PYEONGCHANG, South Korea —Twelve-point-five seconds. Roughly half the amount of recommended handwashing time to prevent norovirus; a protocol followed by those attending the XXIII Winter Olympic Games. 12.5 seconds. The amount of time between Canada’s Alex Harvey and his first Olympic medal.
For anyone who has devoted most of their life — at 29 years old, Harvey is in his third Olympics — to one particular goal, it can be devastating if that point isn’t reached. Beyond devastation, complete consumption.
In cross-country ski racing, that consumption frequently manifests itself in finding seconds, ‘If I had poled harder here, I could have gained ground there…’. Each second is slid under a microscope for exhaustive inspection.
There’s a sense of risk involved with taking a step back from that magnifying lense. It can be uncomfortable to objectively look at what could have been versus what the results sheet actually read.
Regardless of which light the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle race is examined under, only three walked away with medals. Switzerland’s Dario Cologna with gold in a time of 33:43.9, Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger with silver, 18.3 seconds behind him, and Denis Spitsov taking the bronze, 23 seconds out of first.
Harvey had it in his cards to make the podium. A handful of strong performances in the 15 k skate — he recently placed second at the last World Cup before the Olympics, the 15 k freestyle mass start in Seefeld, Austria — pepper the Quebec native’s nordic career.
The same statistic, however, held true for France’s Maurice Manificat prior to the end of Friday’s race. The Frenchman has finished in the top three of World Cup 15 k freestyle races a number of times. In Friday’s Olympic 15 k, he finished fifth (+27.0).
The list of other potential podium finishers goes on. Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner. Throughout Friday’s event, Harvey was in the mix. At the halfway point, he was racing in fourth, 1.9 seconds behind third place.
However, 6 k later, he had dropped back to seventh. Thirty-five seconds out from the win and 12.5 seconds out of third in seventh place was ultimately where he would finish the day. But in a post-race interview with FasterSkier, for Harvey, owning the race outweighed its immediate dissection.
“There’s no regrets,” Harvey said. “I went out the way I had to go to be on the podium. Just missed it a bit in the end.
“It’s the same level of competition as we saw at World Championships,” he continued. “We’ve been able to do it at the World Championships so there’s no reason why we can’t do it at the Olympics, but it’s a really competitive, deep field.”
Last year in Lahti, Finland, Harvey became a world champion in the 50 k freestyle mass start. The finish was his first individual world champs win after he and his Canadian teammate Devon Kershaw won the 2011 World Championships classic team sprint in Oslo, Norway.
Five days ago, in the 30 k skiathlon that opened men’s cross-country racing at the Games, Harvey placed eighth. He went on to race the individual classic sprint on Tuesday, where he missed qualifying in 32nd.
“It’s possible to be on the podium…but I need to have a really special day, just like I need to have a special day to win a medal at the World Championship,” Harvey said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have that four or five times over my career, so I know it’s possible.”
After Harvey, the next-best North American in Friday’s 15 k was American Scott Patterson in 21st (+1:44.1).The 26-year-old Idaho native explained that for the first half of the race, he questioned whether he was even fighting for a top 30.
“Honestly, I didn’t think that I was racing very well for 7.5 k. I was kind of suffering out there a bit,” Patterson told FasterSkier. “But I think [in the] later laps, I realized I was actually skiing all right and kind of found a little more energy towards the end. I got a good ride off [Norway’s Hans Christer] Holund for maybe a kilometer or so towards the very end, which was good to see.”
The 15 k is Patterson’s second-career Olympic race after he raced to 18th in the skiathlon last Sunday. When asked what was behind his top performances this week, Patterson’s answer encompassed both physical and mental response. At last months’ U.S. nationals in Anchorage, Alaska, where he grew up and trains, Patterson had been battling residual symptoms of bronchitis, which he said cleared up fairly well in time for the Games. Considering these were his first Olympic races, his expectations for results were not exceptionally high.
“Probably weird to say, but I feel like the Olympics are pretty low pressure for me,” Patterson said. “Unlike Jessie [Diggins], I’m not expected to win a medal. I’m just kind of out here to put my best foot forward. So I mean, you race in the U.S. and for someone like me, it’s kind of they expect you to win, so you better go and win. Here, if you get 40th everyone forgets. If you get 20th, everyone remembers for a couple of days, happy about it, and then they forget.”
Canada’s Graeme Killick was next on the results sheet in 38th (+2:39.4). At 28 and in his second Olympics, Killick explained that while the skiathlon (where he placed 45th) had left him hurting, Friday’s 15 k progressed much better, a good omen for the yet-to-come men’s 50 k classic mass start — his main focus for the Games.
“The pursuit [skiathlon] was a real struggle after 5 k. It was kind of 25 k of pain after that, but today I felt better as the race progressed,” Killick explained. “I think that shows that the shape is coming, especially in the longer distances and the 50 k, which is probably my main goal for the Games. So I’m getting some good feelings going into the last races here.”
Erik Bjornsen, also in his second Olympics, was the second American in 41st (+2:44.7). Though he had entered the race with intent of skiing in the top 20, his body did not respond the way he had hoped.
“I’m not going to try to pace it for a 50th place finish so I tried to go out as if I was going to ski in the top 20,” Bjornsen, 26, said. “I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that and I just kind of struggled the last 10 k.
“Body’s not quite where I’d like it to be,” he added. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Also for the U.S., Noah Hoffman finished 16.6 seconds behind Bjornsen in 48th (+3:01.3), and Tyler Kornfield placed 74th (+4:34.0) in his first Olympic race.
Kornfield, who turned 27 last Friday, was picked to start the 15 k in place of U.S. Ski Team Development Team member Paddy Caldwell, who was out sick.
“Paddy has got a low-grade cold, and we are just resting him until we feel like it’s safe we push him,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone after Friday’s race. “Unfortunately he is probably gonna be out for the relays. … The nice thing about the Olympics is you have this Team USA poly-clinic downstairs, and you can just go get tested for everything. It’s no flu, no norovirus, it’s just a cold.”
Kornfield said he learned he would start the 15 k a couple of days ago.
“This kind of was a bit of a surprise,” Kornfield said. “Ever since I found out, I’ve just been trying to stay relaxed, stay in the moment and get ready for a good one.”
Kornfield is also slated to start the men’s 50 k classic mass start on Feb. 24, but the opportunity to jump into another Olympic distance race prior to that was one that he embraced.
“I was just trying to not get too worked up, not get too stressed, look around at some of the guys around me and know that they’re some of the best in the world and the best that I can do is go as hard as I can and put my best race forward,” said Kornfield, a Fairbanks, Alaska, native who won this year’s U.S. nationals 30 k classic mass start to help punch his ticket to the Games.
“I put it all out there and yeah, the result is what it is,” he continued. “I was a bit back, but I went as hard as I could and that was the race plan, and I think I did that.”
Competing for Canada, Knute Johnsgaard finished 69th (+4:04.6) and Devon Kershaw was 71st (+4:17.6).
For Kershaw, a four-time Olympian, it was his first time finishing outside the top 60.
“I felt good warming up and everything, but it just wasn’t there at all today and I had no energy whatsoever in my body and was just on the struggle bus the whole way,” he said after. “I made a mistake and went the wrong way in the lap lane, like I went around the back of the stadium when I should’ve cut [through] so that’s like 30-40 seconds extra already that I didn’t need to lose some more so it’s just one of the worst skate races of my career so I’m pretty disappointed.”
The women’s 4 x 5 k relay is next on the Olympic schedule, starting at 6:30 p.m. Korea time on Saturday (10:30 CET; 4:30 EST). The men’s 4 x 10 k relay will follow on Sunday.
Women’s relay start lists were posted Friday. The U.S. has entered Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, Kikkan Randall, and Jessie Diggins. For Canada, the women’s relay order is Dahria Beatty, Emily Nishikawa, Cendrine Browne, and Anne-Marie Comeau.
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.