From the Archives: Norway Beats Italy in Olympic Relay in Soldier Hollow (February 2002)

Gavin KentchFebruary 1, 2022
A 21-year-old Kris Freeman skis leg two of the men’s relay for the U.S. at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)

This humble website went live twenty years ago today. (How long ago was that? Pretty long, judging from this recent Buzzfeed listicle.) As a later retrospective on this site would explain, “FasterSkier was founded in January 2002 by Torbjœrn Karlsen, Cory Smith and Erik Stange. was launched on February 1, 2002 and quickly grew to become one of the most trusted sources for Cross-Country skiing information in the United States … .”

The ur-articles from February 1, 2002, have sadly been lost to the ravages of time; the switch to the “modern” CMS interface has not been kind to content from the site’s first year. Early coverage presumably included a “Hello, World!” introduction, while the substantive focus was likely on the 2002 Winter Olympics, which began in Salt Lake City one week later.

Happily enough, the site’s Olympics coverage is preserved in its entirety, thanks to the intercession of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. You can find a roundup of all 2002 Olympics coverage here, and a link to all compiled Olympic race reports here.

Coming soon to a store near you! Salomon Carbon Pro skate boot (photo: Cory Smith)

The articles are, collectively, a heck of a period piece, and are worth your time, particularly if you have been reading this site for years and would like to see how far the technology has come. You may also be interested in the gear reviews, of, for example, the new, all-gray Salomon Carbon Pro. “I think that they are a real improvement over the Pilot Racing Skate 9,” our reviewer wrote, in a comparison to the product better and more universally known as “bumblebee boots.”

It was tough to choose just one article from an embarrassment of historical riches to reprint for today, but this piece, a race recap of the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay, feels appropriate. Thomas Alsgaard; Cristian Zorzi; Anders Aukland; John Bauer; Kris Freeman. This was a long time ago.

(The writeup of the women’s relay, from four days later, may be found here; it ends, “The Americans finished a disappointing 13th,” and says little more than that about the American team composed of Wendy Wagner, Nina Kemppel, Barbara Jones, and Aelin Peterson.)

This article was written by site co-founder Cory Smith, and was originally published on February 17, 2002. Photos and captions, both also by Smith, are reprinted as they originally appeared. A few bonus race photos are appended at the bottom, thanks to Smith’s impressive archives.

A Norwegian athlete skis in the men’s relay at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)

Norway Beats Italy in Sprint to Finish (again), US Men’s Relay Team Posts Best Result Ever

By Cory Smith

By the length of one ski, Thomas Alsgaard brought order back to the cross country ski world. In today’s Men’s Cross Country 4 x 10K Relay race, the Norwegian team proved that even without an individual gold medalist in these games, they are still the best team in the world. Thomas Alsgaard outsprinted Cristian Zorzi in the final 100 meters to take home the gold for Norway. 

John Bauer (USA, bib 12) and Anders Aukland (NOR, bib 9) follow Belarus’s Roman Virolainen in the men’s relay at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)

In a week that has seen more men’s gold medals for Estonia and Spain* than for Norway, and even a Canadian woman winning a medal, Sunday’s race was also extremely memorable, but with a more familiar outcome. The entire country of Norway was able to breathe a sigh of relief after their relay team put them back on top of the nordic world. 

Meanwhile, the US men’s team, in the top five for most of the race, posted their top Olympic relay result by finishing a very impressive 5th. All four US skiers skied very fast and very smart to come within seconds of a medal for the first time ever.

Norway showed their dominance of the classic technique right from the start. After letting Belarus’s Roman Virolainen lead for much of the first lap, Norway’s Anders Aukland took control on his second 5K loop and opened a 10 second lead. Meanwhile, John Bauer, after a slow start that had him in last place out of the stadium, had moved up to the front of the pack and was actually leading the chase of Aukland. Bauer lost a few places gliding through the stadium, but he finished his excellent scramble leg in 5th place, right with Italy, Kazahkstan, and Germany, only 13 seconds off the lead.

Kris Freeman (bib 12) stays right with the lead pack. (photo: Cory Smith)

On the second leg, Norway’s Frode Estil build the lead up to a maximum of 24 seconds while Kris Freeman (USA) jumped in behind Germany, Italy and Kazahkstan in the pursuing pack. As the leg went on, Estonia’s Andrus Veerpalu bridged up to the pursuing pack, as did Russia’s Mikhail Ivanov and Austria’s Mikhail Botvinov. This pack of six strong skiers started to cut into Estil’s lead, but as the leg came to an end, the pack began to break up. At the end of the second leg, Norway had an 11 second lead over Russia and Estonia. Kris Freeman skied an amazing strong race to stay in the thick of it, coming in right behind Italy’s Giorgio di Centa, in 5th place only 25 seconds off the lead. Halfway through the relay and the US men were only 14 seconds from a medal!

Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA) charges towards the lead with Tobias Angerer (GER) in tow. (photo: Cory Smith)

The clear standout on the third leg was Italy’s Pietro Piller Cottrer. He started his leg in 4th place, then quickly passed the Russian and the Estonian and after about 5K, he was right with Norway’s Kristen Skjeldal fighting for the lead. The two of them skied together the rest of the leg, setting up yet another epic final duel between Italy and Norway. Justin Wadsworth looked to finally be over the head cold that had hindered him all week. He was smart enough to not try to stay with Piller Cottrer, but instead skied a very solid leg all on his own, until he was caught by Austria’s Gerhard Urain, whom he latched onto and followed until blowing by him near the end of the leg to finish in 5th place. In between the leaders and Wadsworth, Germany and Estonia came in together in 3rd and 4th.

Alsgaard leads Zorzi into the stadium to sprint for all the marbles. (photo: Cory Smith)

On the final leg, it became obvious that Alsgaard’s strategy was to try and shake Italy’s Zorzi, one of the best sprinters in the world, early. Alsgaard led most of the leg, but Zorzi held tight. Meanwhile, Germany’s Rene Sommerfeldt had pulled away from Estonia to assure a bronze medal. Carl Swenson jumped in behind Russia’s Nikolaj Bolchakov and Austria’s Christian Hoffman and they quickly passed the Estonian team. With the top three significantly ahead, Swenson was skiing strong and relaxed, as is his trademark, and was clearly gearing up for the finish. Along the way, they dropped the Russian, setting up a duel between Hoffman, who outsprinted Alsgaard in the 1999 Relay to win the World Championship, and Swenson.

Speaking of duels, Alsgaard and Zorzi were putting on a tactical clinic. Going up the last big climb at 9K, Alsgaard had the lead and tried on a couple of occasions to put on a kick and lose the Italian. But Zorzi held tight and made a pass just before the top of the hill. Just before the downhill, Zorzi dropped into a tuck and slowed way down, obviously trying to get Alsgaard to pass, so that he could draft. 

Alsgaard wanted nothing to do with that plan and instead of passing, he pushed on the back of Zorzi’s ski with his pole to speed him up. Then Zorzi pulled over and nearly stopped. Alsgaard did the same. They were a kilometer from the finish and they were standing still arguing about who was going to lead! 

Alsgaard eventually took the lead reluctantly. They went stride for stride up the short hill by the stadium and then dropped down to prepare for the sprint. On the gradual downhill, Zorzi freeskated hard to take the lead, and had about 5 meters on Alsgaard as they rounded the turn. Alsgaard then kicked it in and began gaining on Zorzi. With 50 meters to go, they were dead even, but it was clear that Alsgaard had greater speed. Alsgaard got a slight lead and held it. It was a very close finish, but there was no doubt that Norway had won. 

Carl Swenson and Christian Hoffman pass the Russian team. (photo: Cory Smith)

Germany’s Sommerfeldt finished all alone in a surprising 3rd, and was mobbed by his bronze-winning teammates as he crossed the line. The battle was now for 4th. Swenson was up against formidable competition in Hoffman, but if any American could outsprint him, it would be Swenson and that’s why he was in the anchor position. Hoffman had the lead around the corner and they went toe to toe down the line. 

For a moment it looked like Swenson would catch him, but there just wasn’t enough distance left. Another 20 meters and he would have had it. But instead Austria took 4th and the US maintained its 5th place on all four legs to post its best relay result ever. 

The US skiers skied very, very well, both physically and tactically. But none of them skied unbelievably well, they all simply skied strong like they have all week. What I am trying to say is that this was no fluke. They finished right where they belong. They have been one of the top five teams on these trails all week and today they certified that. What is even more amazing is that there were two other American skiers, Pat Weaver and Andrew Johnson, who could have filled in and skied just as well. The US now has at least six World Class skiers. Don’t look now, but the United States is a force to be reckoned with.

20,000 people cheer wildly at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)

Just as amazing as the race itself, was the crowd. Soldier Hollow was sold out for the first time ever, with 20,000 people watching a cross country ski race in this country for the first time ever. The crowd was loud and energetic. It was a sight that warmed the hearts of all Nordic die-hards on hand. Today, our little sport took a huge step forward in many ways.


[* Modern-day footnote: This statement, while accurate at the time, was ultimately belied by history, as the three gold medals that Johann Mühlegg won for Spain at these Olympics (in the 30-kilometer skate, 50-kilometer classic, and 2 x 10-kilometer pursuit) were subsequently rescinded following his disqualification for a positive darbepoetin test.]

Some additional photos from this race:

Vegard Ulvang serves as a commentator for Norwegian television at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)
Thomas Alsgaard leads Cristian Zorzi in the men’s relay at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)
Justin Wadsworth skis leg three of the men’s relay for the U.S. at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow. (photo: Cory Smith)
John Bauer skis leg one of the men’s relay for the U.S. at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Soldier Hollow, slightly ahead of Fabio Maj of Italy (bib 6) and Andrei Golovko of Kazakhstan (bib 10). (photo: Cory Smith)

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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