PYEONGCHANG, South Korea —Not even three kilometers into the men’s 50-kilometer classic mass start on Saturday, Canada’s Devon Kershaw was an S.O.S. skier. The Canadian’s ski pole had snapped and he singlesticked for almost a kilometer before he received another. By the time Kershaw was handed a spare, many of the bibs he started with were striding away; any hope he may have harbored for a podium dashed away with them.
But in his fourth and final Olympics, the 35-year-old Kershaw will be the first to tell you there were other reasons he committed to four more years of Winter Games preparation following Sochi.
“I really stuck around to see if I could push Alex [Harvey] — I do push Alex in training — and to see him get an Olympic medal,” Kershaw told FasterSkier in person after Saturday’s race.
PyeongChang is also, allegedly, Canadian Alex Harvey’s final Olympics. He has stated his plans to retire after the 2019 World Cup Finals in Québec City.
“I was just so motivated to be around to see the first Olympic medal for men get hung around a [Canadian] neck. That’s what drove me every day,” Kershaw reflected.
Coming into the 2018 Winter Games, Harvey, 29, was the favorite for a country that has yet to claim an Olympic medal in men’s cross-country. Harvey’s closest finish until Saturday was seventh in the men’s 15 k freestyle, just 12.5 seconds away from bronze. Earlier in the PyeongChang Games, the Québec native placed eighth in the men’s 30 k skiathlon, and 32nd in the classic sprint. Last year at World Championships in Lahti, Finland, Harvey was crowned the 50 k freestyle mass start world champ.
On Saturday in PyeongChang, while Kershaw waved one half of his ski pole in search of a whole, Harvey hammered away up front in an attempt to earn hardware for Canada.
Harvey, Russia’s Andrey Larkov, and Norwegians Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund, skied in a chase pack behind Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin and Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, the three of which had gapped the field around the race’s halfway point.
For close to 20 k, Harvey, Larkov, Sundby, and Holund appeared to be racing for fourth through seventh place. With less than 8 k to go, the four men began gaining ground on Poltoranin skiing in third.
“We knew that going with Niskanen is such a hard pace and some of these guys would pay the price later on,” Harvey told FasterSkier of the lead group’s fast pace.
As Harvey, Larkov and Sundby exchanged leads, the time gap to third shrank from 1 minute and 15 seconds at the 30 k mark to 26 seconds by the 43 k mark. Around 45 k, Poltoranin had slowed to a shuffle and stepped aside to let Larkov, Sundby, Harvey, and Holund pass.
With 5 k to go, Harvey was visibly working hard. Afterwards, he told reporters he was unabashed about the demands he put on his body.
“The last laps, my quads were cramping, my biceps, my calves, my stomach, too,” Harvey said. “You just focus on the process, the present, on your technique. If there’s somebody ahead of you, you just focus on his skis; just stay on his tails.”
Harvey skied within centimeters of Sundby, Larkov and Holund until the final headwall climb. As the four strode up to the hill’s halfway point, Larkov made his move. The Russian put close to three seconds on the Canadian and the Norwegians by the crest of the hill. That gap widened by the time they made their final descent to the stadium.
Larkov propelled himself into third, 2:37.5 minutes after Niskanen crossed the line first in 2:08:22.1 hours. Second went to Russia’s Bolshunov (+18.7). Harvey sprinted into the finishing stretch with Sundby at his side and outlunged the Norwegian for fourth. All said and done, the Canadian missed a medal by just 6.1 seconds.
In his final Olympics, Harvey’s emotions were heavy as he approached the press. Given the dark cloud that surrounds the 2014 Games, Harvey weighed in tacitly about Saturday’s 50 k podium, which included two Russians.
“You want to believe in the new generation of Russians, so you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt, for sure,” Harvey said. “It’s so hard to be fourth with two Russians in front. I do believe these younger guys are doing it clean, but with everything we’ve seen … in the back of your mind there’s a bit of doubt.”
After reflecting on all three of his Winter Olympics, Harvey hoped he and his teammates are a harbinger for Canada’s future cross-country scene (Harvey and Kershaw have been a staple for more than a decade, bringing Canada its best Olympic team result after placing fourth in the 2010 Vancouver team sprint).
“I think with my teammates, Devon [Kershaw], Ivan [Babikov], George [Grey], we were able to raise the bar for men’s cross-country skiing in Canada,” Harvey said. “… To realistically have expectations set for ourselves of believing in the podium, that was never done before, so I think that’s good for the future generations. To believe that it’s possible, to fight for the top ten, top five, week in [and] week out in the World Cup, at the World Championships, at the Olympics. That’s something that I’m really proud of.”
Harvey’s fourth place now ranks as Canada’s best individual men’s cross-country performance at a Winter Games. The previous best individual result was Kershaw’s fifth in the Vancouver 50 k freestyle. On Saturday, Kershaw was the second Canadian across the line in 26th (+9:27.).
As both close out their Olympic careers, they seem grounded. Not every Olympic dream has to end with medals. Rather, it’s about reaching the limits they push themselves to, once they are there.
“It’s a hard position to end up in,” Harvey said of his fourth place. “But it’s all I had today; there’s no regrets.”
Patterson 11th for Best U.S. Men’s Result Since 1976
Just as the U.S. women crushed a decades-old record earlier this week, American Scott Patterson raced to the best individual distance finish for a male U.S. cross-country skier since Bill Koch placed second and sixth at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. A first-time Olympian, Patterson placed 11th (+4:52.1), 15.2 seconds outside of the top 10 and 31 seconds back from Switzerland’s 15 k gold medalist Dario Cologna in ninth.
“Early on, I was with that second chase pack just trying to ski relaxed, ski well,” the 26-year-old Patterson said.
He had been skiing around 20th for the first 20 k, but moved up into 15th by the 23 k mark. In another 2 kilometers, Patterson was up to 13th. He pulled with Germany’s Andreas Katz and Russia’s Denis Spitsov — the 15 k freestyle bronze medalist — eventually dropping both.
Patterson worked his way past Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug, Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin, and Poltoranin (who had been in contention for the bronze medal), before ultimately taking 11th.
“It was exciting for the last 5 k when people were starting to dangle in front of me,” Patterson said. “Probably a couple of k out when I got Dyrhaug, and then coming by Poltoranin, too, who I think was skiing pretty far up there early on there in the race. I just wanted a few more k to get [Norway’s Emil] Iversen and get into the top 10, maybe Cologna, too.”
The next American finisher on the day was Noah Hoffman in 33rd.
“Every race has gotten better at these Olympics and I would have loved to have been top 30,” Hoffman, a two-time Olympian, said. “In Sochi I was looking for big results and here I haven’t been close to that and it’s disappointing, but I’ve processed all of that. It’s been four years since I’ve really skied the way that I’ve wanted to and I’m pretty just excited to be here. I’m living up these Games trying to take it all in.”
Three more North Americans competed in Saturday’s race, with Canada’s Graeme Killick finishing 27th (+10:06.7), American Tyler Kornfield placing 48th (+16:14.4) and Canada’s Russell Kennedy 49th (+16:54.5).
Despite getting sick Friday, Killick entered the race and finished with his best performance of the Games.
“My energy felt pretty decent and I’m really happy with that race,” Killick said. “I had to fight really hard for the last lap, because I had a group coming back on me and I was kind of in no man’s land. I’m really happy I was able to hold them off.”
The 50 k start was Kornfied’s second race of his first Olympics. Just last month, the 26 year old made his World Cup debut. Reflecting on his recent experiences, Kornfield was perceptive of the idea that racing takes time.
“I didn’t get the opportunity to race the World Cup until this year and a lot of times that got me down, frustrated me and felt like I wasn’t progressing with a lot of the other athletes in the nation and internationally as well,” Kornfield said. “I just had to be patient and know that eventually it’s going to click.
“It’s been a breakthrough season, but it hasn’t been above and beyond what I’ve done in the past,” he added. “So it’s just being patient and waiting your turn and knowing that it’s going to come, you just need to put your best race you can each day.”
Kennedy will head to a training camp in Japan, before returning to PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Paralympics March 9-18 as one of Brian McKeever’s guides for the visually impaired races.
“I was feeling really good, I just didn’t have it in the end, the last two laps. I blew up pretty hard,” said Kennedy, a 26-year-old first-time Olympian. “It was still fun, and I, you always learn something from a 50 about what your body can do and where the limit is.”
The final cross-country 2018 Olympic event, the women’s 30 k classic mass start, takes place Sunday.
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.