GeneralNewsOlympicsRacingWorld CupFasterSkier’s International Performances of the Year: Simen Hegstad Krüger and Marit Bjørgen

FasterSkier FasterSkierApril 18, 2018
Simen Hegstad Krüger’s Olympic skiathlon victory (l) and Marit Bjørgen’s Holmenkollen come-from-behind win (r) are FasterSkier’s 2018 International Performances of the Year. (Photos: FlyingPointRoad & Fischer/NordicFocus)

With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to the International Performances of the Year.

Previous categories: Junior Skiers of the Year | Collegiate Skiers of the Year | Biathletes of the Year | Para-Nordic Skiers of the Year | NoCo Skier of the Year | Canadian Breakthrough Skiers of the Year | U.S. Breakthrough Skiers of the Year | Coach of the Year | U.S. Continental Skiers of the Year| Canadian Continental Skiers of the Year

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Simen Hegstad Krüger (Norway), Olympic skiathlon

Out of the start pyramid at the PyeongChang Olympics men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, a mini-disaster struck 24-year-old Simen Hegstad Krüger of Norway. With the flying poles and striding skis, someone was bound to snap a pole. That someone was Krüger, who found himself at the base of the course’s first hill, calmly seeking the assistance of a coach with the gear in need. Time bled. The front pack cruised on. But he looked collected and unconcerned.

In his first Olympics and first-career Olympic race, Krüger simply rolled with the get-your-pole-and-minimize-losses drill. With Finland’s Iivo Niskanen leading the stream of skiers ahead of him, Krüger kept it all in perspective. It’s was a 30 k race, and only a few hundred meters had been ticked off.

It was a parade of possible medal winners capturing camera time during the skiathon’s classic leg. Niskanen (who later said, after winning the 50 k classic gold, that he approached the skiathlon’s classic leg as a training opportunity), Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Alex Harvey, and Dario Cologna looked golden.

Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger after winning gold in his first Olympic race, the men’s 30 k skiathlon, at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

Never locking on, but stealthily lurking, Krüger gained ground as the race’s classic portion transpired. He came through the classic-to-skate ski exchange at 15 k in 14th place, about 15 seconds behind the leaders. Just over two kilometers later, Krüger had bridged the gap.

With his legs fresh, Krüger said once he began the skate leg that “all possibilities are open again.”

Anything did seem possible for a host of the world’s best distance skiers, just not necessarily for Krüger. After expending energy skiing up to the lead group early in the skate, Krüger played it coy. He didn’t lead or get exposed up front in the windy conditions. He simply kept pace and kept in the draft.

An unwritten rule on the Norwegian team is that the first attack to stick by a Norwegian is a protected chance. In other words, once a Norwegian is in first and gaining time, his teammates won’t attempt to chase the attack down. Sundby was salivating at the chance for a career-first individual Olympic gold. Hans Christer Holund, also of Norway, was a pacesetter too. Either one of them could have seized the moment.

But at 26.25 k, Krüger rolled the dice and surged. The surge morphed into an unchallenged attack that seemed a lock one kilometer later when Krüger was up by 22 seconds. Team rules are team rules — Sundby and Holund could only watch their teammate shake the front end of the race apart.

Once they felt Krüger’s lead was insurmountable, Sundby and Holund set to work for themselves. The gap to Krüger closed significantly by the finish.

Krüger won the race in 1:16:20 hours. Sundby settled for silver, finishing eight seconds back, while Holund was third, 9.9 seconds out of first.

Was Krüger a real outsider for gold at the start of the race? Consider he was a member of the world’s most elite men’s team: Norway. Nations are also limited to four starters per race at the Olympics. Those in the know, like coaches and teammates, should have understood Krüger was on dual-discipline form.

Yet, until his Olympic skiathlon win, Krüger had two individual World Cup podiums: one win and a third place. (He had finished third in the fifth stage of the 2017 Tour de Ski, the 10 k skate in Toblach, Italy, and won a 15 k skate in December 2017, also in Toblach.)

A young Olympic rookie, Krüger showed he was the day’s master of tactics on the sport’s biggest stage. Krüger proved fit and certainly coyer than his Norwegian counterparts. Opportunity struck. Krüger seized it for our male International Performance of the Year.

Marit Bjørgen (Norway), Holmenkollen 30 k freestyle mass start

It has been a year to celebrate firsts. There was that first-ever U.S. Olympic gold. And from the North American perspective, the U.S. Ski Team’s (USST) women could fill a full scrapbook of standout performances. Let’s start with USST member Jessie Diggins. She finished second overall on the World Cup. Waking up on a Saturday or Sunday and finding Diggins on the podium was no longer a surprise.

Norway’s Marit Bjørgen celebrates her seventh Holmenkollen 30 k victory in Oslo, Norway, ahead of American Jessie Diggins, Norway’s Ragnhild Haga (not shown) and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

So when Diggins was stealing the show at Oslo’s storied Holmenkollen venue in the women’s 30 k freestyle mass start this March, you’ve got to believe Norway and Sweden were there to see history; an American on the top step in the most famous of cross-country races.

This Holmenkollen 30 k was a storied race. Just not storied for the precise narrative most watching the race expected. For much of the race, it appeared to be the Diggins show.

Whatever you want to call her — queen, best-ever or simply Marit — the sport’s preeminent star, Marit Bjørgen of Norway, made her last Holmenkollen 30 k unforgettable.

As FasterSkier’s venerable reporter Gabby Naranja noted, during the high profile 30 k events, Bjørgen likes to run away solo style. In last year’s Holmenkollen 30 k classic, Bjørgen was off the front and unchallenged for the win. Then, in PyeongChang during the 2018 Olympic 30 k classic, Bjørgen pulled away from any would-be chasers for a complimentary finishing-straight Norwegian flag wave and some golden hardware.

This year’s Holmenkollen 30 k that followed was skate technique. When the trio of Diggins, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, and Norway’s Ragnhild Haga — all stellar skate skiers — pulled away from the field, the hopes of a Bjørgen revival seemed unlikely. Bjørgen had lost incremental time in the race’s early kilometers. The 37-year-old Bjørgen appeared gassed from a stellar Olympics and to be subtly relinquishing the stage to three younger go-getters.

A little more than halfway through the race, Bjørgen was 36 seconds down on the lead group.

Yet, Bjørgen was a wise one. She changed skis near the race’s midpoint. Diggins, Kalla and Haga stuck with their 15-k-old glide, skipped the ski swap and chugged on.

The presumed podium placers slowed just enough, and Bjørgen sped up just enough to bring them closer and closer. But it was more like Bjørgen remained the massive sun with the heftiest gravity pulling the three off-the-front satellites towards her.

With three kilometers to go, Bjørgen was six seconds back.

In the closing kilometer, Bjørgen controlled the race, passed any top-step threats, and reaffirmed one last time that she is indeed the singular skier we all expect her to be. She won her seventh Holmenkollen for a record number of victories for a woman in the Holmenkollen 30 k. In her six prior Holmenkollen 30 k wins, Bjørgen won four times in classic technique, two times in skate.

Diggins placed second (+3.6), Haga third (+4.3), while Kalla was a tenth of a second back in fourth.

With the recent announcement of her retirement, perhaps the international field can rest easy knowing Bjørgen won’t be sending it off the front or seizing the win from behind.  

Honorable Mention: Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall (U.S. Ski Team), Olympic Team Sprint

Before anybody gets worked up over this, more awards are due. We at FasterSkier are spreading the award love and trying to be clinical. Are we splitting hairs between honoring Bjørgen for sentimental reasons and not choosing the Randall-Diggins gold for fear of pandering to our core audience? (Noise of clearing throat.) No.

Americans Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins jumping for joy after placing first in the 2018 Olympic team sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea, ahead of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla (l) and Stina Nilsson (second from l) in second place and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen (second from r) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (r) in third. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

(And if you are hearing of the American Olympic team sprint win right here, right now, for the first time … then welcome to FasterSkier. We are glad to have you as a reader.)

What more can be said of the Randall-Diggins win in the 2018 Olympic freestyle team sprint? It’s only been a bit over a month since the Americans skied the perfect race. Randall was the glue sticking with Bjørgen and Kalla. Diggins was the late boost who slingshot around Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and outsprinted Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in the last 100 meters of the race.

It is an Olympic medal after all. Gold, too. We can imagine every U.S. nordic skier for a generation will be asking “where were you when …?”

Three cheers for Diggins-Randall. Three cheers for the wax crew. Three cheers for the coaches. And three cheers for all the women who have had the privilege of calling themselves members of the U.S. Ski Team, past and present.

Honorable Mention: Iivo Niskanen (Finland), Olympic 50 k Classic Mass Start

Finland’s Iivo Niskanen after winning the men’s 50 k classic mass start at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

Let’s jump to the post-race press conference in PyeongChang. Before the men’s 50 k classic mass start winner Iivo Niskanen of Finland entered the room, Russians Alexander Bolshunov and Andrey Larkov, who finished second and third respectively, made some excuses. Through an interpreter, both skiers spoke of their less-than-ideal skis.

When Niskanen finally arrived, he was informed of the Russians’ sentiments that their striding and gliding may have been wax-compromised in the later stages of the race.

No love lost. That could have been used to describe Niskanen’s tone and comments regarding his closest competitors’ and their espoused reasons for his dominance. Ski-wise, Niskanen changed skis twice during the race. (Racers are allowed two ski exchanges in the 50 k). Bolshunov and Larkov opted to change their skis once. The two Russians were the only skiers in the top-31 to not change skis out twice.

The reason we bring the ski-excuse up is to highlight the point that Niskanen skied the race to win. He was taking no chances. He was decidedly strong, smart and had ski-swapping savvy. Niskanen had few tagalongs during his 50 k stomp. Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin skied with the Finn, looking like an equally worthy potential gold medal winner. But Poltoranin suffered a major fade. Niskanen also dropped the likes of Sundby, Harvey, and Holund.

Bolshunov proved to be the only skier who seemed like he could mirror Niskanen. When Bolshunov skipped the ski swap at 40 k, Niskanen freshened up with some new classic boards and waited to make his move. That came on the final hill where Niskanen was simply stronger. Niskanen won the Olympic 50 k in 2:08:22.1. Bolshunov placed second, 18.7 seconds behind the winner.

Niskanen’s win put on full display his marriage of physical prowess and strategic genius. A lovely win for the Finns and a first-career Olympic medal for the 26-year-old Niskanen.

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