On Saturday in Lahti, Finland, Kevin Bolger of the Sun Valley XC Gold Team made his World Cup debut. In his first season since graduating from the University of Utah, Bolger earned start rights for the final period of World Cup racing by leading the SuperTour.
It was quite the debut: in the skate sprint, Bolger qualified in 16th, then advanced through the rounds to the semifinals and finished 11th on the day. There are not so many U.S. men who have ever finished that well in a World Cup in the last decade, much less on their first try – such a debut hasn’t been matched since Garrott Kuzzy finished ninth in a skate sprint in Canmore, Canada, in 2008, in his first weekend of World Cup racing.
The crowd certainly wasn’t expecting it. The Norwegian television commentators referred to him as “the surprising man”, and Bolger admitted in an interview over email after the race that he was a bit surprised himself.
The next day, he finished 54th in the 15 k classic, +3:09.5 from the time set by Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
FasterSkier: Your coach, Chris Mallory, and he mentioned that getting some World Cup starts was a big goal for you this year. How does it feel to check that box, especially in such a fashion?
Kevin Bolger: Reaching the World Cup is the next step for skiers back in the U.S., so once I got my opportunity to get over here and race I wanted to capitalize on it. Just cracking the top 30 would have been amazing, so to have qualified 16th, and then overall finish in 11th on the day, is incredible, and I know there is more. But it also shows that I have what it takes to be competing over here with these guys.
FasterSkier: Do you usually consider yourself a strong qualifier skier in sprints?
Kevin Bolger: Qualifying has been, in the past, a weaker point for me. So I have been putting a lot of thought into how I can improve this with my coach Chris Mallory. I think we have dialed in a great pre-race strategy. And obviously I think this year it has been working.
FasterSkier: What were your first thoughts when you saw that you were 16th in the qualifier?
Kevin Bolger: I didn’t quite understand what happened when I finished. I remember some official telling me I was 16th, but I did not think he was talking to me. Once I saw my name up on the Live Timing board next to 16th, I was blown away. A lot of emotion kicked in. The hard part was over, now it was time to have some fun. It’s crazy watching World Cups back home, and suddenly I was in the middle of it, and I wanted to put a staple in my day!
FasterSkier: Does this course play to your strengths as a skier? Was there a part that you could work particularly well?
Kevin Bolger: I always try to ski a course and think of sections that will play into my advantage – being a big guy there are always good and bad spots. But I think this course skied well, and a lot came down to where you were positioned coming into the last turn at the top off the last climb, and coming down the final hill into the finish. The finishing stretch was my biggest strength, being a big guy and being able to really slingshot that corner and carry speed all the way to the finish, as I did in my quarterfinal. But I wasn’t where I wanted to be in the semi, and unfortunately it was too late.
FasterSkier: In your quarterfinal, you seemed stuck at the back for a long part of the heat. Was that a deliberate strategy to just save energy, or was it stressful to be back there and not able to get around people?
Kevin Bolger: My biggest strategy was just to stay on my feet, own my space, and not get intimidated. I talked a lot with Matt Whitcomb and we both agreed that I should ski confident and do what felt comfortable. Going to the back is not normally what I would like to do, but this is sprinting – sometimes what you plan doesn’t always happen and you need to be able to change your game plan and tactics. I had to work a little harder but that’s okay. I learned a lot for being my first World Cups, and next time I’ll be able to try new tactics.
FasterSkier: How did the semifinal go?
Kevin Bolger: The semi was great. Unfortunately I only had about a few minutes from the time I finished my quarterfinal until my semi started, so that was a quick turnover, but the U.S. guys were on it with my skis and helping out so much, without them I would have been a lost puppy! So, huge shout out to the U.S. crew!
FasterSkier: Are you happy with your skiing?
Kevin Bolger: After any race you can always look back and think about what you could have done differently, and of course I wish I would have skied a bit more aggressive in the final climb, but I was toeing the line with the gold and silver medalist from the Olympics, and some of the best guys in the world – so to know I’m right there shows I have what it takes to compete with these guys! I am very happy with my skiing. Not everyone gets this opportunity, so being able to show up on the world stage and ski like I know I can and throw down – I can’t be anything but happy!
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.