-medal story seemingly written after the third exchange when Klæbo gifted Iversen and all of Norway a 5.38-second lead over the chasing Finns.
5.38 seconds is a small duration. But when that time gap is illustrated as a distance gap in a sprint, the void looks immense: in this case the distance from Iversen to Finland’s chaser Iivo Niskanen was 45 meters. Even in the best of times, an often too-wide gap to close.
The sprint course features a long but strideable climb right from the stadium’s steps. It then 180’s to the left and hits a steep headwall most skiers herringboned. Then it was a speedy descent into the hairpin known as “Lahti Corner”, and then stadium time — a horseshoe-shaped venue of terraced stands filled to capacity with a mostly Finnish crowd.
Chasing Iversen, frothing at his heels, were three skiers. There was Niskanen, and right behind him, matching stride for stride were Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino.
As Niskanen worked up the headwall and pushed over the top, he put some meters on Ustiugov and Pellegrino. After a powerful double poling section, Niskanen tipped on the fulcrum into a fast downhill towards Iversen. By “Lahti Corner”, Niskanen had caught the Norwegian.
The Finnish frenzy that ensued was a roar. The crowd had sensed the Niskanen-Iversen link up.
On the glide out from Lahti Corner, a 300-meter straight away, Iversen was set in the third of four tracks. One lane of tracks remained to the left — inside of the Norwegian.
Niskanen, inches away from Iversen’s tails, slotted to his left to pass. There are many perspectives out there, and many depend on which flag you wave, but surely Iversen sensed Norway’s grasp on team gold weaken.
Iversen moved to his left to shut down the Finn and immediately jolted backward as he tangled with Niskanen.
Finland and Norway down. The Finnish cheers snuffed.
In a blink, Ustiugov and Pellegrino zipped passed in what moments before had been a fight for bronze, into a sprint for gold.
On this day, Ustiugov was the better closer. With teammate Nikita Kriukov, he anchored Russia to the team-sprint win in 17:40.69 minutes. It was the second race in a row in which Ustiugov earned gold due, in some part, to another skier’s misfortune. Italy’s Pellegrino and Dietmar Nöckler placed second (+2.14).
Finland’s duo of Sami Jauhojärvi and Niskanen were third (+8.64), Norway fourth (+18.42). The race jury deliberated for a half hour before announcing that neither Norway nor Finland were relegated.
“What can I do at that situation, when I see that my teammate is going to push for the gold, and then happens this unfortunate crash?” Jauhojärvi said during the press conference. “But it’s just a part of sports, and sports is just a small part of life. We need to be happy that we can pick up the medal in front of [a] home audience this evening.“
After crossing the line Niskanen fumed and ranted.
“Yeah, of course straight after the finish line I was very angry, and maybe it wasn’t the most cleverest thing to do with Emil in that last curve,” Niskanen said of his antics. “He lost a medal, and maybe we lost a gold medal. But it’s over now, we are in bronze, and the games are continuing. Just only thing we need to do about this is shaking hands with Emil. We have many years to compete together in the same arenas, and our careers are continuing, and the Lahti ski games are continuing, and we will have good days later.”
A Norwegian journalist asked a pointed question of Niskanen. “Did you expect a rookie mistake from someone like Iversen?” he asked.
“Emil has done many sprints, and maybe that move was the only thing to do if he wanted to fight for the gold medal,” Niskanen said in his response. “He really wanted to win, and we did. I came faster behind him and he changed the line, but… it’s a sprint.“
Answering in English, Kriukov spoke to his lackluster early season results. “This season, yeah, not so good for me and my shape not so best,” he said. “But today I am liking the situation. And lucky for our team and I think there is a reason while our team is first today.”
For Kriukov’s partner Ustiugov, it was his second gold and third medal overall in as many championship races.
U.S. Fifth, Canada Sixth
U.S. Ski Team members Simi Hamilton and Erik Bjornsen skied to fifth place, 23.58 seconds behind Russia. For much of the race, Hamilton and Bjornsen remained in contact with the main group consisting of the podium countries: Norway, Canada, Germany, and Sweden.
On occasion, Klæbo would try to break the race, but the integrity of the group remained for most of three laps. After the race, when asked how he managed Klæbo’s burst, Hamilton said his was a game of calculated risk.
“I think it goes both ways. It’s one of those courses and one of those races where if you go too hard in the same spot then you’re going to pay for it later” Hamilton said. “But at the same time, you know, we’re at world champs, you have to take chances. I think you’re constantly sort of evaluating that risk versus reward the whole time you’re out there.”
The risks for losing contact were a gassed slog playing catch up; the reward — opportunity. And lap after lap it was either Bjornsen or Hamilton deep in a tuck after rounding “Lahti Corner”, playing in a congested international game once reserved for the traditional nordic-ski nations.
For the 25-year-old Bjornsen, it could have been a day of nerves instead of the calm and power with which he skied. Throughout the race, he posted the fourth- or fifth-fastest splits of the second-leg skiers.
“We haven’t done a lot of team sprints together,” Bjornsen said about his experience teaming up with Hamilton. “The last one was in Sochi. I haven’t done a lot of them recently. So it was great. Going into the finals, it was like, the best teams in the world and the best dudes next to me.”
Bjornsen skied the Americans from eighth into fifth on his second loop, and after Hamilton dropped two places to seventh by the last exchange, Bjornsen again rallied for fifth.
At 29 years old, Hamilton remains humble and a student of continued improvement.
“My classic skiing is still progressing,” Hamilton said. “And for someone like Erik, it comes so naturally for him, he’s such a beautiful classic skier, he’s so efficient. I just focused on putting myself in as much pain as possible to keep contact with that group that I was skiing with. I always have faith in him being able to dig to a place where not many people can dig too in order to come up with that result.”
Heading into the last lap, Hamilton tagged Bjornsen in seventh, 10 seconds back from Russia, Italy and Finland. (After a Klæbo flyer, Norway was 16 seconds ahead of the U.S. as Bjornsen began the final lap.)
“Simi handed off to me in a great spot on the last leg,” Bjornsen reflected. “I was fighting with a few other guys and it was just perfect. Super fun to be with the veteran here.”
Bjornsen’s older sister Sadie captured her first career world-championship medal before the men’s team sprint final.
“I actually didn’t know that she was on the podium until after [my] race,” Bjornsen admitted. “I was second leg so I showed up pretty late, kind of just when Simi was starting … So I was trying to stay pretty focused. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact – I actually glanced up at one point and saw a replay of her crashing, and so I was a little worried that they weren’t in it. But it was so exciting to see Sadie come up and get a podium here. This is her first race and I know she’s in good shape. It’s great. Nobody deserves it more than she does. I watched her over the years, just so focused and dedicated. There’s a reason she’s so strong.”
Canada was represented by national-team members Alex Harvey and Len Valjas. In January, the duo won the World Cup season’s first team sprint. On paper they still remained a medal contender, in addition Harvey has come into the championships primed. However, Valjas has struggled with a health issue the last few weeks.
“I’m better now, what I think we came to the conclusion with the doctors and everybody, two weeks ago in the gym in Davos I hurt my vertebrae a bit,” Valjas said after the race. “I don’t know how, but it totally affects my breathing, so [at the last World Cup in] Estonia and the sprint here, I felt like I was not able to breathe. The race starts well and I die immediately.”
Valjas said he’s received treatment to alleviate the symptoms. “A couple days ago, I didn’t know if I’d even start because it was really actually hard to take a deep breath,” he elaborated. “It doesn’t feel like much but when you try to go at 100 percent, you cannot keep up and it’s frustrating. So I was just happy that I was able to ski with these guys, but when it got away on that second leg there, trying to catch Iversen kind of pushed me over the limit a bit.”
Harvey initially skied the team into third by the first exchange, just 2.8 seconds out of first, and despite slipping to fifth on Valjas’s first loop, Harvey raced up to second by the third exchange, 4.9 seconds behind Norway. On Valjas’s second loop, he dropped to eighth. Harvey held that position on the second-to last leg and tagged Valjas with the same group containing the U.S. Valjas then picked off two places for sixth place.
“I died a bit in the end, but I still had a lot of confidence in Len’s finish,” Harvey said. “We know in a high-speed finish like that, Len is maybe the best in the world so I was still confident that if I put him in the right situation, we still had a legitimate shot. We still believed in a podium finish and it’s just, you can’t have it every time. But I think it was a big improvement for Lenny, compared to the last two weeks and leading up to the relay.”
The Canadians finished sixth, 27.02 seconds behind Russia and 3.44 seconds behind the U.S., in the final.
Championship racing continues Tuesday with the women’s 10 k classic individual start.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.