Klæbo Defends Olympic Gold as Americans Soar to New Heights in the Freestyle Sprint

Ben TheyerlFebruary 8, 2022

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During the American broadcast of the 30-kilometer Skiathlon on Sunday, NBC Analyst Chad Salmela made the comment that race represented the “old-school” of long-burn, grind-it-out ski racing. That length of ski race, updated only for the introduction of skating, has been a feature of Olympic competition since the 12th Olympiad held in 1956.

In contrast, each one of the American skiers starting today was already born when the 1.5 km freestyle sprint became an Olympic event at the 2002 Salt Lake City games. In fact, only Kevin Bolger (born in 1993) can claim to have a living memory of that event. The other three – JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Luke Jager – were all two years old when Tor Arne Hetland won gold at Soldier Hollow.  

Luke Jager (USA) on his way to qualifying 30th in the Individual Sprint Qualifier in Beijing. (Photo: NordicFocus)

In the intervening twenty years, those latter three were part of an American generation that came of age sprinting on the 2002 Soldier Hollow course, contesting junior and senior U.S. Nationals as they climbed through the ranks and quietly holding tight to their Olympic dreams. Meanwhile, the generation of skiers they looked up to were trailblazers, with sprinting their preferred in-road for American skiing on the Olympic stage. At the 2006 Torino games, Andrew Newell came through qualifiers in 2nd. Then Simi Hamilton became a consistent presence on the World Cup circuit, and qualified for heats in the last freestyle the Olympic sprint at the 2014 Sochi games. Eight years later in 2022, the kids had grown, and from Vermont hollows, Wisconsin Northwoods, the California snowfields, and the Alaskan frontier, had converged on a start-line in Beijing, ready to push for something new.

After qualifying, they had already done it. The American men started four skiers for the individual sprint, and for the first time in Olympic history, each one of them made the heats. Leading the way was recently crowned U.S. sprint champion JC Schoonmaker, who finished in 13th, +6.12 seconds off of winner Lucas Chanavat (FRA), who clocked a 2:45.03 on the 1.5 k course. Ben Ogden finished in 19th (+7.18), Kevin Bolger was 22nd (+7.47), and Luke Jager rounded out the quarterfinal field in 30th (+9.41).

Jager, in 30th, found himself right away in the unique challenges the Olympics can bring then, saying in an interview with FasterSkier that “There were seeded guys behind me and I knew I was right on the bubble [for qualifying]. I was getting interviewed by NBC and the whole time just wanting to reach down and check my phone.”

In the end, he was through with his American teammates.

Ben Ogden skis to 19th in qualification in the men’s individual freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

They joined the established field that’s become familiar to those who follow the World Cup week-to-week, and for whom the individual sprint was a priority at these Games. That included defending individual sprint gold medalist Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR), who qualified in 3rd (+1.71), defending silver medalist Federico Pellegrino (ITA) in 6th (+4.52), and the Russian Olympic Committee’s (ROC) own young star Alexander Terentev in 14th (+5.89). 

The whole field would converge in the quarterfinals to race a 1.5 k course that raced as a “true sprint” as NBC Analyst and American gold medalist Kikkan Randall remarked on the American broadcast. Her remarks were apt; the course raced as a single-lap, taking three minutes for the majority of the field, on fully artificial snow. If you were looking for an archetype for what the “sprint-course” has developed into since the inception of the event at the 2002 Olympics, you’d have the one in Beijing. A first climb gave way to a downhill, which led to a long final climb, before skier’s took a sharp left turn into the final stadium stretch. The tactical pressure-point was the turn to go into the descent following the first-climb. If you went over with speed, the transition into the final hill could prove to be a decisive factor in a long-burn attack. If you followed, the draft could be just as important to launch a punchy sprint to move up the field on the last climb.

That racers would see both approaches became apparent straight from the first quarterfinal, which featured Klæbo, Sergey Ustiugov (ROC), and Ben Ogden. Klæbo seemed to take the tactic of a long-burn attack on this course, which was helped along by a field that seemed set at every level today to try and force him out in front so as to catch his draft. He used the corner off of the first uphill to delay his burst of speed into the downhill just enough to surprise the field, and by the time he hit the final climb, he was in a comfortable position to win the heat.

Ben Ogden crosses the finish-line in sprint heat action. Ogden would finish 12th, the best men’s individual sprint finish in US Olympic history. (Photo: NordicFocus)

His burst of speed, though, had blown open the field behind him. Ben Ogden was caught out in 5th place going into the final corner. It turned out, in this particular case, to be a blessing. In front of him, Renaud Jay (FRA) stumbled over Anton Persson (SWE) (who was given a yellow-card for obstruction)  and caused a split-second hang up in the field with Oskar Svensson (SWE) that allowed Ogden to come into the finishing straight with a chance. He ended up taking it, finishing fourth place. Klæbo (2:51.57) had animated the quarterfinal, and the chase behind him yielded a fast heat. Ogden finished with a time of 2:53:00, good enough to warrant hope for a lucky loser spot into the semi-finals, but he would have to wait through four more heats to find out for certain.

The third quarterfinal saw the next American action, with Kevin Bolger and JC Schoonmaker lining up against sprint stalwarts Richard Jouve (FRA) and Håvard Solås Taugbøl (NOR). Bolger, who is eight years senior to his fellow teammates, took a tactic in this race that suggested he understood the gravitas of the Olympics and how you race to stay in it. He led the pack out with gusto, trying to take the heat along with him.

The field, however, seemed to have other ideas. Bolger said in an interview with FasterSkier that he “started V1-ing on the hill and I went ‘nope, not getting lucky loser, this is a different pace than the qualifier.” With those lucky loser spots most likely gone, the heat became a race for 1st and 2nd. Jouve and Taugbøl turned out to have the burst of speed needed in the end, with Bolger in 3rd. For the bleary-eyed among us back in the U.S., he provided the first glimmer of the American’s intrepidness on the day. For his part, Jager followed his older teammate, and his presence in 5th across the line was another reminder that that American spirit was found in spades on the day.

Kevin Bolger (USA) and Luke Jager (USA) in quarterfinal action. Photo: NordicFocus.

Jager pointed to how the Olympic experience was a unique one that he’ll hope to build on in an interview with FasterSkier, saying, “maybe it was the novelty, [but] to be perfectly honest my head wasn’t maybe in a great place to look towards advancing, but I think it’s one step at a time and I’m figuring out the right mindset to qualify consistently now and to advance. It was unlike anything else… it’s dark out and you need sunglasses, that’s awesome!”

The fourth heat fleshed out the idea that Bolger had in the previous heat. The skiers went hard from the gun, knowing that if they could race a faster heat than the first quarterfinal, a 3rd or 4th in this heat could still keep their Olympic dreams alive. This was all complicated as Erik Valnes (NOR) pulled away to win the heat and a long sprint for second ensued. Pål Golberg (NOR) and Raimo Vignants (LAT) went down, and the sprint seemed to end up going for Chinese skier Qiang Wang, who hadn’t raced in the World Cup field since before the pandemic in 2019.

Unofficial results showed that Valnes and Wang were through in 1st and 2nd, respectively. Results also showed that the quarterfinal had been the fastest heat of the day. Valnes finished in 2:49.31, with 3rd place Artem Maltsev (ROC) at 2:50.37 getting a lucky loser nod. The race jury quickly deliberated and disqualified (or officially, “ranked as last”) Wang, which meant that Maltsev was through to the semifinals on an automatic bid. That opened up one more lucky loser spot, and the next time on the list would prove to be a 2:53:00; belonging to Ben Ogden. He was through to the semifinals of the Olympic games.

JC Schoonmaker (USA) races in the final quarterfinal on Tuesday in Beijing. Photo: NordicFocus.

The last quarterfinal saw JC Schoonmaker narrowly lose out on a sprint to Alexander Terentev and Joni Mäki (FIN), after Schoonmaker led out the pack for the first part of the race.

The men’s semifinals then, for the first time ever in an Olympic games, featured an American. And that American found himself in a who’s-who of heavyweights. The first semi-final lineup; Klæbo , Pellegrino, Jouve, Ustiugov, Chanavat, and Ben Ogden.

Ben Ogden races the quarterfinal of the men’s freestyle sprint during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

As the field climbed up the first hill, the skiers seemed set on fighting Klæbo tactics with Klæbo tactics. The race to get over the top was on.

Richard Jouve ended up winning the fight to go into the downhill first, while Klæbo got caught at the back-end of a pack that remained tight. That included Ogden, who had weathered the storm to come into the final hill with the group. The transition into the final climb was furious, with Klæbo moving through the pack and bringing his rivals along with him. When they came into the final stretch, the field spread four wide and Klæbo, in shades of race nightmares past, looked to have eased up early, producing a four-way photo finish. Pellegrino and Klæbo ended up getting the nod to the finals in first and second, respectively.

Ogden finished just off the sprint in 6th place (+1.24). His final placing of 12th is the best for an American man in an Olympic sprint. More than that though, he loomed in the background of a sprint of the world’s biggest names, appearing not as a straggler but as a shadow. The youngest in his semi-final field by 5 years, as he crossed the line, it seemed to be a reminder that the Americans are the ascendent force in sprint racing, with much more to learn, and to come, as they continue to gain experience at the Olympics.

The second semi-final saw Artem Maltsev race with the same purpose he had struck out with in the quarterfinal. He seemed set on making sure that luck, in the lucky losers, would be with the second semi-final. After the first climb he had a gap that his teammate Alexander Terentev and Joni Mäki would claw back successfully in the lead-up to the stadium sprint, finishing 1st and 2nd, respectively. Maltsev and Oskar Svensson (SWE) were successful in their project of creating a fast heat though, and claimed the two lucky loser bids to the finals.

The final then, had a field filled with shades of the last Olympic individual sprint. Klæbo had his chance to defend his medal. Pellegrino had his chance to one-up himself and claim gold in his stronger technique. Terentev, Mäki, Svensson, and Maltsev were all racing for their first Olympic medal of any sort.

Sergey Ustiugov (ROC), Richard Jouve (FRA), Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR), and Ben Ogden (USA) in semi-final heat 1. Klæbo and Ustiugov advanced to the final. (Photo: NordicFocus).

There was again then, a guarantee for something new. A new medalist at the Olympic games. This was, though, still a sprint race of the world’s best. That meant the field knew who they didn’t want to have a positional advantage – Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. They skied wide, without much depth, to try and force him to the front. Through the first climb, they were successful. Klæbo though, one-upped them, again sneaking a move into the later part of the corner leading into the downhill, and catching the field just off-guard enough to give himself an advantage going into the final climb.

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) crosses in 1st to win gold in the men’s 1.5 k individual sprint. Federico Pellegrino (ITA) follows in 2nd place to claim silver. Photo: NordicFocus.

There was no reeling him back. He came across the finish line an Olympic champion once again, defending his individual sprint medal and further building his case as one of the sport’s greats. Pellegrino pulled into the final climb and let out a final sprint that proved he is still Klæbo’s chief sprint competitor, four years on from establishing that fact in PyeongChang. The final step on the podium was occupied by Alexander Terentev, who, after a season in which he opened with a win, got to see his potential as an Olympic skier converted into kinetic possibility. He has one medal, and it would be a good bet that it won’t be long before he starts dreaming of the 1.5 k course that will be dreamt up for Milano-Cortina in 2026.

Which, on the men’s side as a whole, is where many of us Americans are too. Even in these first few moments after their arrival on the Olympic stage, there is an err of possibility, energy, and optimism in the air about where this crop of skiers goes from here. We could get carried away and let that excitement uproot us from the source of that optimism in the first place. So before we look forward, let’s remember that the act of converting optimism into action is tenacity, and we can cherish Kevin Bolger, JC Schoonmaker, Luke Jager, and Ben Ogden giving us an image clad in stars and stripes of that here, today, in Beijing 2022.

Men’s podium of the Olympic 1.5 k Individual Sprint in Beijing. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) in 1st, Federico Pellegrino (ITA) in 2nd, Alexander Terentev (ROC) in 3rd. Photo: NordicFocus.

The Canadians also put up a set of strong performances in the sprint qualifier. Graham Ritchie finished 34th (+10.01), just 0.6 seconds out of qualifying for heats. The results continued with Olivier Léveillé in 54th (+17.23), and Antoine Cyr in 56th (+17.56).

Final Results:

Qualifying | Finals

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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