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Here we are in the back half of the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany. As athletes strive for their peak fitness, storylines from the World Cup season, pandemic, and historic World Championship results intertwine to set the stage for the 15-kilometer interval start classic.
Out of the woodwork and starting in bib 19 was Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sunby, who earned an automatic start based on his long sought after victory in the 15 k classic during the 2019 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria, his first career individual win at a World Championship or Olympic Games. Because his start was based on this result, he added to the four additional Norwegians on the start list, rather than taking a spot away.
The 36-year-old Sundby has a storied history on the Norwegian National team, but has not raced on the World Cup since the 2020 50 k classic at the Holmenkollen, where he finished 12th. He had two top-5 World Cup results last season, two in skiathlon and one in the 15 k classic, but this season he has only cracked the top-10 once while racing domestically and is listed as DNF or DNS for each of the three 15 k skate opportunities he was presented. Dark horse?
Perhaps the more obvious storyline, who may resonate with Sundby’s slew of not-quite-gold individual World Championship results, is whether the Russian Ski Federation’s Alexander Bolshunov could repeat his win in Saturday’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, where he collected his career first gold medal to hang above his collection of four silver medals. Positioned well above the field in the overall and distance World Cup standings, all eyes were on Bolshunov in bib 22 as he time trialed through the woods on the tracks in Oberstdorf.
In an individual start where athletes are seen passing checkpoints at a variety of times, it can be difficult to assess the performances without a look to the splits at checkpoints. That said, Bolshunov exhuded confidence and strength as he pushed over the top of each climb, worked every corner, and rhythmically grinded through the woods, his bright yellow and purple glasses a contrast to his typical stoicism. By 1.8 k, he had 4 seconds over the rest of the field.
But the story was not pre-written for us. Roughly 80% of the field started behind Bolshunov, and the string of Norwegian’s were looking equally strong.
Perhaps a new-to-us name, Harald Østberg Amundsen of Norway was one of Bolshunov’s biggest threats. I’ll fill you in — it looks as if we’ll want to get to know him.
The 22-year-old has several noteworthy results in the 15 k skate event: 2nd in 15k skate at the Norwegian National Championship in 2020, followed by a 3rd place result in 2021 behind Sjur Røthe and Simen Hegstad Krüger. Amundsen also has a 1st, 3rd and 4th in the event in domestic FIS races this season while Norway was sitting out the World Cup due to concerns for COVID-19 management and athlete safety in the opening weekend of events in Ruka.
A U23 World Champion in the 30 k skate, Amundsen has just three World Cup starts, one this season in the 15 k skate in Falun where he landed in 8th, overshadowed in our coverage by the three Norwegian men ahead of him and a career best result and first top-10 for Gus Schumacher, who finished 9th.
Starting in bib-10, Amundsen set the bar for his more experienced teammates, and the rest of the field for that matter. As splits rolled in, he was just over 5 seconds back on Bolshunov at the 5 k, seven seconds at the 10 k, and then the plot began to twist.
Perhaps the Russian began to fade or perhaps the Norwegians had an untapped gear, but by 12.9 k, Amundsen was over 18 seconds ahead of Bolshunov.
Within the last kilometer, cameras followed Amundsen as he rocketed down a hill into a hairpin curve that spit skiers back into a final steep climb. At the apex of the curve, his skis sunk into the degrading corn snow, sending him into the back seat and costing him his balance. Amundsen shot out of the corner into the fencing, however, with no broken equipment — and unfortunately, no momentum — he rebounded to head to the finish, where his time flashed green on the leaderboard, more than 27 seconds ahead of the field.
Amundsen had plenty of time to soak in this moment, as his time was not challenged until his teammates starting much deeper in the field entered their last 5k of the race.
Progressively working his way up was Norway’s Hans Christer Holund in bib 40, who took bronze in the skiathlon on Saturday. He set the fastest split at the 6.6 k mark by 1.6 seconds, incrementally building his lead until it was 9.1 seconds at 10 k, 15.9 seconds at 12.9 k, and ending with a bang, 20.2 at the finish. He stopped the clock with a time of 33:48.7.
Looping around his teammates in a surge of emotion and adrenaline, Holund was ecstatic at the finish. A second gold medal to keep his 2019 50 k freestyle gold medal company.
“It’s amazing, I don’t know what to say,” Holund told FIS breathlessly after the race. “I am as shocked now as I was in Seefeld two years ago. I had a really good day — this track is super tough, and it’s tough conditions. I knew I was going to have a good race as long as I was staying calm in the first round and tried to push harder later in the race.”
Also climbing his way up the time standings was Krüger, who sat in 11th at the 5 k and 6th at the halfway point. He overtook Amundsen by the 10 k mark and continued to surge, though he could not make any headway on Holund. He finished solidly in second place for a silver medal (+20.2), with Amundsen holding on for bronze (+35.6).
Bolshunov took fourth (+43.7) with his teammate Artem Maltsev 5th (+50.7), interrupting the string of five Norwegians in the top 7. That’s right: Røthe in 6th (+55.3) and our dark horse, Sundby, in 7th (+55.9).
Perhaps with the weight of a U23 World Championship gold medal in an individual start distance event — the 10 k classic — Gus Schumacher started in bib 14 to kick things off for the Americans. It was clear that it would not be Schumacher’s day as he hovered well outside the top-30, finishing 51st (+4:02.3).
Coming off of top-20 finishes in skiathlon and wearing higher bib numbers were Scott Patterson and David Norris. After 15 k, Patterson held the top spot for Americans in 27th (+2:22.0), with Norris a few spots behind in 34th (+2:47.6).
“It was a tough race,” said Patterson in a post-race interview. “I think I started out pretty strong, skiing where I wanted to be. But the conditions started to deteriorate on laps two and three. I definitely suffered because of that and bled a lot of time. The winner started thirty seconds behind me and just blew by me. It definitely was not quite what I wanted but I think there are still some good signs for later in this week.”
Though official start lists have not been released, both Patterson and Norris will race the 50 k classic on March 7th.
“I had higher expectations, but I know given the circumstances and that it is a tough day I felt like I fought through it and did my best,” said Norris of his race. “I cannot complain. My skis were good. All the support was there, I just did not feel my sharpest.”
A name we associate more with sprinting, Simi Hamilton finished just 0.1 second outside the top-30 in 31st (+2:34.2). After ending his team sprint with Schumacher in the semifinals, Hamilton spoke with optimism after his race.
“I never really know what to expect in an individual start,” said Hamilton after the race. “I’m a good mass start skier because I think that requires a little more sprint tactics and you always have someone to ski with. These individual start races are tough for me, mentally and physically. Just not having trained for races like this, they’re tough, but I know that I’m fit right now. With the focus on the team sprint, fitness is a big thing for that kind of race, so just being distance fit kind of comes with that territory.”
Hamilton discussed the changing conditions as skiers lapped the course. Tracks became softer and wetter, though hardpack conditions on the flats held up well. The biggest climb became soft and slow, even more taxing than it otherwise might have been. He shared that they could only check out the downhill that took out Amundsen once before the race began, but the tacky corner with a fresh groom was nothing like the conditions in the back half of the race. “You have to expect the unexpected,” he stated with a laugh.
Hamilton complemented the techs for their job producing fast skis and finished with a positive outlook on his day.
“It was nice to get an effort in like that,” Hamilton said. “It kind of validates a lot of the work you’ve been putting in for other races, so it was fun.”
Racing for Canada, Russell Kennedy cracked the top-30 (+2:34.1).
Next up for Canada was Phillipe Boucher in 50th (+4:00.2), with Remi Droulet close behind in 52nd (+4:02.7), and Graham Ritchie rounding out the Canadian field in 67th (+5:15.3).
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Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646