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There were a number of stories to unpack during the men’s 50-kilometer mass start free, which was changed last minute to 28 k due to extreme weather conditions in Zhangjiakou. You’ve got Alexander Bolshunov leading the charge to collect a third gold medal of the Games, continuing his streak of nine Olympic medals in nine Olympic appearances. Bolshunov was followed by his teammate Ivan Yakimushkin, with all four members of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) finishing in the top six, interrupted only by two Norwegians, Simen Hegstad Krüger and Sjur Røthe, the first of whom earned bronze in his first Olympic appearance following a COVID-19 detention in a hotel room in Seiser Alm, Italy.
But let’s get one key story to the front off the bat: The only American on the start list for the final men’s event of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games was Scott Patterson, and he skied to eighth place, just 26.9 seconds shy of a medal. It’s the second best result in American men’s cross country ski history, only surpassed by Bill Koch’s silver medal in 1976. That’s the best result in almost 50 years.
The news of the change in time and distance arrived just hours before the start of the race, with the following message from the organizers: “Due to strong winds and the resulting extreme conditions on course, the distance of the originally planned 50km will be shortened to 30km. The decision was taken in regards to the athletes safety, to reduce the time of exposure of athletes in extreme conditions.”
While there were various opinions on this change, which we’ve covered separately, there’s no getting around the fact that the race distance was slashed nearly in half. Nonetheless, as the lead group moved in and out of the wind, finding shelter on the leeward side of hills and under the protection of treed sections, the four lap course skied like a long-distance event.
At the end of the first lap, the top-30 were separated by less than five seconds, thinning to a 13-man pack by the end of the second lap, and a group of 10 by the end of the third, with an 11 second gap to the first chase group.
Perhaps the only truly noteworthy moment at this point in the race was the departure of Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who won gold in both sprint events – the individual freestyle and the classic team sprint – while also collecting a silver medal in the men’s relay and bronze in the 15 k classic. Klæbo later reported that he was struggling with a stomach illness and had spent more of the night prior to the race in the bathroom than he had been sleeping.
“I thought I would’ve regretted it if I didn’t give it a try but now I’m standing here and it didn’t work out on the whole,” Klæbo told the media.
He said it was “sad” pulling out of the race, but will focus on leaving the Games with his best Olympic distance results.
“I’ll definitely bring with me what’s been positive. What makes it feel more annoying is that my shape has felt better and better and I’ve actually felt that I’ve had a good energy today too. Then the stomach started to speak up and then it got very far to make it to the finish line.”
The race for medals truly began in the final lap. With Bolshunov and Krüger each surging to thin the lead group, Sweden’s William Poromaa and France’s Maurice Magnificat began to fall off the back. Patterson was tucked into seventh, working with Clement Parisse (FRA) and Denis Spitsov (ROC) to maintain contact and respond to the accelerations of the front.
Over the final 5 k, Bolsunov kept the pressure on, looking relaxed as he tried to create space between himself and Krüger, who had been tucked onto his tails, matching him push for push. With them was Yakimushkin, the three skating in tandem as the finish line drew nearer.
At 24 k, the leaders had only a few seconds on Patterson’s chase group, but when they hit the 27.2 k checkpoint, the gap had drastically expanded. Artem Maltsev (ROC) and Røthe were still just a few seconds back, but Patterson, Parisse, and Spitsov were now over 20 seconds behind, with a 20 second cushion ahead of the next chasers.
Up the final long climb, Krüger would not yield, holding his ground immediately behind Bolshunov. Tucked low into the downhill, the three stayed together, with Bolshunov upping the tempo and power as they accelerated out of the curves and over the gentle rises that interrupted the sweeping descent.
As the three hit the final rise into the stadium, Bolshunov began to break away, with Yakimushkin using Krüger’s draft to slingshot into second with 500 meters to go.
Entering the stadium, the gold medal looked to be predetermined. With a fist pump as he made his way around the final bend into the finish lanes, Bolshunov V2ed powerfully down the home stretch, crossing the line with his hands raised in 1:11:32.7.
Holding his advantage through a final sprint to decide silver and bronze, Yakimushkin crossed the line second (+5.5) with Krüger taking third (+7.0) for Norway.
Behind, Maltsev came to the line fourth (+10.7), followed by Røthe in fifth (+15.8).
Spitsov led the now-spread chase group to the line, taking sixth (+26.2) ahead of Parisse in seventh (+28.8) and Patterson eighth (+33.9).
Nine Olympic medals. Three gold. Four silver. Two Bronze. Five from the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
“Five? Really?” Bolshunov counted on his fingers as he exuberantly celebrated the golden ending to his Beijing Games appearance. “Five medals, three gold, it is something unbelievable because before the season I set the goal of two gold medals and now I have three. I’m just unbelievably happy. The emotions overfill me. This is above all praise to win these medals here. It’s very cool, and in every race that I took part in.”
Regardless of the color of the medal he earned, Krüger said his real victory was simply making it to Zhangjiakou and having the opportunity to race at the Games. Though his illness stayed mild and he stated that it did not impair him in today’s race, he had still spent 10 days in isolation in his hotel room, and remained in isolation while the opening event of the Games, the men’s 30 k skiathlon, was underway. Krüger was the defending Olympic champion in the event after taking gold in 2018. He went on to win a silver medal in the 15 k skate, and help Norway to gold in the men’s relay.
During the 2021 World Championships, Krüger earned two silver medals, first in the 30 k skiathlon and the next in the 15 k free, with a bronze in the 50 k skate. He was one of the top distance skiers on the World Cup heading into the 2022 Games, shouldering Norway’s medal hopes; the nation experienced collective heartbreak following the news of his positive COVID test in late January.
“To be able to go home with an Olympic medal, that’s a huge victory for me and an amazing feeling,” Krüger said after the race. “I’m really proud of what I have achieved today; from not thinking I would be able to ski one single competition to being able to get everything out here today.”
For Patterson, eighth place meant achieving the goal, though he admitted being in the hunt for positions even closer to the podium leaves him hungry for more.
“I’m happy,” he told FasterSkier in the mixed zone. “I came in wanting the top 10 and got it today. It’s a little tantalizing to be in eighth and 33 seconds back from the win.”
He continued that the “dream” of a medal crossed his mind as he found himself inside the lead group in the final lap, but he could feel the fatigue accumulating in his body and recognized that he was finding it hard to respond to the tactical moves of the eventual medal winners. “I don’t think it was exactly realistic to fully believe it was happening today,” he said frankly.
Patterson’s result, while historic, should not come as a surprise to American cross country ski fans. He was 11th in the skiathlon at the opening of the Games, and has made his ability to come on form and earn season-best results during Championships well known over the last four years.
During the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, he put together breakout performances, skiing to 18th in the skiathlon, 21st in the 15 k skate, and 11th in the 50 k classic. He raced into the top-30 in each individual distance race of the 2019 World Championships, with a 23rd place finish in the 50 k free. Improving on these results in the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, Patterson was 14th in the skiathlon, 27th in the 15 k skate, and 10th in the 50 k mass start classic.
And, he likes going long. He said he would have preferred another 20 k today – “I wanted the grinding instead of the punches” – and might have even been able to pull off a higher result had the race been longer.
Back in 2016, his first World Cup appearance was in the 50 k classic at the Holmenkollen, which sits above Oslo, Norway. He was 32nd on the day in perhaps the most storied and highly revered cross country ski race on the World Cup. Patterson advanced to 28th the following year, before making a leap into the top-20 to finish 16th in 2018 and 19th in 2019.
From the outside, it can be hard to appreciate the dynamics of mass start racing among the best athletes in the world in the sport. Energy management, tactics, drafting, protecting equipment while the field remains dense in the first lap, which Patterson called “chaotic.”
“You get those lead skiers fighting the wind, and a lot of the back skiers that could just draft in. And there are a few people who definitely don’t have a lot of World Cup experience making a mess out of the pack,” Patterson described.
In his second Olympic appearance at the age of 30, with plenty of World Cup experience, Patterson skied a smart race, telling FasterSkier that he felt “strong” and “relaxed”, while looking to be “in a comfortable position and not [using] too much out of my energy.” He also reported having competitive skis that allowed him to utilize the downhills and stay in the position where he wanted to be.
U.S. Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb complemented Patterson on his race execution, telling FasterSkier emphatically that he was “so proud of him.”
Talking through the race from his vantage point, Whitcomb pointed out that Patterson stayed calm through the congestion in the opening lap, rather than becoming flustered and wasting energy by constantly trying to move up. He also shared how Patterson was able to “wisely” keep himself on the correct side of other racers to utilize the windbreak on unsheltered sections of the course.
“Some incredible skiers ended up on the wrong side of the break and were toast…” Whitcomb explained. “When that happened, I heard a Finnish yelling at a German skier saying, ‘Hey, take me up to them!’ People were desperate to do work together, and so [I’m] very proud of Scott and unsurprised that he was in a tactically wise position.”
Apart from battling the elements, maintaining an optimal position within the lead group is also a skill that requires experience and maturity.
“If you have a pack of 15 guys, of course, it’s easy to follow in a draft in 14th and 15th,” Whitcomb said. “But what you don’t realize is that there’s quite a big accordion effect, so you’re constantly pulsating on the gas pedal. What you saw [today] was Scott moving up into between fourth and seventh, for a large part of [the race], and that ends up being a much more efficient position to ride. Draft is good, but you’re also able to just kind of stay on a steady gap.”
For Whitcomb, Patterson’s eighth place ends the Games on a high note for the American men’s program as a whole.
“This is, this is for sure one of the goals that our men’s program wants: to start breaking through in one of the ultimate races of the Olympics,” Whitcomb shared. “To do that today, under conditions like this, is such a huge success for our program and for Scott and for his club, APU. For all the coaches over the years, Erik Flora that’s worked with him, and the [rest of the] coaches at APU. It’s such a huge success for [Patterson’s collegiate program], the University of Vermont; Alaska Winter Stars where he started skiing; and just so many people have been a part of this incredible journey. And so happy for all of them. But mostly for Scott because he earned this sucker today. It was brutal.”
Two Canadian’s raced the 50 k today, with Olivier Léveillé leading the Canucks at the finish in 27th (+4:21.6). 30 seconds back, Rémi Drolet crossed the line in 35th (+4:54.4).
Racing continues tomorrow with the women’s 30 k mass start freestyle, the final cross country event of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. At this time, the distance of the women’s event remains unchanged, however, the start was moved up by 3.5 hours to account for the forecasted weather conditions.
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