Bright lights in PyeongChang. The men’s second semifinal of the Olympic freestyle team sprint was a career highlight moment for Erik Bjornsen. Fourteen teams would crowd the start lanes with Martin Johnsrud Sundby in bib 1. The Norwegian was paired with Johannes Høsflot Klæbo: The duo blessed with Sundby’s stamina and his younger counterpart’s break-from-the-pack speed.
With Simi Hamilton racing the second, fourth, and sixth legs for the U.S., and Bjornsen leading off, the semi was a chance to not only advance to the finals, but establish some mojo amidst an Olympic field. Hamilton and Bjornsen both possess slower tempo big-power generating F-350 type motors that belie the meters gobbled up with each cycle of their cadence.
As Bjornsen was tagged for the fifth of six legs, he locked on to France and Norway to position himself in rarefied company. PyeongChang’s Alpensia sprint course packed a punch. The course’s second climb it’s Everest – a drawn out leg burner. Pulsing into that climb, France’s Maurice Manificat, Sundby, and Bjornsen had already separated from the field. Midway up, Bjornsen subtly shifted gears, moved to the left of Manificat, and dropped the two steely veterans by 10 and then 15 meters pushing over the top.
It was a Stars-and-Stripes flex.
Bjornsen tagged Hamilton in first by nearly five seconds. The pair went on to qualify for the final and placed sixth overall in an event eventually won by the Sundby-Klæbo pairing.
(Video of Bjornsen’s breakaway on the 5th leg.)
“It was interesting, I think that everybody knew what I was capable of in the field when I made those moves,” said Bjornsen when reflecting on career highlights. “I remember one of the strongest memories I have from racing is when I made that move against Sundby. And after the race, as we were starting the final in PyeongChang, he turned and looked at me for a while, and I could tell that he was thinking ‘what is this kid bringing to the final’? He eventually got the gold medal with Klæbo, and he is looking at this American guy, and I think that was one of the coolest feelings I have ever had — knowing that this legend was looking at me, and thinking, ‘what is this guy about to bring to the biggest performance of our lives?’”
The U.S. men’s team has been overshadowed by a dominant women’s program for going on a decade. Through that time, the men’s distance program has seen the end of Kris Freeman’s reign and the emergence of Noah Hoffman and Erik Bjornsen. Hoffman retired in 2018. With Bjornsen announcing his retirement last month at twenty-eight years old, a void remains. As one generation bleeds into the next, Bjornsen is an anchor point for all those speedy juniors we’ve heard of. An affable athlete who set the American distance skiing bar for the past five years.
Bjornsen often shouldered the pressure for a team and broader community starved for that dominant distance performance by a U.S. male — a World Cup podium or a championship medal to validate the personal quest and the vicarious desire from some fixated on top-3 hardware. Making the top-30 on the men’s World Cup is a herculean task. Bjornsen first passed that threshold with an 18th place in 2014 during a 15 k classic (his marquee event), in Toblach, Italy.
In January 2018, he surpassed that 18th place, which up to then was a career best individual mark on the World Cup, with a ninth place in Seefeld’s 15 k mass start skate. He peaked individually at the World Championships with an 18th and 17th, respectively, in the 2017 and 2019 Worlds in the 15 k classic.
The manifestation of steady improvement was Bjornsen’s calculus for remaining in the game. And the wait and wait for results beyond his stream of top-30s and top-20s was arduous. Even on the best of days, all things must align for the breakthrough.
“Definitely, my last couple of years, I was really hungry for great results, like everybody that puts so much into the sport,” said Bjornsen. “I was ready to make that next level. But I was moving towards the end of time I wanted to put into the sport and I really wanted to make the progress every year that I knew what I was capable of. There are so many variables in nordic skiing that I was just frustrated not to put it together more on the days when it was so tough. My thing was 15 k classic — that is where I could put together a top performance. That’s four 15 k classics a season, you are trying for your top performance in those four or five and also nailing the wax and also nail everything on that day. So I am proud of the results that I had but I was frustrated like any World Cup athlete. I was just definitely hungry for more at the end.”
The World Cup came to an end for Bjornsen in December after he raced the opening weekends in Ruka, Finland, and Lillehammer, Norway. Yet, the decision to retire from World Cup level competition came after the 2018-2019 season if he did not, in his words, “step-up”.
After a solid summer of training, Bjornsen was blunt about his 2019-2020 World Cup campaign. “I am going over to the World Cup to make a step forward, or call it a career,” he said.
He placed 25th overall in the Ruka triple. The following weekend in Lillehammer’s 15 k/15 k skiathlon he had a reason for optimism. At the same venue with the same race format in 2017 Bjornsen had placed 20th. This year, he initially raced near the sharp end. But as the temps warmed a degree or two, his skis began to ice. He faded to 39th. The plug was pulled.
Bjornsen explained that U.S. World Cup regulars leave bags on the wax bus after each season, a stash of clothes and items to rely on when they arrive for the season each November. “I had left a bag over there basically for the last five or six years,” said Bjornsen. “On the last trip, I packed that one up. I didn’t know if I would be coming back.”
Having grown up skiing in Washington’s Methow Valley, Bjornsen followed the usual path of success: solid Junior Nationals, World Junior Teams, a second place in the 2011 U.S.Nationals 20-kilometer classic, and his first senior championship two years later in the 15 k skate. USST D-team, B-team, and then A-team. Although the family fostered two future Olympians, (you know this but older sister Sadie is a USST veteran) Bjornsen’s parents moved to the Methow when a new alpine ski area was in the works. As luck would have it, the planned downhill area never materialized.
The Bjornsens live on the more secluded Mazama end of the Methow. Mazama sits at the base of a closed-in-winter State Highway 20 which snakes its way up to Washington Pass and alpine paradise. Drive any direction but south in the winter from Mazama and it’s a snowy dead end. One road during those cold months serves as a diversion into Winthrop and further south to Twisp. The region’s storied cross-country trails provided another outlet. Within walking distance of Bjornsen’s neighborhood were endless ski trails and families falling in love over and over again with the sport. Sean and Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall (Laura McCabe and Hall are former USST members) lived nearby and were constant reminders that sliding on snow without a gravity assist had merits.
With his two older sisters, the Bjornsens joined the local ski club. It was a steady stream of hand me downs terminating at Erik. As Bjornsen became more serious, he relied on Scott Johnston as his primary coach. Johnston is known as fastidious and established a serious training regime for Bjornsen.
“I learned a lot from him,” said Bjornsen. “He took the time to explain everything about skiing and also the physiology side of things. I started to understand the ways of training and training plans. He brought my curiosity out and made me think about each and every workout.”
By the time Bjornsen was in his late teens, Sadie had moved to Anchorage to ski race as a student-athlete for the University of Anchorage Alaska (UAA). When it came time for a post-high school decision in 2010, Erik chose to attend UAA too. Both Bjornsens ultimately aborted their UAA paths after earning NCAA All-American status and began taking opportunities on the World Cup as they trained with APU. APU, an emerging powerhouse team, was coached by Erik Flora and championed by Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall.
With a cohesive training group at APU and the steadiness of Flora, both Bjornsens blossomed. Erik earned his first World Cup start on Dec. 7, 2012 in Québec. A few days later in Canmore, he popped a 36th place in the 15 k classic. Along the way, he won six national championships and was a member of the U.S. Ski Team for seven years.
“When Erik first came in, I could see this young, talented skier that was excited about skiing, and he really enjoyed racing,” said APU’s Flora. “And when he first came in, I thought, Okay, if I can help him with his training, and help him reach the next level in fitness, that seemed like an opportunity that was an easy one to help him get toward his goals. And as he retires, you know, there was a certain point where Erik went from being in a place where talking about daily training was constructive, to where Erik absorbed all of that over the years, to the point where Erik knew how he wanted to train, and he had the foundation for it.”
During the later part of his career, Bjornsen had enough know-how and self-knowledge to write his own training plans with the occasional check in or hands-on training session with Flora.
Bjornsen imprinted the cycle in his muscle memory. He attended USST camps, looped around on the Eagle Glacier during the summer, and locked in for a lengthy stint as a World Cup regular. The bag he eventually snagged off the wax bus this past December was left in Europe for five seasons or so, during which he raced at two Olympics and four World Championships.
At the 2014 Olympics, Bjornsen contested five of six events as the youngest member of the team at 22 years old. Sochi was a time he recalls fondly not so much for a “media-worthy” result, but for the pure novelty of it. Big eyes. The Olympic rings. An international career yet to unfold. “It was just so fun, everything around it was great,” said Bjornsen.
What was also great were the Hamilton-Bjornsen prospects in the team sprint. It’s one thing to prognosticate and imagine a team sprint medal on the men’s side. On paper and on snow this was no pipe dream. Other teams had the luxury of mixing and matching athletes over the years. When sprinting three laps, a total of roughly 4.5 k full tilt, the combo of stamina and 100 meter close out speed is rare. Deep teams can play around, shuffle a deck, optimize for those parameters when naming a team sprint duo. Someone falls ill, insert A for B. Someone has an off year, change X for Y.
For Hamilton and Bjornsen, the USST was all in. Sixth in Sochi. Sixth in PyeongChang. Fifth at the 2017 World Championships. Better than coming close, these two provoked legitimate medal hope. And better, the two were good friends. They were not simply two speedy specimens tolerating one another for a material outcome.
Walking through the mixed zone in PyeongChang after their finals, on a night when Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won a historic gold 30 minutes prior, Hamilton and Bjornsen were consummate pros. There’s was a no-bullshit interview post-race. In tight quarter racing, Bjornsen had tumbled during the second leg after tripping on another skier’s tails. A tough-to-rebound-from-mishap on the tightrope of Olympic sprinting.
“It was super disappointing when I went down, but I mean, it was only halfway through the race and I just got up, and that’s for sure not going to be the end of it for us today,” Bjornsen said to FasterSkier at the time. “Unfortunately, I kind of felt like I let the team down there a bit. I think that was one mistake that may have made a huge impact on our race today, but you know, that’s ski racing, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Unfortunately, it’s at the Olympics.”
Hamilton immediately responded by focusing on the asset that is Bjornsen.
“In absolutely no way did Erik let any of us down, especially me,” Hamilton said. “I watched that on the big screen, I have been at a lot of team sprints on the World Cup, World Champs, Olympics, that always happens to someone, and 99 percent of the time, that person, especially if it’s in the finals, just gives up, whether it’s the first leg, second leg, third leg, they just give up. And Erik, he never does that, no matter what happens to him, what happens to us, he just fights ’til the absolute very end.”
This was, as Hamilton and Bjornsen knew, their best career opportunity for a hallmark medal. They both made eye contact with reporters — their disappointment palpable. This was clear: The two men had a deep bond forged over countless laughs and near misses. More than anything, the two could trust one another to bring their best.
“It’s hard to put into words the impact that Erik not only had on our team, our program, and XC skiing in general over the years, but also the impact that he had on me as my teammate and my friend,” Hamilton emailed when asked about Bjornsen’s retirement. “He grew to become one of my closest friends and I’m confident we’ll remain as such for the rest of our lives. Within the team, Erik defined what it meant to be a genuinely supportive teammate and he was the first person to celebrate any success that someone within our group had. His unwavering selflessness was evident as he always put his teammates, our coaches, and the staff before himself. I think in a way his successes and accomplishments went very much unnoticed because being genuinely happy and supportive of everyone around him always came before the desire to highlight his own results and market his own extraordinary talents. I’ve never laughed harder after hearing some of his witty remarks and jokes over the years and he always lent a tone of humor to any situation, no matter how serious everyone else was taking themselves. I’m grateful for so much that ski racing has given me over the years, but being on the team with Erik lands close to the top of the list of things I’m most grateful for.”
It’s also hard to imagine that a force such as Bjornsen would have successes and accomplishments go unnoticed. Such is the atmosphere of quick turnaround news cycles amidst the backdrop of a national women’s team setting an incomprehensibly high watermark of podiums weekend after weekend.
“You have to understand, it is like getting beat up over there if you are not achieving what you know you are capable of,” Sadie Bjornsen mused. “Erik has put in a lot of time doing so. I believe Erik is a top-10 World Cup racer. I don’t just believe it, I actually know it.
“But, in order to achieve that, I don’t want to say it is different in the men’s than the women’s field, but the men, it is to me, just a little more thick on the top. When I have an off day I am generally in the 20s. When I have an on day, I am in the top-10. It is a lot less fun when you have an off day and you are in the 50s or 60s and you have an on day and you can be top-10. That is a big difference.”
Sadie said her respect for Erik stemmed from his investment in a plan and holding himself accountable to it. “I really respected his confidence in that plan. What it showed me is that he believes in himself and he knows what he is capable of. He did not think of himself as a 50th place racer, he thought of himself as better. At the end of day, if someone achieves that confidence, that is huge.”
With Bjornsen’s departure from the team in December, he set forth to race several marquee domestic skate marathons. Although it afforded North American based skiers a chance to toe the line with a generational talent, for Bjornsen it was an opportunity to touch base with the many friends he had connected with during his years as a ski racer. Call it an unofficial retirement tour.
Bjornsen said he didn’t come into the races expecting to win since he had modified his training to savor simple on-snow moments. He emphatically claimed that this past winter had been one of his most “fun” yet.
There’s a prevailing mythos in sport: The peak performance, like Bjornsen dropping Sundby and Manificat, are the highlight reel’s apogee. Those instances all have their place. They send chills. But what about the 99.9 percent of the time when that person was off-stage, not performing? That matters.
“Thinking about this, an athlete like Erik retiring makes your chest kind of heave,” Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. Ski Team’s Head Coach said. “You are trying to suppress emotions because he has been such an important part of my life as a coach. He is one of those people that makes being a coach so great. Makes these 120 consecutive days on the road tolerable because he is such a great guy. … He is the kind of the guy that has your back and everybody needs people like him.”
Lightness and humility are attributes many peers associate with Bjornsen. He was, according to Sadie, unequivocally as much a support mechanism for her as she was for him. The shoulder to lean on tilted in both directions. Outside his immediate family, Erik’s even keeled perspective became an integral piece of the U.S. Ski Team’s European based unit.
“The role Erik played on the team is easily overlooked,” said Sadie. “We can never talk about it enough. We got a breath of it without Erik the rest of this past winter. That position was really missed. That person who is always enthusiastic, always positive, always having a game, making light of everything. Erik took on that role really young, he was not going to hide anything. He was going to admit when he was struggling or whatever it was. That is a talent when spending four and a half months on the road. That is a long time. It is your family that you are living with, and it is difficult to maintain a positive outlook all the time.”
There was no bitterness in Erik Bjornsen’s statements or tone when we spoke. He seemed ready with open arms for his next chapter. He did, however, mention a teaser of a thought experiment. “It would have been, at times, super fun to have Kris Freeman at his peak come around 10 years later and I could have skied alongside him. That would have been sweet. We could have pushed each other well.”
We can all imagine the mutually beneficial pacing that may have developed. The mentioning of Freeman was only a fleeting whiff of a “what if” moment. The rest, his thoughts of the World Cup, his training principles, his discussion of not meeting some of his expectations, seemed rooted in the past just months after stepping away from the life he’s known since his teens.
“It would have been fun to be racing on the podium,” said Bjornsen. “But one thing I noticed just from watching my sister so closely, is I don’t think you get any more happiness. I always really enjoyed racing and being over there even though maybe her results were 10 to 15 places on average higher than mine. It really doesn’t make any difference except maybe a bit financially. In the end, I got as much joy out of it than a guy that would have been on the World Cup podium.”
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.