PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Search the Norwegian’s name in the International Ski Federation (FIS) web databank and it appears at the top of nine of the 13 World Cup races he has entered this season.
For many, Klæbo is more than just the name of Scandinavia’s most recent nordic speedster. It is a verb. Cross-country skiing argot has come to embrace the idea of pulling a “Klæbo” or deciding to “Klæbo” a course.
On Tuesday at the Alpensia cross-country venue in PyeongChang, his name gained even more light in the glimmer of cross-country skiing stardom. He raced to a convincing win in the men’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics amidst freshly falling snow and frigid winds. While most racers were bundled in buffs, Klæbo kept his distinct coiffed hair sans hat.
The victory earned Norway its third gold medal of the Games and Klæbo’s first Olympic medal. The 21 year old’s win is also the youngest gold-medal performance in the history of cross-country at the Olympics.
But even a name like Klæbo takes pause to credit those who predate his success. His name has not always dominated nordic-news headlines. There were others before him. Looking back 12 years, Klæbo can recall the the individuals he aspired to be like. There were names that he as a 9 year old heard again and again; ones that he looked up to, that motivated his desire to not only to compete at an Olympic games, but to put forth a gold performance of his very own.
“When Petter [Northug] was doing [cross-country skiing] so well from 2006, it’s been a big inspiration for me,” Klæbo said during a post-race press conference.
Petter Northug, Jr., is one of Norway’s most decorated male cross-country skiers to date. In 2006 at the age of 20, Northug won three Junior World Championship titles. At the time, Klæbo was Northug’s junior by a little more than a decade. Northug went on to compete at two Olympic Games, coming away with two gold medals in 2010.
“When you’re starting to go in high school and you’re looking forward and looking up to people doing it well in championships, you really want to do the same,” reflected Klæbo, who is mainly coached by his grandfather. “You want to do it your way. To be able now to cross the finish line first and get an Olympic gold medal. It’s quite an unbelievable feeling.”
On Tuesday, his Olympic win was secured in the top of the final climb. Though the sprint finalists were led out of the start by Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, who’s also 21, Klæbo stuck to the Russian’s ski tails.
Holding tightly to Klæbo was Italy’s Federico Pellegrino. Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola, who posted the top time in Tuesday’s qualifying round in a time of 3:08.54 minutes, as well as Norway’s Pål Golberg and Sweden’s Oskar Svensson, also followed as they made their way up the initial ascent.
“Bolshunov was quite strong in the start of the final there; he was pushing quite hard for the first uphill,” Klæbo said. “My plan was always to be able to run fast in the last uphill and to be able to get the gap and turn around on the top there.”
Klæbo crafted his plan perfectly. While Bolshunov’s maroon suit strode in first through the first major hill and the second course climb, Klæbo crouched patiently just behind. As they approached the final hill, the distinct bouncing stride of Klæbo came into play.
The pitch intensified and so did Klæbo. At the halfway point, the Norwegian and Russian fought side-by-side. Just before the peak of the hill, Klæbo made his move. He pushed around Bolshunov and pressed the pace in the front.
Rounding back toward the stadium, it was the Norwegian in first with close to a two-meter gap on the two skiers chasing him down: Bolshunov and Pellegrino. In a pack of three behind them were Golberg, Svensson and Hakola.
The final descent featured Klæbo on his own. He cornered the final turn without anyone close to him and double poled to the 50-meter mark, checking back several times before slowing his pace. With arms outstretched and a pink gloved wave to the crowd, he crossed the finish line first in a time of 3:05.75.
The battle for second came down to Pellegrino and Bolshunov. The 27-year-old Italian, in his second Olympics, double poled. The Olympic rookie from Russia matched him. Pellegrino, the overall Sprint World Cup champion from two seasons ago (Klæbo won the Sprint Crystal Globe last year), is better known for his dominance in the freestyle sprints. However, that didn’t prevent him from gunning to the end.
“I knew that I could always talk about me like an outsider for today. This was a good thing,” Pellegrino said at the press conference. “But in Ruka when I catch the final and I think that the track was so similar with a strong uphill I started to think about a medal. Then I worked a lot during this winter for improving my classic side.”
Exactly one month ago, Pellegrino achieved the rare feat of beating Klæbo in a World Cup freestyle city sprint in Dresden, Germany.
“I had only one goal for these Olympics, that was to return to Italy with one medal,” Pellegrino said on Tuesday.
The medal would come in the color of silver. Pellegrino outlunged Bolshunov by 0.02 seconds to claim second (+1.34) place and his first Olympic medal. Bolshunov’s bronze medal is also the Russian’s first of Olympic caliber. Previously this season, Bolshunov had reached the World Cup podium five times, always in third place. Two of those races were sprints.
“If I may be frank I have not yet internalized this medal,” said Bolshunov, who’s competing at these Olympics as part of the “Olympic Athletes of Russia” delegation.
“It’s only been a little while, so I have to basically understand what has happened,” he continued. “But I am very happy to be here, and I am very happy to have achieved this result.”
Norway’s Golberg finished fourth (+3.81) and Sweden’s Svensson fifth (+7.73), while top qualifier Hakola finished the final in sixth (+20.72).
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— Jason Albert, Gavin Kentch, Ian Tovell, and Harald Zimmer contributed
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.